I’m sitting here in Crazy Daisy, and it’s a fine Prague day. The sun is shining, the birds are singing (I didn’t miss them until they came back) and the world is generally a cheery place. A pretty girl went by in a miniskirt and naturally I thought about the art of writing essays.
It goes back to a comment my august sister left for another episode celebrating spring. Some pundit somewhere compared the essay to the miniskirt, saying it should cover the subject but nothing more, or something like that. It’s a nice quote, so you should go back through the comments and find it. Carol Anne had added to the famous quote by drawing a parallel to my comparison between miniskirts and bikinis. To which I simply added “It’s gotta have swish.” I think I just misquoted myself. Can you do that?
I didn’t state it so then, but while a bikini reveals, a miniskirt enhances. Women can probably make a similar analogy involving speedos and board shorts. In any case, it’s gotta have swish.
So what would I say if I was in front of a bunch of kids who are required to take a course in essay writing? I think first I would ask them the last time they wrote an essay, and I would point out that every email they send is an essay, every note they write is an essay, every message they leave on an answering machine is an essay. We will all agree that some people just have a knack for great messages, great emails, great signals across a room that you don’t forget. I have friends that can raise the most mundane thing to a cause of laughter or sorrow. I have a special note that my email program plays when I get a message from one of those people.
So what sets them apart? How much of that can be taught to a class of people who see writing essays as a chore?
In my not-so-humble opinion, there are two things that make a great essayist: they find their subject interesting and they write without fear. It’s important to differentiate between their subject is interesting and they find their subject interesting. I’ve read emails lately about things I care not one whit about, but the way they were written made me read the message more than once. Really I don’t care about baby poop, but when described passionately, with magical language, it resounds, and I’m thankful to hear about baby poop.
The only way to be passionate is to write without fear. So really the two things that make a great essay boil down to one. Write without fear. Talk about things that matter to you and put your balls on the anvil.
I don’t know how many times on my travels I was sitting listening to the person on the next stool spin a great yarn. Usually autobiographical. Holy cow, the stories I’ve heard. Then I would tell them I’m a writer (I love saying that). My co-drinker’s eyes would get wide. Why? They had just run out a better essay without thinking than I could do with blood. They were telling a story to a guy in a bar. There was no fear.
We are taught somewhere along the line that there are three (I think it was three) sorts of essays. Those Essay Nazis are really into numbers. Fives and threes. Three reasons to write an essay, my ass. I bet if you asked the author of an essay you really liked, “Why did you write that?” they might at first cite some social or political reasons but in the end they would just say “I needed to say it.” They’re not writing for a defined purpose, they’re writing to write. Certainly they will hope that the articulate expression of their experience will affect the world, but fundamentally they’re stringing words together to make concrete something that before was only in their head, and they’re doing it for themselves.
I suppose that’s the corollary to writing without fear. Write for yourself. Be yourself in everything. When my faithful laptop makes the plunk-choing sound I know I have something worth reading that will be an intimate reflection of the sender. I will be reading a great essay about baby poop, or Little League, or it will be a long unpunctuated ramble with almost frightening enthusiasm. If you’ve ever been to a poetry slam you’ll know that it is really an essay contest.
Which brings me to the karaoke semi-simile (kind of like) I used in the title. On karaoke night you will remember two singers, the best and the worst, the two most fearless of all the participants. Attitude the same, results different, both remembered, both walking off the stage with head held high. If I were to grade essays, there would be points for all the technical stuff, because you always want their courage to be as effective as possible. There would be style points, asking whether the writer is finding their own voice, their own way of expressing things. But there would also be a courage score. There’s gotta be points for laying it on the line. There’s gotta room to acknowledge art when you see it, whether it’s dismantling the modern power structure or discussing toilet water splashing back up onto your butthole.
It’s my only advice to anyone who wants to write. Write without fear. If you’re in school, screw the grade. There’s nothing wrong with technical ability, in fact, you’ll find that all that grammar and crap ultimately gives you a much faster car to drive into the brick wall. To really be great you need the technical skill, but all the skill in the world will never replace passion. And everyone has the passion. Everyone. You just gotta let it show.
Oh this has to be submitted to piker.
Oh, how well you express one of the big points I make to my students: “Write without fear.”
I teach what is currently called “developmental” students (until that term becomes as pejorative as “remedial” and “bonehead,” the terms that preceded it). Many of these students have had traumatic experiences with the educational system as a whole and with the way English composition in particular is taught. Much of that trauma has come from such strictures at that an essay must have exactly five paragraphs, each of which must have exactly a certain number of sentences, and each sentence within the paragraph is to serve a certain function, and so on and so forth — and also, an essay must have excruciatingly correct grammar, even on the first draft.
Many of my students arrive to the first week of class essentially paralyzed by these previous experiences. With some students, I spend the entire term teaching them — or at least guiding them in the direction of, since teaching has to do with knowledge, not emotional response — writing without fear.
I hope that one day someone will see one of my paintings with the same rapt admiration that I have for your writing, Jerry