Recently I have been making a study of the essay.
The form goes by a few names these days: creative nonfiction, personal essay, short first-person nonfiction, memoir. I visited the library and pulled a few books that would give me a selection, such as The Art of the Personal Essay and In Brief: Short Takes on the Personal. I selected two editions of The Best American Essays, one edited by Adam Gopnik and the other by Mary Oliver. The Mary Oliver edition, as seems appopriate considering a poet’s ability to whittle, was half the size of every other edition on the shelf.
Sometimes reading this way, critically, to learn craft, is hard on my ego. "I will never be able to do this," I think. "I can't put words together that well, I have nothing to say, my stories are not interesting, what do I even know about writing?"
But sometimes I read something that inspires me to shove that whole whiney voice in the closet and get out my fastest pen and my most comfortable notebook. In the middle of an essay by Harriet Doerr called "Low Tide At Four," in In Brief, about a memory of a summer's day at the beach with her family, I found this gem of a paragraph:
"Mrs. Winfield has survived everything: her husband's death and the death of a child, earthquakes, floods, and fires, surgical operations and dental work, the accidents and occasional arrest of her grandchildren. All these, as well as intervals of a joy so intense it can no longer be remembered."
Essays are hard. Or, more correctly, good essays are hard. You have to show conflict, change, character, scene. You have to tell your very personal story in a way that is universal. The way I love my child has to really be the way you, my reader, love your child. I’m not very good at it yet.
Mostly I go running at the topic, clearing the phlegm, and write my way through it. I don’t always know what I’ve learned until I write it. Or sometimes until after I write it three or four different ways. I forget to show in my eagerness to tell, and I bang you over the head with my learning.
I’m still learning to be deft, like I aspire to be. But they say reading is the best way to write. And so I am reading. And reading and reading.