Why We Write Essays
The essayist is often described as a unique, albeit content creature. As E.B. White once wrote, “A writer who has his sights trained on the Nobel Prize or other earthly triumphs had best write a novel, a poem, or a play, and leave the essayist to ramble about, content with living a free life and enjoying the satisfactions of a somewhat undisciplined existence.” In other words, the essay does not carry the romanticized reputation of a novel or poem, rarely does fame and fortune accompany the essayist and seldom does an essayist appear at the top of a bestseller list.
So why does one choose to write essays? Perhaps because the essay is a method of reflection, a way to learn about oneself, and to pass along acquired knowledge to others. Since its invention in the sixteenth century by Michel de Montaigne, the essay genre has become a repository of reflective experience and knowledge. It is the genre for those who want to explore and discover things about themselves and their lives in the context of humanity at large. More than any other reason, I tend to believe the essay is written for the individual—for the self.
Choosing to write essays is similar to an artist who decides to paint for his or her pleasure instead of for financial or personal gain. Rarely can one make a living from the work they create, and financial gain is not what drives the artist. Instead, the motivation comes from within and for personal reasons. The father of the essay, Montaigne, writes that he created the essay for his own means and not as a way to receive praise from readers or the public. In his words:
“Had my intention beene to forestal and purchase the world’s opinion and favour, I would surely have adorned myselfe more quaintly, or kept a more grave and solemne march. I desire thereun to be delineated in mine own genuine, simple and ordinarie fashion, without contention, art or study; for it is myselfe I pourtray.”
In other words, Montaigne did not write essays for fame or fortune, but to be himself, to explore himself, and for himself. For Montaigne, the self is one of the driving forces behind the essay.
"The reader is invited to join the writer on a physical, mental, even spiritual journey. Along the way, there may be many side roads and stops and starts and distractions."
But does this really explain the appeal of the essay genre? Or is it just a way to explain why essayists feel compelled to write about themselves? It’s difficult for me to consider writing for the self without contemplating selfishness. I blame this on a combination of acquired knowledge and personal hang-ups. That is to say, the more I learn, the more cynical I become. I’m a born skeptic, and as a result, I question anything and everything for its ulterior motives with a wary eye. For example, what is to say, an exploration of personal experience is nothing more than a cleverly disguised ploy for recognition. Or that an essay about one’s childhood is nothing more than a desperate cry for attention.
Right about now, many of you may be thinking, so what? Who cares what the reason is—especially if it’s a fascinating read. Something I can both agree and disagree with, and here is why: If one is honest with their intentions, then who cares? But if the author makes grand claims of altruistic intentions, when in fact, he or she is instead seeking an ego stroke, then I disagree—the truth zealot surfaces in me, and I feel deceived. E.B. White was extremely aware of this dilemma, of self-exposition, of the egoist—of intention. As he states in the foreword to his collection of essays:
“I think some people find the essay the last resort of the egoist, a much too self-conscious and self-serving form for their taste; they feel that it is presumptuous of a writer to assume that his little excursions or small observations will interest the reader. There is some justice in their complaint. I have always been aware that I am by nature that I am self-absorbed and egotistical; to write of myself to the extent I have done indicates a too great attention to my own life, not enough to the lives of others.”
White freely admits he enjoys writing essays for the satisfaction it brings to his ego. He seems to say, as long as one acknowledges that they are writing for the sake of petting their ego—then so be it.
The thing is, many of us (including me) have a hard time being as honest with ourselves as E.B. White. As human beings, we inherently refuse to question our motives. I know I’m guilty of this and have a hard time looking at my motives for writing—especially with the same discerning eye that I employ to hone-in on other’s motives. It’s like a typo in a sentence that others see plain as day, yet I blindingly overlook. My point being, I think we are all somewhat guilty of ignoring our intentions for writing.
Scott Russell Sanders has a slightly different take on why he writes essays. The essay for Sanders is something more than to satisfy the ego. As he states, “… the world is a larger and more interesting place than my ego.” His idea is that the essay is a way to write about the impersonal through the personal. He also feels that essays give voice to writing, a real voice that is often lacking in fiction and other forms of writing. In Sanders own words:
“Most of the fashions in fiction of the past twenty years have led away from candor—toward irony, satire, artsy jokes, close-lipped coyness, anything but a serious, direct statement of what the author thinks and feels…. The essay appeals to me because it is not hedged round by these literary inhibitions. You may speak without disguise of what moves and worries and excites you.”
