A Pep Talk for Essayists

From time to time, all personal essayists, however successful, worry that people will not be interested in what they have to say precisely because it is “just personal experience.”

In his introduction to the 1992 edition of Norton Book of Personal Essays (Norton), scholar and essayist Joseph Epstein states that each time he writes his regular personal essay for The American Scholar, he wonders if the readers of the magazine will mutter, “Oh, him again” or worse, “Who cares!” Where, he wonders, “does the personal essayist acquire the effrontery to believe—and, more astonishing still, to act on the belief—that his or her interests, concerns, quirks, passions matter to anyone else in the world?” Epstein believes that like him, other essayists know the “world is too rich, too various, too multifaceted and many-layered for a fellow incapable of an hour’s sustained thought to hope to comprehend it.” But through essays, writers “hope against hope to chip away at true knowledge by obtaining some modicum of self-knowledge.” This rationale places the essay back on high ground, but Epstein warns that the “essayist must also fight off adopting the notion of being in any way a star, at center stage.” He contends that the essay is most profound when it is modest.

So, lack of modesty is among the dragons one faces in writing the essay. In reading and judging thousands of essays for publication, I have cringed when speakers take it upon themselves to stand at the pulpit railing. They forget that the most effective essays communicate softly: “Here,” they say, “come and see that all of us are really very similar and most loveable when we move toward healing, connecting and appreciating.”

When writers adopt a high, didactic diction, which puts the speaker center stage through insistence on being right, they may be acting under the influence of early American essayists, who were clergymen discussing ethics and manners and social and national progress in sermons. As they spread the influence of the pulpit from moral issues to intellectual and literary concerns—as they did according to Chauncey Starkweather in his special introduction to Essays of American Essayists (Colonial Press, 1900)—they shaped the tone of the essay for decades.

Today, however, we are learning grace and beauty more modestly in essays from writers, parents, doctors, psychologists, poets and physicists, among others. In anthologies of essays, we learn from those who have had organ transplants, became blind, traced their heritage, returned to ethnic observances, practiced meditation, walked to the corner store or taken on nontraditional jobs. Special theme anthologies of essays appear on topics such as becoming American, aging, handling grief, mothering and fathering, dealing with criminals in the family and recovering from cancer. Each year several anthologies present the best essays published in the preceding year’s periodicals, such as The Best American Essays (Houghton Mifflin) and The Anchor Essay Annual (Anchor). There is also The Beacon Best of 1999: Creative Writing by Women and Men of All Colors (Beacon).

Whatever their background and area of interest, today’s essayists share knowledge that there is a psychological and emotional home to be found in the center of life’s busy swirl. They work to find this home and keep the swirl from subsuming their idiosyncratic connection to the world. They know that their essays not only honor the idiosyn-cratic connection to the world but find universal essence in this connection.

May Sarton writes in The Rewards of Living a Solitary Life, published in the April 8, 1974, New York Times, that after coming back home from a lecture trip where she has seen a lot of people and talked a lot, she is “full to the brim with experience that needs to be sorted out.

“Then for a little while the house feels huge and empty,” she says, “and I wonder where my self is hiding:

… It takes awhile, as I watch the surf blowing up in fountains at the end of the field, but the moment comes when the world falls away, and the self emerges again from the deep unconscious, bringing back all I have recently experienced to be explored and slowly understood, when I can converse again with my hidden powers, and so grow, and so be renewed, till death do us part.”

And so essayists come to honor the moments seated at a desk beside or above or below the hum of daily life to find flow and, using language, come to some understanding, if only a momentary one. They invite a reader to understand, too—not via a preached lesson but from a lesson lived and written about so it explodes inside the reader as it did inside the writer in self-reflection. In today’s climate of argument, this moment—between essayist and self, between self and essay, between essayist and reader—is a sacred one.

Psychologist Deborah Tannen wrote in a Jan. 14, 1998, New York Times essay, The Triumph of the Yell, that intellectual inquiry is not in essence the game of attack and counterattack that our culture has made it into, the spectacles “that result when extremes clash” and are “thought to get higher ratings or larger readership.” Truth, she says, resides not in simplified extremes, but in a crystal of many sides.

The essay may thrive in today’s world precisely because it “courts and seduces agreement, even co-opts it,” as writer Cynthia Ozick has said.

The essay’s inclination is to ask the writer to do what the artist does, to consider life and get down the glow of one or more of its sparks. Essays demonstrate the capacity we have for observance and open-heartedness. When we write and read about making and losing friends, moving, hearing children’s nightmares and stories, remembering parents and grandparents, planting gardens, exploring new places, even walking to the same old store, we are struggling to stay in touch with life’s meaning in today’s secular society. Just like with any artistic process, the end result is dependent on a little magic (the place where working “in flow” takes us). When writing essays, we remind ourselves that if we can write so that others experience flow as we did when we put our thoughts together in self-reflection, then we have gone way beyond “just personal experience.” We have recorded what it is to be human and called this up in others.

This article appeared in the November 2002 issue of Writer’s Digest.

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