Monday, February 22, 2010

Getting Started Writing an Essay

A cousin of mine who is in tenth grade or so wrote me this: "I love writing but the idea of just starting an essay with no thesis and taking it in any direction I want to intimidates me."

I'm sure she's not alone. People have all different writing styles---some make copious notes and know exactly what they want to say before they write and others just jump in without a plan. Most successful personal essays though seem to be involve someone sitting down and kind of doodling around until the piece coalesces, and in fact this is how it usually works for me. (Is this indeed how it works for everyone? I'd love to hear input from other writers.)

If you want to write an essay, but aren't sure where to start, it helps to begin with something that interests you or bugs you or confuses you: an image, something you saw happen on the street, something like "I used to be close friends with person X and we drifted apart---why is that? What changed?" You start explaining or investigating that on paper and see where it goes.

Here are some other ideas:

* Describing an early, vivid memory (maybe your earliest) is always a good one. I was assigned this in a great course on memoir with Patricia Hampl, who talked about memory as an ocean, where you look out over this glassy surface and then dip down and grab something from underneath the water. I looked back over my childhood and grabbed this memory of a tick-covered cat that we found while living in Clemson, South Carolina, and of trying to remove the ticks and having the cat run away. That was the whole memory. So I wrote that down, and then I started writing about childhood in South Carolina, and then I realized that the cat represented a loss of innocence---the first time I could remember feeling really broken hearted, because we couldn't help this animal, and that's what the essay ended up being about.

(By the way, the difference between essay and memoir, and if there is a difference at all, is another topic.)

* Describe a map you have owned or used. This is one I made up for some class I was teaching or taking, and I just like it.

* Pick a word, maybe at random out of a dictionary, and start writing about it.

* Pick something you are good at doing and explain it. Like playing a difficult guitar chord or talking to strangers. And then think about a specific time you did it and why you are good at it, and why other people aren't good at it, etc.

* Joni Tevis, whose lyric essay I posted about, says that when she writes she likes to put two very different objects together in a piece of writing. She metaphoricially holds them next to each other and says, do they go together? No? How about these? Try that yourself---maybe I can start writing about bicycles and cats--any overlap? How about my mother's cancer and my obsession with Star Trek? My inability to pass geography in 7th grade and my love of Russian dance? One great essay that does this is "I Bought a Bed" by Donald Antrim which is unfortunately only available online to New Yorker subscribers. Antrim writes about his mother's death and his quest to buy the perfect mattress. It works beautifully.

I'd recommend avoiding the stuff like "pick a time when you overcame an obstacle" that they make you do in school, because then there is a foregone conclusion built in that can hamper you and you end up with some Aesop Fable glush. It's nice to not know the answer when you begin.

Any other favorite prompts?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Photographs Are Like Essays

This photograph was taken in Mongolia by photographer Jon Goodrich, and I posted it because of the two little guys bending over down front. Imagine if it had been merely a pretty landscape without people, or without people in such a funny position---it's the oddness of that little piece that to me transforms this from a nice photo into a great one.

You can write beautifully, and that's fine, but the best essays are the ones that surprise. That doesn't mean there is a huge twist a la E. B. White's "Once More to the Lake" (I'll address that one in an upcoming post) but it's nice when there is something unexpected or especially interesting.

When I taught freshman composition, I did an exercise where I took a cartoon of George Bush saying something funny and cut out the talk bubble. I popped it up on the overhead projector and said, OK let's think of some text for this cartoon. "George Bush has big ears!" "George Bush says nuc-u-lar!" "George Bush wishes he were a cowboy!" None of them work. For a cartoon to be funny there has to be something fresh and unexpected about it. It's usually the same with a piece of writing---otherwise why should anyone read it.

Now I just posted about Anne Fadiman's ice cream essay that really doesn't have a twist or something unexpected. But it does go off in many directions: quotes from Hippocrates, a near death experience, etc. The stuff floating around in Anne Fadiman's head and the way she collages it together is fresh enough for me to make the essay excellent, although I know not everyone agrees.

So when you are writing an essay, don't be afraid of thinking weird, tangential, interesting and unexpected thoughts. And combining things that don't usually go together, like people's backsides and a gorgeous, somewhat desolate landscape.

On another note, I'm not a photographer, but I would assume that photographers take lots and lots and lots of pictures and many of them are very good but few of them are really brilliant. That's how writing is too.

