Yesterday, as I was hiking by Gunpowder Falls, I started thinking about Doctor Who. Yes, I know, it’s unusual for someone to be hiking in this beautiful, human-free environment and think of a science fiction TV show about a man who travels, it seems, mostly to post-apocalyptic urban environments, but now you have a glimpse into my mind. (Frightening, huh?)

Actually, the show came up because I was thinking about how to explain essay-writing to one of my students. This week she turned in a really powerful piece about her sister’s mental illness, and the essay starts very strongly with a scene of great violence between the sister and the mother as my student watched. The piece continues with brilliant honesty and then ends with sort of an abstract statement/cliche about how the writer’s sister will always be her sister. My suggestion for the student was that she return the original scene that started the piece.

As I said this, she hesitated. I could almost see her mind going full-speed – But you told us to have a sense of discovery in the essay? This is my discovery. – but as most students do, she took my advice and walked away. I realized I had not explained the idea of the essay very well. Hence, Doctor Who’s TARDUS.

The TARDUS, for those of you less geeky than I, is the Doctor’s space ship in which he travels time and space. It looks like an old British police phone box on the outside – think phone book times two – all painted blue with windows and such. But when someone opens the door, the TARDUS is huge. As the Doctor tells each new visitor, “It’s bigger on the inside than on the outside.”

This is what I realized as I hiked yesterday. An essay has to be bigger on the inside than on the outside. The piece may be one scene or one moment or one observation, but within that thing, wholly contained by it must be something larger – an insight or “discovery” that makes the thing worth reading.

I think of Annie Dillard’s weasel or Pico Iyer’s airport or JoAnn Beard’s screen porch, all moments or memories that contain something so much larger within them.

Let me know what you think of this idea, and if you have more essays that are examples of this, please share. I’m just testing this out, so I hope it makes sense.

I am hosting a big book giveaway on Friday. I’ll be divvying out – FOR FREE – more than 50 titles. If you spread the word about the giveaway, you get first dibs. If you comment on the post and name a title you want, I’ll use a random number generator to decide who gets the book (if there’s more than one taker). So please, stay tuned. There’s some good ones in the stack. And please, pass the giveaway along. I’d love to get all these guys into good homes. (By the way, the leftovers will be given to Goodwill. No book left behind. :))

A Police Box– A Police Box Like the TARDIS, although I expect this one is smaller on the inside.