Essay Means I Have A Break In Me
A few years ago, it seemed like everyone was saying essays were having "a moment." People were taking the internet more seriously as a writing platform, writers were able to find work writing SEO-friendly content, some lurid personal essay or other was going viral each week, and blogs were transforming into giant media companies. Then there was an inevitable backlash, and personal essays were being blamed for everything from the burning of millions of dollars of venture capital to the perceived dumbing down of literature. But along the way, many of today's best writers have been quietly focused on the form, pushing it in new directions and reimagining what can be accomplished. This month, inspired by the release of Chelsea Hodson's Tonight I'm Someone Else and Alice Bolin's Dead Girls, we reached out to some of our favorite writers about what the essay means to them. We all know the old idea that essay means "to try," so our prompt was simply: Essay means... - ▲
Essay means I have a break in me. I am gathering myself together with my hands and, while I’m there, reaching into the wound, looking for the depth of the laceration and groping through dermis. To essay, to try, etc etc etc I am trying to figure out why I can’t stop telling the most boring anecdotes anyone ever told, even after they’ve proven to kill a good conversation, so I essay into the anecdotes using a process like cracking one of those ugly rocks they sell at the gift shop, the ones you break open to reveal the geode inside. Once I bought one for a boyfriend for his birthday. He didn’t show me what it broke into. And I bought a unicorn piñata for his birthday party. He didn’t break it then—he took it to a private karaoke party to which I was not invited. He told me nobody really liked the candy so they just left it on the floor. Essay means I am lonely enough to talk to myself. To essay is to try to make a living doing that thing I’ve done since I was a little girl, replaying the moments of my life in my head and imagining what they could mean. I always fell asleep before I pieced it together. Look, some people don’t give a shit about the insides of broken things. But there is glitter in there. Or sugar. Crack! I’m swinging at myself with a bat. I’ve got a hammer and two questions: (1) why am I like this and (2) does it even matter at all?
An essay is a record of thinking on a theme. Because the thinking begins before you start writing and continues after you finish, I like to think of the essay as a cross-section of a more extended line of thinking. So the essay is almost necessarily unfinished, open-ended, and non-exhaustive.
An essay means to compress time and space into a single point of clarity. This reminds me a little of the plot of the video game Final Fantasy VIII in which the villain, a sorceress named Ultimecia, is trying to reach a state called Time Compression that would condense all of time and space into a single moment and place her at the center of that moment. When I am writing essays, I sometimes feel like I am the sorceress Ultimecia a little: I am using text to fuse different layers of time and space together to shift my ideas about what something is or should be, recreating scenes from my past, examining the present moment or even subconsciously hiding in the essay messages that will only make sense to a future version of myself that will re-read the same text years from now and feel equally surprised, delighted and baffled by what my mind was thinking about at the time. In conclusion, an essay is always true, at least for one person.
An essay is an earnest attempt to answer a question, but the answer is never the point. An essay allows for a kind of exploration that stops, starts, speeds, makes illegal U-turns, breaks down, drives over the median, and isn’t afraid to pick up hitchhikers along the way, all before lighting itself on fire.
essay means to get a $75 check 3 months after publication
Essay means to find every corner of your obsessions and, in doing so, find a doorway to new obsessions.
Essay means cutting a path. For me an essay has the opposite shape of my thoughts, which buzz concurrently in amorphous clouds. My journals are full of crazy diagrams mapping hidden connections between ideas, like a TV detective's bulletin board criss-crossed with red string. When I write I'm forced to funnel thought into something linear, a dense path working its way down the page. One of my mantras is ONE THING AT A TIME, and the essay is a way I practice this: one foot in front of the other, one word at a time.
I have never written an essay that ended where I thought it would when I began. There is the shiny, provocative idea I begin with, enshrined in my mind like a goal post that I must merely kick the sentences through, but I often find myself distracted by faces in the stands or a constellation of stars in the darkening sky. And it's probably there that we should be looking—where the light moves. To try also means to see where we fail ourselves by being ordinary, and in overcoming that ordinariness, find what we were trying to say all along.
I thought about the words I use when someone has written a good essay…
“They tore the shit out of that”
It doesn’t matter what the piece was about, gardening, sappy personal love, baking-- I always talk about it as if it were combat.
Essay means to conquer. To disembowel. To annihilate.
Go grab someone’s head and put it on a fucking pike.
“Essay” means an assignment I give every single one of my students at least three times per semester. Grading them is the least fun part of my job.
“Personal essay” means my English 101 students’ first assignment. Generally, I actually enjoy grading these. I’m nosy, and their lives are interesting. I’ve read essays about IV drug use, getting arrested for assault and battery, spiritual epiphanies, mental breakdowns, rare diseases, best friends dying in car wrecks, mothers committing suicide, and dead babies.
There’s a couple essays that stand out in my mind, years later. Neither one was about particularly interesting subject matter: a boy’s dog, a girl’s first time hunting. But both had an immediacy, like someone talking directly to you, the language poetic yet entirely free of pretension. In both, I read about somebody else’s experience that was nothing like my own—growing up in the mountains of West Virginia, the stillness and beauty that comes from living outside a city, or even a town.
Of course, the essay has another meaning: the Essay, which is written by Writers. The thing I hate most about the Essay is the tendency to explain and justify one’s behavior, something that doesn’t seem to really exist in fiction (or, at least, not as much). But at their best, there’s something ghostly or magical about the form. You get to experience a crystallized version of someone else’s life, the way their mind works, how they see things and feel about them. In this way, my students’ essays, and the Essays written by Writers, are a type of possession, a type of time travel.
I’m thinking of César. We first hear his name on the second page of Richard Rodriguez’s seminal essay,
“Late Victorians.” As readers, we fumble, at first-- unsure of where we are being taken, but coerced somehow by the inquisitive syntax on migration, gay culture, AIDS, a tour ostensibly of 1980s San Francisco. We are being gently led by the hand through Rodriguez’s mind (or as he is described in this piece, “curator of the earthly paradise.”) —wading through and stepping across his associative history lesson, his examination of gay stereotypes, and blasphemy for city and God. But when we find ourselves at the end, at César’s memorial, we share his “this is all meaningless” sentiment even if we never believed in anything at all. It is this mechanism of process that surely gives meaning to the Essay. Where there is love there is also death, is what you begin to hear.
Such discovery exists when the Essay is freed from “memoir.” Which is not to say that the Essay cannot and should not be memoir, but I would like to hope that it is more. Could we journey away from the parade of exposition and discover beauty and problems elsewhere? Especially when that “elsewhere” is one of the many stories the come from within? Could we fumble and fail, and also reveal and unearth?
This unusual pitch will often provoke the response: I can’t quite put my finger on that but I like it.
The writer complains: No, I don’t want my reader to struggle.
The essayist concludes: Yes, I do want you to watch me think on the page.
There are the essays that center themselves around our stories and the essays that require our stories as evidence.
Because writing as pursuit is unable to recognize perfection. The pursuit, in fact, lies in being interested. Building, handling, observing. The reader in me would like to think that the way César emerged was a surprise, even for Rodriguez, but the writer in me knows that this isn’t true.
It is because of this that I find: Essay means collection. It is evidence. It is intersections. It is structure. It is without design.