I’m a word nerd. Of course, that’s no surprise considering I’m writing this column at DIY MFA, the home of word nerdom. I started early, like most word nerds, collecting big words, unusual words. Words such as antidisestablishmentarianism, serendipity, and logophile. I love knowing the right and precise word for a specific thing. Like knowing aglet is the word for that bit of plastic coating the end of shoelaces.
My reading was – and still is – catholic (except I avoid anything dealing with westerns and politics). The joy of finding new topics and authors is why I pick books at random at bookstores and libraries. I rarely look at covers. I focus on titles and then delve into the book’s middle. I look for a glimpse into the book’s heart…and, too, the author’s mind. This somewhat haphazard habit is how I discovered the beauty and mental muscularity of James Baldwin’s political essays. Yes, political essays.
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Essays
I blame that bit of off the rails behavior on an undergraduate composition class. Its entire focus was the essay. What could have been a drudge-worthy class full of dry scribbles was instead enlightening. In it, I discovered words’ power to solve problems, to educate, to change another’s mind, to clarify. The instructor, Dr. Sipiora, taught us how to sculpt our own words into powerful vehicles, essays.
But what is an essay? And what makes it so powerful? Merriam-Webster defines essay as a “literary composition usually dealing with its subject from a limited or personal point of view”. The term itself, essay – from the French essayer, “to attempt” or “to try” – encapsulates its aim to influence the reader. While an essay’s topic can be whatever subject a writer chooses, it will fall under the following types: analytical, argumentative, expository, or persuasive.
Analytical essays generally examine, analyze, and interpret. They tend toward academic subjects such as art, literature, and social or political events. Argumentative essays set out to prove the writer’s opinion, theory or statement is more credible than another’s. Many political essays tend to be framed as such. Expository essays have an explanatory bent. They are often written to explicate a particular issue, theme or idea.
Persuasive essays aim to convince readers to adopt the writer’s position on an issue or point of view. The writer gives good or beneficial reasons for the reader to do so.
Any and all of that influencing power within bounds. I believe much of an essay’s power comes from length. Essayist extraordinaire Roxane Gay, in discussing the preferred length of essays, opined: “[Essay length] varies. Sometimes an essay needs to be 700 words and sometimes, 7,000 words. 2,500 - 3,500 is a sweet spot.”
Let Your Love Shine In
The success in writing essays lies in the writer’s love of her subject. One great example of this is Roxane Gay’s New York Times Op-Ed piece, Ask Roxane: Is It Too Late to Follow My Dreams? on Dec. 30, 2017. It’s also a fantastic example of a persuasive essay.
Gay fields letters from two writers of what she calls “a certain age.” Both writers ask a version of “Is it too late to follow my dream?” She answers first in recounting her own writing experiences.
“I was incandescent with envy — so many breathless stories about people my age and often younger who were discovered by a hotshot agent, who sold a book for six or seven figures, who created a popular blog and parlayed that success into a full-time writing career.
The writing world was passing me by. I was never going to be noticed. I was going to spend my life working mediocre jobs, writing in obscurity, and before long it was going to be too late. I was going to turn 30 and then 35 and after that, I couldn’t even speculate because I was either going to have a bestselling book by the age of 35 or my dream would be not merely deferred but dead, dead, dead.”
She tells them that even after she got some success, she still worried. The success she experienced didn’t look like what she had imagined. [An interesting aside, Gay was 38 when she sold her two books: Bad Feminist, a book of essays, and Untamed State, a novel.] Gay says that she wished, “I could have told myself when I was hopeless about my writing prospects is that I should have defined artistic success in ways that weren’t shaped by forces beyond my control.”
She follows this information with writing/writing industry realities.
“Sometimes, success is getting a handful of words you don’t totally hate on the page. Sometimes success is working a full-time job to support your family and raising your kids and finding a way, over several years, to write and finish a novel. Sometimes it’s selling a book to a small press for 25 copies of your book and a vague promise of royalties you may never see. And sometimes, if you are very lucky, artistic success is marked by the glittery things so many of us yearn for — the big money deals, the critical accolades, the multicity book tours, the movie options.”
She ends with turning the writers’ view inward. She asks them to examine their own writing expectations and realities. Writing is not a zero-sum game. Gay reminds them that “[t]he literary flavor of the week did not get your book deal.” She leaves them with reality, one with an ever-open door for dreams:
“Write as well as you can, with as much heart as you can, whenever you can. Make sure there are people in your life who will have faith in your promise when you can’t. Get your writing in the world, ideally for the money you deserve because writing is work that deserves compensation. But do not worry about being closer to 50 or 65 or 83. Artistic success, in all its forms, is not merely the purview of the young. You are not a late bloomer. You are already blooming.”
New and Different Worlds
If writing essays is new to you, take a look at the following anthologies, books, articles, and websites to learn about the technique and craft:
- The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present, Phillip Lopate – This anthology gives an overview of the personal essays from the ancient world to the 20th century.
- Best American Essays: This annual anthology series offers an overview of current essayists and the topics being discussed. It can easily serve as a practical primer for approaching essay writing.
- Collected Essays: James Baldwin, edited by Toni Morrison
- Crafting The Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Non-Fiction: Dinty W. Moore – A hands-on, creativity-expanding guide to help you explore the flexibility and power of the personal essay.
- DIY MFA interview: Exploring Essay Writing: An Interview With Jayne English: My interview with Relief Journal essayist Jayne English on generating ideas and creating depth in essays.
- Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit – “A passionate, thought provoking exploration of walking as a political and cultural activity.”
I’m long past my undergraduate years but I still choose most of my TBR list the same random albeit pointed way. I read books and essays that bring light to topics on which I’m woefully in the dark. I gravitate to authors who show vulnerability. I take heart from the idea they’re struggling with the same or similar things I battle and that we’ll get through them.
As a writer of essays, I try to bring the same things to the fore. In her Skillshare class intro, Roxane Gay says:
“One of the most interesting things that writing essays has shown me is that one person really can make a difference. When you write a good essay, people gravitate toward that work and they tend to start thinking about the world in new and different ways […].”
That’s the best any of us writers can do.
Brenda Joyce Patterson is a poet, writer, librarian, and lover of short writing forms. Her poetry and flash fiction have been published in Vayavya, Gravel Magazine, and Melancholy Hyperbole. Along with works by Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Alice Walker, her travel essay “The Kindness of Strangers” appeared in Go Girl: The Black Woman’s Guide to Travel and Adventure.