José Saramago, Portuguese novelist and winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature, once remarked, “In effect I am not a novelist, but rather a failed essayist who started to write novels because I didn’t know how to write essays.” I’ve always found his words both amusing and intriguing, a clever refutation of the assumption that people write essays because they are less difficult than novels. They are shorter, to be sure, and differently structured. But ease of writing is not necessarily one of their virtues, particularly when the so-called personal essay is involved.
I enjoy reading novels, but when it comes to writing I’d much rather explore the world around me than invent a fictional world from whole cloth. I’m intrigued by the challenges posed by attempting to communicate rich, densely-textured realities through the apparently simple essay form, and delight in the freedom to move from one topic to another as my curiosity is piqued and my attention engaged.
Alain de Botton, another prolific essayist whose The Art of Travel is one of my favorites, says, “I am conscious of trying to stretch the boundaries of non-fiction writing. It’s always surprised me how little attention many non-fiction writers pay to the formal aspects of their work.”
He goes on to add, “I passionately believe it’s not just what you say that counts, it’s also how you say it – the success of your argument critically depends on your manner of presenting it.”
The word “essay” itself is related to the French essayer, which means “to try”. Trying to communicate the richness of life can be difficult at best. When Anita Diamant writes in her introduction to Pitching My Tent that her challenge as an essayist is to “pay closer-than-average attention to life , [shaping] experiences and reactions into entertaining prose”, she suggests something I’ve come to believe – the vision comes first. It’s the “paying attention” that allows the essayist to say, “This is what I have seen. This is what I have experienced. This is what I have discovered lying along life’s shore, waiting to be plucked from the sands of obscurity. This is what I have turned and examined, magnified for detail, polished until its inherent nature shimmers in the light.”
In the process of probing for relevance, significance and truth, the writer speaks as directly and intimately to the reader as possible, saying, “Here is my interpretation of what I have found. This is how I understand my experience. Having come to believe this or that about these oddities of life which lie strewn about our years, I offer my conclusions to you.”
This combination of vision and discovery, of seeing and seeking, seems to lead naturally to the essay. It is a different kind of writing, focused on drawing connections, plumbing unsuspected depths, turning the kaleidescope of words around and around until discovered bits of life, tiny, jewel-like fragments of reality, drop into new and unexpected patterns.
With vision and truth so intimately joined, speaking one’s heart becomes possible. The most personal convictions, the most privately held and deeply cherished beliefs about the world around us reside not in our head but in our heart, ready to inform our writing. For the essayist, conviction and belief are the lenses through which the world is seen, and our words reveal those convictions and beliefs more clearly than we might intend.
Over these years of writing, my own convictions have become clear – sometimes surprising even me. Despite significant evidence to the contrary, I believe that goodness abounds and trust is possible. I believe there is a moral dimension to life, a realm of freely responsible choice far more terrifying than any book of rules. I believe that pessimism and negativity, like optimism and hope, are choices we make, that cynicism is an acid that eats away life, that problems can be solved and that, in the end, there is meaning and significance to even the most lowly gesture of compassion and care.
However difficult these convictions might be to sustain in the midst of life, they are among the forces which impel me to speak. Together with the visions and voices of others I admire, they have helped me understand my own passion for writing, and the requirements of the writer’s craft.
To put it simply, writing satisfying essays requires an ability to see the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. It requires the courage to make choices, a willingness to express personal opinion, an impulse to roam beyond received wisdom while moving from feigned objectivity to self-revelation. Ironically, it also demands a certain caution – a willingness to suspend judgements and withhold pronouncements while treading through unfamiliar territory.
Finally, there must be commitment – not only to the disciplines inherent in the essay form itself but also to a lifetime of attentiveness. Listening for the unspoken word, watching for the half-hidden gesture, feeling the shudder as conflicted human hearts confront their destiny will lead the essayist to speak, however haltingly, of hard-won knowledge and enduring truths.
As much as any novelist, the essayist engages in the re-creation of place, and one of the best essayists of recent times reminds us what that re-creation will entail.
“A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest,
remembers it most obsessively,
wrenches it from itself,
shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically
that he remakes it in his own image.”
Joan Didion, essayist