More of Jon's excellent photos can be seen here.!/photo.php?pid=3869766&id=665062370

Monday, February 15, 2010

An Essay at Face Value: Anne Fadiman

Another of my favorite essayists is Anne Fadiman, former editor of the American Scholar magazine, which used to be a champion of the personal essay, although it seems to be trending away from more intimate authorial voices now and more towards politics and world events.

Anne Fadiman has an essay on ice cream. She tells a little anecdote about an ice cream truck, talks about how much she loves ice cream, goes into the history of ice cream and mentions some famous ice-cream related passages from ancient Greece, or maybe Rome, and has a grand finish with a near death experience in a canoe with an ice cream maker.

This essay is not about death or loss or how eating ice cream reminds her of emigrating from a war torn country. It is about ice cream, and that's it. It may also be about Ms. Fadiman herself, letting us get to know her charming authorial persona. But really, it's just about ice cream. And if you aren't interested in ice cream, you probably would skip this essay.

The Essay is available in Fadiman's essay collection At Large and At Small. Here's the first bit:

When I called the Häagen-Dazs Consumer Relations Department a few days ago to verify the butterfat content of Mint Chip, I was alarmed to hear the following after-hours message: “If you have a medical emergency with one of our products that requires immediate attention, please call Poison Control at 612-347-2101.” What medical emergency could a few scoops of ice cream possibly precipitate? Hippocrates, or one of the anonymous writers who were later known as Hippocrates, warned that snow-chilled beverages might “suddenly throw . . . the body into a different state than it was before, producing thereby many ill effects.”

Friday, February 12, 2010

Hilary Mantel on living in Saudi Arabia

Hilary Mantel recently became famous for winning the Booker Prize for her historical novel Wolf Hall. I came across this brilliant essay of hers published in January 2009 in the London Review of Books on the claustrophobia of being a woman in Saudi Arabia.

I'd like to make two points:

1. Most successful essays end up being about more than one thing. Or they'll seem to be about going fishing with your dad but REALLY they are about overcoming the fear of death. This essay seems to be about this weird guy who keeps visiting Mantel in her apartment and about Mantel's weird experience in Saudi Arabia, but it is also about being a foreigner, and a woman, and all kinds of other broader, more universal things.

Now often when a writer sets out they start with an image or memory or complaint or anecdote and they don't know what the big ideas are that will come out. Almost no one who sets out to talk about Big Ideas in a personal essay is successful, unless they are extremely talented and experienced. It is possible that Hilary Mantel did set out to write about a sense of cultural and gender claustrophobia and decided that this man was a good entry point into that concept, but it is just as likely that this man had always been a strong element in her memories and she wanted to take a look at him on the page and see what came of it.

2. I think this essay is ultimately successful, and it certainly has beautiful writing and a great frame story, but for me there are too many elements: the diary, the moving furniture, the Arabic lessons, the book, the illness. Each strand is great, but together they weave quite a confusing braid that feels muddled and takes away from the intimacy of the piece. It would be very hard to pick one to eliminate, since they are all so lovely, but if I were the editor I would have done it. I'd be very interested in other opinions on this.

Again, here is the link to the essay.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Lyric Essay: Joni Tevis

One type of essay is the Lyric essay, which has a lot in common with a poem.

To understand a lyric essay, it might be helpful to take a detour into what "creative nonfiction" is. On one end of the writing spectrum is a user manual for a VCR. Style matters in that it needs to be concise and clear, but there is no purpose to the VCR manual apart from delivering information. In fact some user manuals are boiled down to pure picture without any words at all.

On the other end of the spectrum is a linguistically beautiful poem in a language you don't understand. The meaning really doesn't matter.

Most writing is somewhere in the middle, but creative nonfiction is left of center; content matters, but style matters just as much.

A lyric essay skews towards the style end. It's usually in paragraph form, and usually short, and the emphasis is usually on image and language. It dovetails with a "prose poem," but like all essays is nonfiction.

Joni Tevis is one of my favorite writers. She was a fellow at the University of Minnesota when I was there for my MFA, and she's at her best on the image-rich lyric essay, like this one about seal bones on a beach. It starts:

Over time, the dead seal turns to beach, and nobody notices. Girls jog over the bones: mosaic of glass, gray stone, windfall knocked clean of twig, root, splinter.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Essay: An Introduction

I've always been interested in the essay as a form of writing. Ew, no! you say. I was done with essays in high school or college, those awful five paragraph hamburger essays, or AP exam essays, or some Judith Butler essay like “Merely Cultural.” Oh, the painfulness of essays.