Put differently, the reason aspiring writers feel compelled to write about our own experiences is to tell a story and make a point about humanity in a big picture way. Both Sanders and White can make everything they write about seem important and filled with insight.
"In a way, the essay is like therapy. Just as a therapist pulls information out of a patient, the essay does the same. It allows us to take episodes in our lives and turn them over and over in our minds, put them down on paper, and contemplate how we fit into the big picture of humanity."
Then there is the idea that the essay is a sort of journey. The reader is invited to join the writer on a physical, mental, even spiritual journey. Along the way, there may be many side roads and stops and starts and distractions. William Howarth says of the essay:
“As texts they open doors, take to the road, launch a stream of discourse. Their authors begin and move out, heading for uncertain destinations, carrying readers through a succession of events that pass like the flow of experience. Essays provide us with safe passage to ideas, arguments, stories with characters and dialogue-always unfolded as an ongoing process.”
It’s no coincidence that many essays involve real journeys. Many of my own essays are centered around travel and adventures throughout the United States and Europe. Travels that move the essay along and parallel the life lessons I learned from them. Through essays, I have reflected on how I have been traveling since the day I was born. Like Charles Kuralt, for many years, I spent a life “On the Road,” and in doing so never gave myself a chance to find a place to call home. The essay allowed me to come to a realization that I may have otherwise never contemplated.
In a way, the essay is like therapy. Just as a therapist pulls information out of a patient, the essay does the same. It allows us to take episodes in our lives and turn them over and over in our minds, put them down on paper, and contemplate how we fit into the big picture of humanity. From this perspective, the essay is less of an outlet for the ego and more a massaging of the mind. Because one must think deeply about his or her personal experiences, it brings about a flood of forgotten memories. For example, I once wrote an essay about the apple orchard on our property in which I grew up playing and riding motorcycles. Through the process of writing, I began to remember forgotten details. I recalled how one summer the trees were covered with 17-year Cicadas, and the time I accidentally drove our lawn tractor into the six-foot deep ditch that separated the orchard from the road. Each memory sparked another, and I was even able to determine what year the Cicadas arrived, and what kind of trees we had in the orchard. If I hadn’t embarked on this personal journey, I might not have recalled the memories.
In the past, I’ve written quite a bit about my father. His passing in 1997 was a difficult period in my life, and in many ways, one I came to terms with through writing. In addition to my father’s passing, during that same period, I went through a divorce, was in an automobile crash, and generally living a reckless lifestyle. I had a lot of bottled-up anger and resentment, and as a result, shoved much of the memories of my father’s death in a closet and locked the door. It wasn’t until years later when I began to write essays in college that the closet door re-opened. A tidal wave of memories rushed out, many I didn’t want to remember, and my writing often reflected it. I found it hard to ignore things I wanted to leave behind. Even more surprising were the happy moments I recalled. A period in my life that I thought was nothing but negative, turned out to be better than I thought. The process of writing became a healing process worth the time and effort.
"... the essay is a living and dynamic process that is in a constant state of change and evolution. We must mine our memories and other sources to find the real reason for writing an essay."
William Howarth refers to the effort it takes to write essays in his “Itinerant Passages.” He states:
“Ever since Montaigne introduced the principle of casual, rumpled discourse, essays do not march smartly forward. To the linear models we could add that text is also a web, a maze, a dark and tangled forest.”
In other words, the essay is a living and dynamic process that is in a constant state of change and evolution. We must mine our memories and other sources to find the real reason for writing an essay. Again, it is like a therapy session, albeit spontaneous and wandering. In this respect, the essay serves the self in a much more positive light than merely satisfying the ego.
Others write essays to replace an oral tradition or preserve a culture that is slowly fading from existence. To add to or preserve the repository of knowledge about one’s heritage or ethnic group. N. Scott Momaday and Judith Ortiz Cofer are two such examples. Momaday writes of his Native American culture in a way reminiscent of his tribe’s oral tradition. The oral tradition was used for years to pass on knowledge and wisdom to those of the younger generation. In some respects, Momaday’s essays are all he has left of his heritage. And because his culture is slowly beginning to slip from existence, he is preserving the legends and cultural traditions of his Kiowa tribe.
