Saturday, 15 August 2015

The Art Of The Essay

Essay" is from the French word essayer, meaning "to try," and what you should know about essay writing is that it can be an even more trying endeavor, if you let it, than essay reading.

In high school my English teachers, with their uncanny talent for ossifying literature, sacrificed us to the angry gods of Francis Bacon and Charles Lamb and the like, so that to our young and callow and impatient minds the essay was a dull and lifeless thing. Whenever we were assigned to write an essay, we assumed that our creations had to be as stultifying as the ones we'd read. Our teachers, forever on the lookout for violations of spelling and phraseology, never indicated that we might write about something that engaged us, in an informal style that would be more like speaking than writing.

Who knew that writing could be invigorating and fun -- that in an essay one could set out to - one could try -- to engage the reader in a conversation, a dialogue?

And then there was the all-dreaded word minimum, hanging like a pall over all our essay assignments. We came to believe that, unless we had four or five hundred words to lavish on a subject, we would not do it justice.

But did not Mr. Shakespeare say, "Brevity is the soul of wit?" And did not Mr. Lincoln make do with a mere 272 words in composing the greatest oration - the greatest essay - in American history?

Imagine Honest Little Abe in the tenth grade, presenting his essay to the class.

"This will never do, Abraham," the teacher tells him. "You're short by a page and a half."

In the hands of a Mrs. Sutter, my tenth-grade English teacher - God rest her soul - the Gettysburg Address as we know it might have been lost to posterity - eviscerated by accretion.

Let us therefore highly resolve to write what is in our hearts, irrespective of length, in words which ring true to our selves, even though they turn out to be wrong ("The world will little note nor long remember what we say here..."). Therefore let us be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us, and let us try - let us essay -- with our last full measure of devotion, to say what we mean, in words that are simple and pure, so that this undertaking shall have a new birth of freedom, and that essays of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

I'm a writer living near Nashville, and maybe the only one within a 50-mile radius who's never written a song. Writing fiction is my preference, but journalism provides my daily bread. I'm from the Clark Kent school of journalism -- I never carry a pad to take notes, but rely on my super-memory. Actually, in my stories I make up quotes, making people sound more interesting and well-spoken than they are, so they never object. You know how Truman Capote ("In Cold Blood") gave birth to the "non-fiction novel?" I'm working on popularizing the "fictional news" story.

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