No, not those kind of essays.

I'm talking about "personal essays," also called familiar essays or literary essays. Personal essay writers always cite Michel de Montaigne, a French writer from the 1500s who wrote stuff like "Of Thumbs," which was, as one might guess, about thumbs. Montaigne would pick some topic---thumbs, marriage, flatulence, death---and kind of roam around the subject, using anecdotes from his life, interesting facts from books he'd read, and his thoughts. Essay writers will also bring up the fact that "essay" comes from the French for "attempt" (like the English word "assay"). An essayist picks up an idea, looks at it, thinks about, it and makes an attempt at shedding some light on the subject.

This is embarrassing, but this Wikipedia article may explain this better than I can.

In his own time, Montaigne was admired more as a statesman than as an author. The tendency in his essays to digress into anecdotes and personal ruminations was seen as detrimental to proper style rather than as an innovation, and his declaration that, 'I am myself the matter of my book', was viewed by his contemporaries as self-indulgent. In time, however, Montaigne would be recognized as embodying, perhaps better than any other author of his time, the spirit of freely entertaining doubt which began to emerge at that time. He is most famously known for his skeptical remark, 'Que sais-je?' ('What do I know?'). Remarkably modern even to readers today, Montaigne's attempt to examine the world through the lens of the only thing he can depend on implicitly — his own judgment — makes him more accessible to modern readers than any other author of the Renaissance. . . . Writers of all kinds continue to read him for his masterful balance of intellectual knowledge and personal story-telling.

So, an essay usually has the following traits:
  • Personal elements, if only opinion. I.e. you don't have to talk about yourself, but you do have to talk AS yourself.
  • Not taking an explicit, pre-decided stand, but rather thinking things out within the essay itself.
  • Using yourself and your experiences as a lens to view the world. Again, this doesn't mean you have to be self indulgent or talk about your personal life.
  • Any of these rules can be broken.

There is a lot more to be said on the essay, but that is the purpose of this blog. To look at what makes an essay, whether it is long or short, research based or anecdotal. Where does memoir begin and essay end? Who is writing essays today and where can we find them? Does an email to a friend count as an essay? How useful are formal rhetorical rules when writing an essay?

For now I'll leave you with one of my favorite essays, the aforementioned "Of Thumbs" and hope we meet again soon.

Tacitus reports, that amongst certain barbarian kings their manner was, when they would make a firm obligation, to join their right hands close to one another, and intertwist their thumbs; and when, by force of straining the blood, it appeared in the ends, they lightly pricked them with some sharp instrument, and mutually sucked them.

Physicians say that the thumbs are the master fingers of the hand, and that their Latin etymology is derived from “pollere.” The Greeks called them ‘Avtixeip’, as who should say, another hand. And it seems that the Latins also sometimes take it in this sense for the whole hand:

Sed nec vocibus excitata blandis,
Molli pollici nec rogata, surgit.
[“Neither to be excited by soft words or by the thumb.”—Mart., xii. 98, 8.]

It was at Rome a signification of favour to depress and turn in the thumbs:

Fautor utroque tuum laudabit pollice ludum:
[“Thy patron will applaud thy sport with both thumbs” —Horace.]

and of disfavour to elevate and thrust them outward:

Converso pollice vulgi,
Quemlibet occidunt populariter.
[“The populace, with inverted thumbs, kill all that come before them.”—Juvenal, iii. 36]

The Romans exempted from war all such as were maimed in the thumbs, as having no more sufficient strength to hold their weapons. Augustus confiscated the estate of a Roman knight who had maliciously cut off the thumbs of two young children he had, to excuse them from going into the armies; and, before him, the Senate, in the time of the Italic war, had condemned Caius Vatienus to perpetual imprisonment, and confiscated all his goods, for having purposely cut off the thumb of his left hand, to exempt himself from that expedition. Some one, I have forgotten who, having won a naval battle, cut off the thumbs of all his vanquished enemies, to render them incapable of fighting and of handling the oar. The Athenians also caused the thumbs of the AEginatans to be cut off, to deprive them of the superiority in the art of navigation.

In Lacedaemon, pedagogues chastised their scholars by biting their thumbs.