I have spent the waning days of August reading, or in some cases, rereading, essays. Not student essays. Not yet. Professional essays—Montaigne, Emerson, Joan Didion, Jo Ann Beard, Stuart Dybek, and a host of others. It is my yearly tune up for fall classes and student writers. The definition of the word “essay” comes from a French word, essai, meaning “attempt.” When I sit down to read an essay, or to write one, I expect an attempt, not an absolute.
Essays begin with questions, and it is the questions that lead us home, both as writers and readers. Once we have questioned, we learn, we formulate opinions, we comment upon, and we relate what we have learned to our lives. That is the complete equation, and the source of all learning. Therefore, I changed the subtitle of the blog to: “Questions. Comments. True Stories of Adventure.” It is a phrase I have used in all of my classes for 26 years. When we wrap up a lesson, I look out over the classroom into the eyes of my students and say, “Questions, comments, true stories of adventure?” The question mark means I want their thoughts, their input, their stories.
The essayists I’ve read this week all started out with questions they needed answered. Many were written years, decades, centuries ago, and even though the answers may have changed in the revelations and experiences of history, in that moment, that is what a particular writer thought. This is what he or she came to know and understand. Because knowledge and experience are transitory and we may often travel the same river twice, the way the light falls may be different each time. We learn something new every day, even if it is a day like the one before it. That is what I love about the essay: it is often a work in progress, a dialogue between selves weeks, months, years apart. And even better, a reader deep in the heart of an essay is also in dialogue with the writer across the space of time and distance.
One book I read recently attempts to bring some innovation to the essay. Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction (University of Nebraska Press, $30) edited by B.J. Hollars, gathers some current working essayists together in a collection of pieces that often break the rules of the formal, standard essay. Hollars places the essay and follows it with a second essay from the same writer explaining the creative process. At the end of the book, he also includes writing exercises for students to use to create their own essays. It is a nifty little book, but in many of the pieces, the experimentation slides into abstract cleverness. The writer breaks the rules because he can, not to service the essay or the point made.
For instance, Ander Monson writes his essay, “Outline toward a Theory of the Mine versus the Mind and the Harvard Outline” in outline form. The piece reads like an essay, but all the Roman numerals and indentions simply confuse the issue. Michael Martone justifies the right margin of his essay and structures his piece like a poem. Interesting, but not exacly earth-shattering. Then there are the magical pieces, the ones that utilize the breaking of rules to soar. I am thinking of Beth Ann Fennelly’s piece, “Salvos into the World of Hummers,” which manages to extract beauty and elegance out of research into every aspect of hummingbirds. I was left astounded. The after-essays are insightful on their own. Susan Neville writes after her moving piece on a man facing Alzheimer’s, “It’s all in the process, in the way you can get closer to what feels true…” She goes on to say that writers often argue “that there is no such thing as an objective truth.” She wishes to explore that assertion in her essays.
I want to write about learning to live in the world, and I want to inspire my students to do the same. “The days run away like wild horses over the hills,” Charles Bukowski wrote. There is thunder and lightning, heat and dust, clouds and rain. Through it all, the questions remain. I wish to continue to try, to make the attempt, to essay what it means to learn and to live.
I think I’m ready for the new school year. Just in time, because here comes fall.