Good Prose: Essay

The line between essay and memoir is particularly porous, write Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd. And, indeed, if these little stories I collect here are a bit memoiresque, then they are at least—in part—essay too.
But when I read chapter 4—Essays—in their book GoodProse: The Art of Nonfiction, Kidder and Todd help me see that my essays are incomplete. I like to share observances from this life—capture a bit of the holy of the every day. But perhaps I don’t always put forth a clear idea.

What gives you license to write essays? Only the presence of an idea and the ability to make it your own. People speak of the “personal essay” as a form, but all essays are personal. They may make sweeping pronouncements, but they bear the stamp of an individual mind. Original ideas, those hinges on which an era turns, are rare. It is unlikely that you will write The Origin of Species. Or that you will be Emerson. But originality and profundity are not identical. Profound ideas bear repeating, or rediscovery, and many original ideas do not. Essays are like poems in that they may confront old wisdom in a fresh way. That Shakespeare wrote of the bittersweetness of parting did not preclude Emily Dickinson from doing so, too. Essays illustrate the truth that, just as no word has an exact synonym, no idea can be exactly paraphrased. Essays often gain their authority from a particular sensibility’s fresh apprehension of generalized wisdom. But the point is not to brush aside the particular in favor of the general, not to make everything into a grand idea, but to treat something specific with such attention that it magnifies into significance…

I love how this paragraph exposes the essay. It says the essay must have something to say. All the gorgeous writing in the world will just float away if there is nothing to anchor it. Something to say. And there is an art to saying it. The idea doesn’t have to hit the reader up aside the head, but it must be expressed. Somehow.
Kidder and Todd give us rich examples to illustrate this point.
I think I need to read more essays.
Some other points gleaned from this chapter:
Essays are the natural medium of ideas. (pp. 67)
Essayists tend to argue with themselves. (pp. 67)
Essays are governed by associative more than by strictly linear thought. (pp.68)
No subject is too small to notice or too big to contemplate. (pp. 69)
Essays depend heavily on nerve and poise and on having something idiosyncratic to say. (pp.78)
Got that? Let’s make better essays.
Second Draft:
Read one of these essays (or more) that the authors talk about in the book:
Walking by Henry David Thoreau
Street Haunting by Virginia Woolf
The White Album by Joan Didion

*Reflect on what makes these pieces essays. We can talk about them here if you like (after I read them :)) How does reading these works expose your own writing to new light?

*Try an exercise: Write an essay that–as the authors say–treats something specific with such attention that it magnifies into significance. Make the transitory eternal, as Theodor Adorno is quoted as saying. If you post it on your blog, link it here. I’m working on mine and will post soon. Check out this example by Annie Dillard. She’s a master of this.

On Wednesdays, we’re discussing Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd’s book Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction. Next week we’ll discuss chapter five: Beyond Accuracy.

Other posts in this series: 



  1. says

    This was my favorite chapter! My columns are essays, and although I work so hard on them, they seem somewhat silly and self-indulgent. Kidder and Todd made me look at them differently–“No one gives you permission to write this way. It is like taking a bite of the apple that is the world. You do it. You get away with it. Soon experience entitles you to do it again.” Just turned in No. 64. No. 65 is ready to go.

  2. Donna McMorrow says

    I’m enjoying this series. I’ve added the book to my wish list for the summer. It sounds wonderful. Thank you for sharing.

  3. says

    It really is an art, isn’t it? I consider myself more of an “essayist” than anything else – not that I’m an expert or anything, but I love putting out my own idiosyncratic view of the world into words. It’s not exactly poetry, but it sure feels like it to me when I write. So glad to see some validation from these authors here!

  4. Shelly Miller says

    Love this series Laura, just got caught up on your posts. Read Annie’s piece, she is so ever good, isn’t she? I have so many books I want to read but I just may have to get this one. You are such a great teacher. I think this series would make a great workshop somewhere at some point. Just sayin’.


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