I inherited a love of afternoon tea from my Victorian grandmother. She would brew a pot of stout tea and serve it, steaming hot, with ginger cookies. Or, if North Carolina humidity cooperated, mint meringues with chocolate chips. I’d bite into their crisp skin and then wait, as the soft, minty inside melted in my mouth. Nourished and refreshed, I’d head back to my homework.
Tea with my grandmother wasn’t fancy. A practical woman, shaped by the Depression, she wrapped Christmas packages in colored tissue paper, then carefully ironed and stored each piece for the next year.
Yet, the tea and packages never seemed simple. My grandmother’s curiosity and sense of wonder made even the smallest things magical. A bowl of applesauce with a few candy sprinkles became an explosion of color, if you waited just a moment, and then stirred.
I thought about tea with my grandmother, when I pitched “Tea with Scones.” I read essays, I write essays, and I still struggle with images from my past.
So what is essay?
Essay is the uninspired piece we were subjected to in school, or (if we are honest) the magazines we consumed, sitting on the toilet, at a sister-in-law’s.
Essay is the long The Atlantic or The New Yorker article we pretend to have read (“yes, her point was eloquent, but I do think she rambled on”), but never get around to.
In the spirit of my grandmother, here’s a reframe: essay is a small meal to recharge readers’s souls, and a confined—but not confining—space for writers.
Call it a literary nonfiction essay. Slice it into the personal essay, the science essay, the persuasive essay, the natural essay. Dice it into blogs or flashes. Essay is candy to fill an idle moment, indulge, refocus, instruct—sometimes all simultaneously.
It’s poetry’s bigger cousin, the blastocyst before the book proposal, masterful craftsmanship or utter drivel.
Where can you find it?
You can find essays about almost anything, and fit them into small pockets during your day. In graduate school, they were my salvation. I’d leave the anatomy lab, with all its enthralling descriptions (“the orbicularis oculi originates from the nasal portion of the frontal bone…”), sip a cup of tea, and indulge in an essay. Later, with a job and a house and a family, reading essays allowed me to think, just a little, about bodies in Lake Powell, Boca Raton, or crows in Karachi.
As a writer, I’ve discovered another reason to read essays: the best essayists are master writers. Their writing feels intimate. The scintillating conversations leave me breathless, wondering at their ability to weave together such a rich tapestry with mere words. To mix metaphors, they are master carvers who, while I read, shape a block of wood into lifelike sculpture. I want to write like that, and to write like that, I study their craft.
But how, as writers, do we do that? I suggest four steps:
1. Read through once, with tea and scones. If you have access to cream scones, warm from the oven, golden and crunchy on the outside, slice one open. Slather a bit of butter and some fresh raspberry jam, then bite down. Feel the delicate crunch of the golden crust, taste the tartness of raspberry, feel the cream and butter. Savor how it mixes in your mouth, the exquisite balance of salt and fat, sugar and tart.
2. Sit for a moment and note the array of feelings. Did the golden crust resonate more, or was it the fresh raspberries, or perhaps the point-counter point of the two tastes in your mouth? And yes, you will feel awkward and others in the café will stare, but allow yourself several minutes to catalog all of the sensations.
3. Look back at the essay. Highlight images, sentences, or even an entire paragraph that elicited those feelings. Was it the description of hot tea in a purple ceramic mug, or the bright smell of the raspberries that brought such rapture? Did the description of butter running down the author’s beard add or detract?
4. What can you reverse engineer into your own writing? The scones and the raspberries and the tea belong to this author, but now that you see how she put them together, are there experiments you’d like to try in your own writing?
It’s easy to walk away from the table at this point, but take a moment to bus your dishes. Then write down what you’ve learned. I’ve found it helpful to note in my writing specific sentences or images I want to reflect on. I look back at these from time to time. Sometimes, I turn these notes into a template of instructions and questions for my next writing piece.
I’ll close with one caution: there is danger, even in a cup of tea. A splash, a spill, and you wear the stuff the rest of the afternoon. Like any good writer, you wonder where the tea came from, follow the casual encounter out the door and around the bend. And then, just like Bilbo Baggins, “You step onto the road and, if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you’ll be swept off to.”
I’d love to hear from you about a favorite essay, tricks you use to read and learn from essays, and how you approach writing essays. Email me at email@example.com. Forthcoming columns will explore essay, essay collections, and writing tips for essays. Until then, happy reading.
Kamm Prongay is a writer and veterinarian whose essays intertwine science, nature, people, and place. A child of the South, raised in the Pacific Northwest, Kamm spent time at sea as a Naval Surface Warfare Officer before coming ashore to pursue veterinary school, clinical practice, teaching and research. Kamm lives with her wife, Liz, and two curious cats in Portland, Oregon.
You can find her on her website.