We have talked a lot about fiction and writing novels as well as short stories. You might think that outside of journalism and blogging there isn’t much left for an author. But there is another area of writing that we’ve all heard of but don’t often think about. They are Essays.
Essays are not just that bane of every school child’s existence–essays are where some of the best works of western literature can be found.
We shall go to the fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia, and ask the holy guru “what is an essay”: “Essays have been defined as “prose composition with a focused subject of discussion” or a “long, systematic discourse”.
Well–that was distinctly un-enlightening.
In her introduction to The Best American Essays 1988, Annie Dillard claims that “The essay can do everything a poem can do, and everything a short story can do—everything but fake it.”
The word essay also means to attempt–and why this meaning is important will emerge later.
But let’s take a look at essays, starting with Sir Francis Bacon, renaissance author, courtier, and father of deductive reasoning. The life and works of this English essayist and statesman had a major impact in his day and still resonate in modern literature. Essayes: Religious Meditations. Places of Perswasion and Disswasion. Seene and Allowed (1597) was his first published book.
The 1999 edition of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations includes 91 quotations from the Essays. No one gets that many quotes unless his work has struck a chord with centuries of readers.
- “Knowledge itself is power.”
- “Riches are a good handmaid, but the worst mistress”
Aldous Huxley‘s book Jesting Pilate, an Intellectual Holiday had as its epigraph, “What is Truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer” quoted from Bacon’s essay “Of Truth”. Huxley himself was a brilliant essayist and, according to Wikipedia, he defined essays in this way: “essays belong to a literary species whose extreme variability can be studied most effectively within a three-poled frame of reference”. These three poles (or worlds in which the essay may exist) are:
- The personal and the autobiographical: The essayists that feel most comfortable in this pole “write fragments of reflective autobiography and look at the world through the keyhole of anecdote and description”.
- The objective, the factual, and the concrete-particular: The essayists that write from this pole “do not speak directly of themselves, but turn their attention outward to some literary or scientific or political theme. Their art consists on setting forth, passing judgement upon, and drawing general conclusions from the relevant data”.
- The abstract-universal: In this pole “we find those essayists who do their work in the world of high abstractions”, who are never personal and who seldom mention the particular facts of experience. (end quote)
Essays offer an author the opportunity to use prose to expound ideas and values. Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) was the first author to describe his work as essays–by which he meant attempts. He used the term to characterize these short pieces as “attempts” to put his thoughts into writing. Montaigne’s essays grew out of his work that was then known as “commonplacing”: published books that were essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: medical recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Think of them as mini-encyclopedias.
Sir Francis Bacon and Aldous Huxley are two men whose works shaped modern literature and they did it though essays.
I highly recommend reading essays as a way to expand your imagination. Essays offer us ideas, philosophical, sociological, and ask us to examine our values. This examination of the world through the eyes of essayists offers us many insights which will make their way into our own work in ways both seen and unseen, such as Huxley’s reference of Bacon’s work.
Some contemporary essayists I have read and who left an impression on me (some good, some bad) are:
Norman Mailer was definitely not my cup of tea, but he might be yours. Great writing is not always comfortable, but it always challenges your view of the world. I still didn’t like it.
Essays most frequently appear in magazines, so that is where to look for awesome contemporary work by today’s best-known authors of mainstream fiction–and much of it is sitting around in waiting-rooms the world over. If you fly Alaska Airlines (as I usually always do) take a look at that magazine they provide you with. You will find essays by authors like Scott Driscoll.
Essays are also frequently referred to as “Creative Non-Fiction” which sounds like an oxymoron–after all, when we are growing up “creative truthing” was called “lying.” Get creative with your ideas and philosophies–put them in an essay.