As an undergraduate, I took a class entitled “The Essay.” It was a 300 level course with extensive writing and reading requirements, something that was quite familiar to an English major. My interest had been piqued by this idea that I would be exploring the best of the canonized essays and, in turn, become a great essayist myself. Boy, was I wrong.
I’d like to clarify that this was not because I didn’t do the work or lacked creative talent; I actually had a lot to say for a twenty-one year old student—How could cafeteria prices be so high? Actually, what I’d never realized before throwing myself into the world of essayists is this: their success does not solely come from profound passion, intelligence, and talent (although this certainly helps); no, to be a great essayist is to be a meticulous craftsmen of language, which can only come through extreme ritual, practice, and patience.
What I saw in common in essays such as “Under the Influence” by Scott Russell Sanders or “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” by Joan Didion or “Letter From Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King is the craft of the paragraphs, each perfect syntactically and compounding one another; each wrought with ethos and pathos; each handling time and memory better than anything I’ve ever read. What I came to see is that essayists are devout puzzlers and this is why they have the ability to create such vivid images of the past and future.
I say all this because I want writers of all kinds—fiction, memoir, poetry—to read essays. I could go on and on about the lessons I learned and show examples of great writing found in essays. But this is not an informative blog piece as much as it is a call for action.
As an agent, I come across a lot of novel and memoir queries that have intricate and intriguing ideas but do not possess the control or measure to execute said ideas to their fullest potential. I truly believe a great sci-fi story could benefit from adopting the literary tools utilized in essay writing, such as anaphora or extended metaphor or delivering a precept to the reader. Essayists are the strongest voices found on the page. They ooze confidence and, in many cases, self-righteousness that, once researched, can be mimicked for first person narration or character development in a novel.
Yes, essays don’t sell. I’m not asking that you write the next great essay. My request is simple: READ and discover how they can shape your worldview, writing approach, and creativity.
Outside of the 3 listed above, here are three more famous canonized essays to start:
- “Goodbye to All That” by Joan Didion
- “ The Fourth State of Matter” by Jo Ann Beard
- “Corn-pone Opinions” by Mark Twain