I have always admired Phillip Lopate’s much-reprinted “Confessions of a Shusher.” An acknowledged master of the essay, Lopate chronicles his monumental pissoffs at other movie audience members who insist on editorializing out loud throughout the film, ruining it for everyone around them.
Lopate chose a subject familiar to most of us, whether we’re shushers or shushees. Recalling my own repressed desires, and occasional courage, to shush movie-blabbers, I found the essay hilarious and full of truth, and the form became a favorite, for reading and writing.
What’s the Essay?
The personal essay is not new. It’s as old as Plutarch, as respected as Montaigne (the acknowledged “father” of the essay), and as new as the latest Internet site. With the original French meaning of essai as “trial” or “attempt,” it gives you license to write about anything. Lopate’s confession is not cataclysmic. Nor is G. K. Chesterton’s “Running After One’s Hat” or Joan Didion’s “In Bed” on her migraines (although it may be for migraine sufferers). Yet Tom Paine’s essay “Common Sense“ sparked the bravery of Colonialists to rebel in what became the American Revolution.
In Lopate’s brilliant introduction to the anthology of essays, The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present, he characterizes the personal essay. It’s intimate, conversational, often full of humor and irony (as in his own “Confessions of a Shusher”), honest (often squirmingly so), and self-revealing.
The Essay’s Uniqueness
The essay lives between secret thoughts and edited craft. Born from the writer’s need, from sharp, almost painful observations that claw, it must be recorded. It originates from fires of heart and head.
To gain acceptance, though, the essay must be tempered with seemly prose and a semblance of structure. Yet it cannot lose its fire, smirking under the correct verbal tea service. Nor can the fire, conversely, burn down the parlor.
The essay too, although ostensibly often about daily common trivialities, at best flares into larger and more important contexts. In a review of two new collections of essays, Leslie Jamison asks what the essay should do and offer. And answers: “It blends inquiry and confession into a hybrid weave that deepens each. It draws personal material into public mattering” (http://www.newrepublic.com/article/113737/solnit-faraway-nearby-and-orange-running-your-life#).
Chesterton’s “On Chasing One’s Hat” deftly segues into other “awkward” and momentous physicalities, such as making love. Sara Suleri’s “Meatless Days” (from the memoir of the same name) evolves from an ironic look at organ meats to history of her family, conflicts of culture, and deep emotions. So, the essay can seesaw between triflings and profundities. Two sections of Lopate’s introduction capture these sometimes oxymoronic swings, “The Contractions and Expansions of the Self” and “The Personal Essay as Mode of Thinking and Being.”
If these possibilities invigorate you for your own writing, good. But before you dig out that yellowed file of your own abandoned half-essays, I feel it only sporting to point out a few negatives about the essay. Not to dampen your zeal, these are followed by positives.
Why Should You Shun the Essay?
Granted, they’re less than popular today than in the past, especially if you want to build writing credits. The Pedestrian, a valiant, fine magazine solely for essays, after publication of two quarterly issues, has been “on hiatus” since 2011. Nevertheless, you can luxuriate in some wonderful essays and resources on the site: http://thepedestrian.org/about-pedestrian.
Granted, the essay is for the somewhat elite. No CIA antiheros, exploding cars, sexy political interns, or paranormal crypt-crossed lovers. The essay is Mozart in a metal-soaked world.
Granted, the essay takes literary patience. It’s like plowing through a dense novel (although shorter). When you stick with it, the essay yields sublime satisfaction in the exquisite use of words and ideas that excite your own.
Granted, the essay has the best chance with high-end publications (New Yorker, The Sun, Hippocamus, Tin Horse, New York Times Lives). For less sophisticated subjects and writing, although still with a high bar, see The Christian Science Monitor, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and “The Last Page” of some glossies.
Granted, despite the delicious freedom for excursions and leisurely ruminations, you still need craft-based judgment on what’s in and what’s out, and how far to go out before you come back in.
Why Should You Consider Writing the Essay?
You can choose any topic and make it as meaningful—or playful—as you wish.
You can be highly personal.
You can wallow in describing the experience without worrying about the typical novel’s problems—exposition, plot contradictions, or rounded characters.
You don’t have to give any craft advice.
You can rest in the knowledge that the reader’s takeaway is the experience.
Why I Love Writing the Essay
It tolerates, nay, welcomes, your diving into the smallest details, pondering a while, re-emerging at your leisure, and drawing, or intimating, grand conclusions. Without abandoning discipline or yielding to the wildly tangential, you can give your stream-of-associative faculties full reign.
You don’t have to fear reader alienation. However you fashion your essay, whatever you hone in on and then swell out to, you’ll connect with readers. Our smalls connect with theirs—Chesterton’s chasing, Didion’s migraine, Sulari’s family rituals. The old truth is true: the deeper we dare into ourselves, and the more we discover and expose, the more others will feel and connect. The more we write about our experiences and thoughts, the more readers will relive their own experiences and relate to ours. And they’ll remember our essay.
Author, editor, writing coach, and spiritual counselor, Noelle Sterne writes fiction and nonfiction, having published over 300 pieces in print and online venues, including Writer’s Digest, The Writer, ReadLearnWrite, Women on Writing, Transformation Magazine, 11.11, and Unity booklets. Her monthly column, “Bloom Where You’re Writing,” appears in Coffeehouse for Writers. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, for over 28 years Noelle has helped doctoral candidates complete their dissertations (finally), with a practical-psychological-spiritual handbook in progress. In her book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books; one of ten best 2011 ebooks), she draws examples from her practice and other aspects of life to help writers and others release regrets, relabel their past, and reach their lifelong yearnings. With Trust Your Life, Noelle appears in the Unity Books 2013 “Summer of Self-Discovery.” Discussions appear on Goodreads: http://www.unity.org/publications/unity-books/summer-reading-series, Her webinar on the book of June 26, 2013, can be heard and seen on YouTube: www.youtube.com/watch?V=95EeqllONIQ.