Monday, June 10
This week, I am teaching the essay form at a Candlelight Writing Workshop. It only makes sense, then, that I discuss it here.
An essay is a conversation. It can take one of four forms:
Here’s a pretty cogent explanation from Brown University. Read carefully, and follow the prompt at the end of the explanation.
1. IDEA: the general proposition or thesis that your essay argues about its TOPIC, whether it’s spelled out fully at the start or revealed gradually. It should be (1) true, but (2) arguable–not obviously true, and (3) limited enough in scope to be argued in a short composition and with available evidence. (In the early stages, you might think of your idea as a HYPOTHESIS, to help keep it open to change as you test it in drafting.)
2. MOTIVE: a reason for writing, suggested at the start of the essay and echoed throughout, establishing why you thought the topic needed taking up and why the reader should care (the “so what” factor). Perhaps
• the truth isn’t what one would expect, or what it might appear to be on first reading
• there’s an interesting wrinkle in the matter, a complexity
• the standard opinion of this work (as great, or as -dull or minor) needs challenging
• there’s a contradiction, or paradox, or tension here that needs some sorting out
• there’s an ambiguity here, something unclear, that could mean two or more things
• there’s a mystery or puzzle here, a question that presents itself
• we can learn something interesting about a larger phenomenon by studying this smaller one
• there’s a published view of this that’s mistaken, or needs qualifying
• he published views conflict
• this seemingly tangential or insignificant matter is actually interesting, or important
• and so on.
3. STRUCTURE: the shape your idea takes, the sequence of sub-topics and sections through which it is unfolded and developed. This happens by the complementary activities of CONVINCING your reader and EXPLORING your topic.
• Convincing requires you to push forward insistently, marshalling evidence for your idea, in a firm, logical structure of clear sections–each section proving further the truth of the idea.
• Exploring requires you to slow down and contemplate the various aspects of your topic–its complications, difficulties, alternatives to your view, assumptions, backgrounds, asides, nuances and implications.
• The challenge is to make your essay’s structure firm and clear while still allowing for complication–without making it feel mechanical or like a laundry list. (Just as you might think of your idea, at the draft stage, as a hypothesis, you might think of your structure, when it’s a provisional outline of sections, as merely a plan.)
4. EVIDENCE: the facts or details, summarized or quoted, that you use to support, demonstrate, and prove your main idea and sub-ideas. Evidence needs to be
• ample and concrete–enough quotation and vivid summary so readers can experience the texture of the work, its sound and feel, so they feel able to judge your analysis
• explicitly connected to the idea–so it’s always clear exactly what inference is being made from the evidence, exactly how the details support the idea or sub-idea.
5. EXPLANATION: bits of background information, summary, context to orient the reader who isn’t familiar with the text you’re discussing. This includes
• essential plot information
• precise locating of scene or comment (e.g. “in the opening scene/ the climactic scene/ the opening volley, where the protagonist/ where the author/ where the critic wonders, considers, proposes…., we find….)
• setting up a quotation, telling who’s speaking it, in what context, and what the reader should be listening for in it.
6. COHERENCE: smooth flow of argument created by
• transition sentences that show how the next paragraph or section follows from the preceding one, thus sustaining momentum
• echoing key words or resonant phrases quoted or stated earlier.
7. IMPLICATION: places where you speculate on the general significance of your particular analysis of a particular text; you suggest what issues your argument raises about the author’s work generally, or about works of its kind (e.g. all short stories), or about the way fiction or criticism works, etc.
8. PRESENCE: the sensation of life in the writing, of a mind invested in and focused on a subject, freely directing and developing the essay–not surrendering control (out of laziness or fear) to easy ideas, sentiments, or stock phrases.
Prompt for this week:
Read these two essays.
Both of these essays focus on a simple tool. One, a knife, the other, a piece of chalk. Read each once for content. Then discard the idea of content as useful, and read for tone, structure, pacing – cadence, if you will – the use of longer vs. shorter sentences and the location of those sentences in regard to one another. Essays are conversations, but complex conversations.
After you read these essays, take a walk. Take a notebook if your memory is as faulty as mine. Observe carefully. Watch the ants scurry across the sidewalk, like jaywalkers on city streets. Watch the inchworm as it creeps. Study the nature of a dandelion, and describe its spindly petals that clump into a wildflower both sunny and strangling. That’s an essay in itself. Look at the sky – what is it doing? The clouds. The breeze. The red Volkswagen bug chugging by. Notice everything. Put these notes on paper, in no coherent order, line by line as you would a poem but without the labor a poem requires. Keep it simple.
Then think about the bigger picture – as you consider your walk, what larger concepts occurred to you? The contrast between an inchworm and an ant – what a different life! The rebirth of the Volkswagen Beetle, but with a new cache; did the modern marketing work in giving it new life? Is it possible to resuscitate an icon? The worth of an entity, in this case a dandelion, that chokes out other living things, but is in itself a living thing. One that is edible, pleasant to look at, and murderous.
Write 800 words using your descriptions, your premise, and your thinking regarding your premise. Don’t hold yourself to any standard; just get your thoughts down. Reread the essay explanation above after you’ve finished. Is what you’ve written following the tenets of the essay? If so, good work! If not, revise. Revise. Revise.
Next Monday, read your essay aloud to yourself – or anyone who will listen. If you are a Candlelighter or about to be, send it along to me. I’d be delighted to read it.