This morning, I was reading the brilliant final essay in Brenda Miller’s collection Blessing of the Animals. The piece – “Runes and Incantations” – begins like this:
I’ve always believed in signs, and will do almost anything to predict the future. Often the first to pray open my fortune amid the remains of a Chinese dinner, I inhale the smell of the cookie itself as prophecy: that honeyed shellac, the faintest bitter whiff of lemon.
Here are ten other things I love:
10. The focus of an essay. These are studies in minutiae typically. It’s like taking a microscope lens to the water in the dog’s water bowl outside my office and seeing, suddenly, the whole world write small.
9. The lack of rules. Unlike fiction, poetry, or even memoir, where people often want to lay rules of form and pace and structure, the essay is free from such confines. A piece can be broken up into fragments or woven together tightly like a tapestry. It can be a list or a rambling journey through idea. Everything is allowed in an essay.
8. Clarity. Everything is allowed in an essay except fuzziness, obfuscation, and obtuseness. The most masterful essays have a clear purpose, often unstated but clear, that gives the piece a sharpness that pricks at the reader with a deceptive and surprising strength. A great example is “Notes of a Native Son” by James Baldwin.
7. Wending. The essays I love best wander and traverse great paths around their subject. They wend through the stories and ideas like children playing in a forest on a warm spring day. They are not usually straightforward – as we teach academic essays to be; instead, they weave through the ideas and pull together a purpose from that wandering.
6. The language. My favorite essays rest their sides right up against poetry. They employ the tools of poetry – rhythm, sound play, symbol, maybe even line breaks – even as they keep the writing crisp and clear. Some masters of this are Brenda Miller, who I quoted above, and Lia Purpura, whose new book Rough Likeness just came out this month.
5. Personal Voice. When I read Barbara Kingsolver’s Small Wonders, I fell in love with Kingsolver in a whole new way. She was speaking to me. I wasn’t hearing a fictional narrator or a disembodied voice; I was hearing her. The essay form makes that voice so intimate, so personal, so close. After I read a collection of someone’s essays, I often feel like I’ve met that person over a day’s work of coffee.
4. Buried exposition. In our world of soundbites and status updates, we have become accustomed to knowing “the point” right away without a lot of effort or subtle work on our part. But in an essay, that exposition – the explanation of events – is buried into the layers of the work. It’s something that doesn’t stand out on its; we have to work to find it.
3. Controlled Emotion. As powerful as the emotional content of many essays is – I think of JoAnn Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter” or “Apologia” by Barry Lopez – that emotion is carefully structured and restrained by the language in which it is written. Somehow, thus, it becomes more powerful, maybe in the way it subtle invades your own complacent state as reader.
2. The sense of discovery. Because of this wending and burying and subtlety, essays give us the ability to be absolutely surprised by what we know and feel through them. As when a crowd hears a poem’s final line and releases that “ah” of breath that escapes unbidden, great essays shift something in us without our awareness that we were led to that shift. Bernard Cooper, Annie Dillard, Diane Ackerman – they enrapt us in their language and in so doing teach us.
1. The endings. When I read the end of a well-wrought essay, I feel both changed and reassured, challenged and comforted. I find my way there has been beautiful and easy, even as I feel the sense of who I am as a person and a writer has shifted in some massive way. My sense of self feels like an iceberg moving in slow, steady ways that I can only begin to see the faintest blue edge of. Ah, the end of a good essay. Nothing like it.
Here’s how Miller’s “Runes and Incantations” ends:
As we chant together, my mouth opens wide and these lovely vowels emerge: breath distilled to incantation, strong enough to straddle dimensions, seductive enough to coax anyone back from where she may have wandered alone.
What do you love about essays? What essayists do you love?