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…
*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.