What is an Essay? (Part 1)

Years ago — never mind how many — I thought of essays in terms of research papers, of literary scholarship, of arguments with a thesis and evidence, of citations in MLA form, of Works Cited pages. Of all the drudgery of scouring scholarly journals for scholarly papers that supported your position, and of shaping your own formal paper to be presented to a prof who would read it, evaluate its merits or lack thereof, and grade the essay on those merits. By the time I left graduate school, master’s degree in hand, I was sick of essays, sick of reading nonfiction about fiction, sick of writing nonfiction about fiction in essays that likely would never see publication in any form, except maybe in a scholarly journal, although even that was highly unlikely, given that you just had your master’s degree and competing journal submissions came from Phd. candidates or already practicing profs with long lists of publications or even people with master’s degrees who were way smarter than you. I was sick of scholarship and ready to write fiction.

Of course, unless you’ve published billion-dollar bestsellers already, you can’t write fiction full time. Or I suppose you can, but eventually you won’t be able to eat, or have a place to stay, or you’ll run out of ink for your printer, and you’ll need a lot of money to buy replacement cartridges. So, you either teach or you go into journalism. I did both.

Less than a year out of grad school, I jockeyed a quick adjunct circuit (one class, one long summer session that paid so little I wasn’t able to eat much, barely paid rent, and was lucky my printer ink was cheap) and the only thought given to essays was hoping at least one student would turn one in before the assigned deadline. Journalism was different. I was writing, even though it was nonfiction. Admittedly, this literary scholar wasn’t suited, in the beginning, for straight objective news reporting, even when it came to rewriting the police blotter. But features? I loved feature writing, and when by a quirk of personnel change I landed a position in the lifestyles department, I discovered I could play around with objective journalism, throwing in techniques from fiction, using description and narration, and baking my voice into the stale crumbles of third-person AP voice. I practiced a sort of creative nonfiction or literary journalism, though constrained in a narrow gauge.

At the same time I was immersing myself in literary journalism, reading classics and contemporaries: Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, John McPhee, Joan Didion, Susan Orlean, Stephen Harrigan, Tracy Kidder. When I read these writers, I was trying to learn from them to improve my feature writing. I wasn’t thinking of form or genre; it didn’t trouble me whether the pieces I was reading were essays or journalism, a concern that often fountains forth like Mentos-laced Diet Coke in debates about literary journalism/creative nonfiction. Had I put more thought into the whole matter, I might have said something close to what Harrigan writes in the Author’s Note of Comanche Midnight:

When I was writing the pieces in this book, I never thought to refer to them as essays. As a staff writer for Texas Monthly, and later as a freelance journalist, I was immersed in the nomenclature of the magazine world, which has no loftier term for a piece of writing than article or story. Essays, to my johnny-deadline mind, were produced in rustic New England cottages by cultured observers with all the time in the world to ponder how the beating of a moth’s wings on a window pane mirrors the eternal strivings of the human soul.

As a newspaper feature writer, I wrote stories or articles, not essays, and my features were certainly not as eloquent as Harrigan’s, try as I might to achieve such eloquence. And yet, I included essay elements such as description and exposition:

Often the men passing by wear tuxedos — some with tails, some with flashy ties —the women passing by wear full ball gowns — some are sequined and glitter under the spangle of lights emanating from the mirrored ball hanging from the ceiling; occasionally eccentricities such as feather boas float into the scene.

Ballroom dancing has its origins in the court life of  the 17th and 18th centuries, developing, in particular, in the palaces of Italy and France with elegant, and at times, risque masques.

Still, I didn’t see myself as an essayist; surely a story about ballroom dancing wasn’t a philosophical mirror into the human soul. If feature stories and classics of creative nonfiction/literary journalism weren’t essays, even if they contain elements we’ve been taught since freshman comp that make up essays, what exactly is an essay?

(To be Continued)


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