I write essays about what I am thinking about. Topics tend to unfold around my obsessions. Several years ago I wrote about the anger, which exploded in me as I encountered the cognitive dissonance of being a working teacher and being a doc student in curriculum and instruction. Everything, which could be wrong was being done in the schools, anything, which could be a glimmer of hope was being snuffed out faster than cockroaches in a Raid commercial. A friend of mine, a fine essayist, said she wrote from anger. She would, she said, drill down through the layers of her emotion to find a deep anger in her topics and that anger would be the driving force behind her essays. I find anger to be too volatile, although I often become angry about my topics. I think anything you think about in an authentic manner becomes emotional. After all we are emotional animals who invest part of ourselves into what we are thinking about, but that does not necessarily mean that the writing becomes emotional rants.
The essay is a way: a way of thinking, a way of discovering what it is you are thinking, a way of testing ideas, rather than a test of what you know about ideas. Montaigne called the essay a wandering along the way. Virginia Woolf said it was the mind tracking itself. I like the essay because of its freedom, the flow of thoughts running along the page. I like the discovery, the unfolding of the topic as I write. The way the structure eventually reveals itself as the thoughts progress. In a class on the Essay I took when I was in grad school at Bread Loaf with Shirley Brice Heath, we defined the essay as conversation with oneself. It is a multi-vocalic conversation, almost a call-and-response as you move through the ideas you are exploring. The writer questions, doubts and explains to herself the subject in the process of writing about the subject. It is a process of writing where the process of thinking is reflected in the written product, where the enjoyment of reading the essay replicates the enjoyment of writing the essay.
It is similar in many ways to sitting on the back porch with erudite friends who are having a serious or jovial conversation over a glass of wine. The essay is convivial and democratic, rather than autocratic. Just as in the free flow of conversation, the participants in the conversation rarely have a pre-planned agenda of where the conversation is going to end, or even a pre-planned topic, the essay starts where it starts and eventually comes to an end. In hindsight the end makes sense when one looks back over the course of the conversation. Almost as if one had planned it all out on the page. Almost.
(September 21, 2013)