I love liminal things. Fall and spring. Dawn and dusk. The first moments of introduction and those lingering seconds before the goodbye.

Maybe this is why I love essays so much: they sit in the space between things – not poems but not stories, not formally structured but also not without form.

Silk threads - קורי עכבישphoto © 2008 Eran Finkle | more info (via: Wylio)

Of late, I’m reading Brenda Miller‘s profound collection of essays Blessing of the Animals, and I’m back in love with the form again. Brenda has a way of articulating the fleeting ideas that most of us let breeze past us when we aren’t paying attention. She takes those moments that we might miss – the moment of a film where we feel our souls rise up or the way an animal can call forth the searing string of love that has been absent in our lives – and spins them in language so we can see them. She is a master essayist.

The essay form lets its writer wander through moments and ideas. It doesn’t demand the limitations of academic writing – transitions and explicit thesis statements – and it doesn’t require the elements of fiction – plot, characters, setting, etc. Essays are, as their name implies, attempts at articulation. They are built of ideas and experience. The best essays, in my opinion, speak honestly and fluidly of what it is to live this life.

My favorite essayists lay out their honesty with beauty and grace: Brenda Miller, JoAnn Beard, E. B. White, Joan Didion, Edward Hoagland, Lia Purpura, Scott Russell Sanders, James Baldwin, and Annie Dillard. They have a way of taking a moment, a thought and stretching it out so that it’s so tense it might break but doesn’t; instead, that instant hangs like the gossamer thread of a spider’s web, and it shimmers in its fragility.

Maybe this is why I’m drawn to write the form, too. I don’t have a full grasp of the world; I don’t see with omniscience, and I don’t actually know what is beyond my own experience. So instead, I turn inward and try to uncoil the moments of my own life. Try to find what made me sting or glisten in those moments. Try to capture the instant in my hands. And hope it shimmers in that in-between place for someone else, too.

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Elements and Lyric Essays