Likewise, Judith Ortiz Cofer’s essays are a way to preserve the oral tradition of her Puerto Rican culture. Many of her essays revolve around the storytelling and legends told by her grandmother. The tales are often fanciful and may seem unbelievable and foreign to non-natives. Still, her point is to preserve the culture and pass along the same stories as her relatives and ancestors did before her. Stories, that as Cofer tells it, were brought to Puerto Rico by Spaniards, who had gotten them from Greek and Roman tales of the past, “tales modified in clever ways to fit changing times.” These stories were a way to pass the time for mother and child in conditions difficult for most to understand, such as the often patriarchal society and accepted roles of men and women that seem alien to those not part of the culture. As Cofer states, they were, “stories that moralized or amused according to… who told them.” Through Cofer’s essays, timeless tales continue to move their way through generations of Puerto Rican families and teach moral lessons.
For Cofer, the essay is a modern continuation of her culture’s oral tradition of storytelling but in an adapted and modified style. It explains her tendency to fill essays with legendary allegorical tales. However, Cofer does add some “self” to her writing by exploring and questioning her heritage at the same time. In one particular essay, “Silent Dancing,” she examines some of the accepted norms of her culture. Such as the need to abort a child that was fathered by an American and not a Puerto Rican. In others, she attempts to come to terms with her mixed childhood. Having spent time living in both the United States and Puerto Rico, she is not quite American or Puerto Rican. For Cofer, the essay is a way to teach lessons through allegories, come to terms with her life, while at the same time pass down her oral tradition.
"We all want to believe we have a story to tell, a life lesson to add to the repository of worldly wisdom."
But just because we choose to write essays, does that mean we all should? Are there simply a chosen few with the skill to craft these tales of humanity, life lessons, and journeys? These are questions that lead me to wonder why I write essays and what my personal motives are. Does anyone care when I write a treatise on how employers dug their own grave concerning employee loyalty? Or when I recount an experience at a motorcycle race in Mugello, Italy? Does anyone really care what I have to say? These are questions that cross my mind every time I write an essay and publish it for others to read. It’s unnerving and hard not to think of my work as a gnat on the horse’s ass of humanity. I often feel self-conscious as though I have nothing to add to the repository of human experience that hasn’t already been told.
Some years ago, I watched an episode of Charlie Rose on PBS. One of Rose’s guests on the show was Ira Glass, the producer/director of the television show “This American Life.” The show is similar to the essay in that Glass travels around the United States looking for people with unique stories to tell. One story involved a man who loved animals. The man was very attached to a bull and loved it as one would any household pet. Unfortunately, the bull died, causing the man immense pain and anguish. But instead of moving on, he decided to clone the dead bull and replace him with the clone. He believed in his heart that the cloned bull would be an exact replacement for his dead one, and no one could convince him otherwise. Eventually, the clone attacked the man, yet he remained convinced the new bull would eventually replace his beloved dead one.
I can’t help but think of the stories Glass captures as video essays. Charlie Rose made a similar reference calling them “cinematic short stories.” Rose asked Glass if the premise behind his show is that all people have a story to tell. Glass responded with an emphatic “No.” Rose thought he’d lobbed a softball question at Glass, and yet his answer was unexpected. For Glass, the answer came down to uniqueness. Often what we think is unique in our lives has happened to many other people already. We all want to believe we have a story to tell, a life lesson to add to the repository of worldly wisdom. But maybe we are kidding ourselves. As humans, we get caught up in our own worlds, our own mental chamber of existence, and ignore what’s happening around us. We’re continually editing our lives and writing the script we want to see. Glass used cancer patients as an example. He said, there’s so much documented about the disease that it’s become challenging to find a unique story. By no means was he implying that the subject of Cancer is no longer relevant, just that the disease has been heavily documented. And because Cancer is so intensely personal, life-altering, and emotional, one cannot help but feel compelled to share his or her story with others. To be clear, these are important stories that serve as inspiration and life lessons for others. Glass’s point was not to imply that there is no value in people sharing their personal experiences. It’s that nowadays it’s challenging to find those unique “cloned-bull” stories.
"Whether it’s self-reflection, self-exposition, or self-indulgence, it takes hard work, courage, and insight to write essays."
Perhaps it’s in our nature to think that our life stories are of the “cloned bull” type. Possibly, we cannot help but feel that, regardless of whether a similar story has already been told, ours is still somehow different and unique. And if we don’t try, we’ll never know, right? Eventually, though, even cloned-bull stories become commonplace, and these days many essays and memoirs convey outlandish storylines. Like everything else, just when we think we’ve reached the limit of eccentric material, we’re dumbfounded when someone takes it to a new level.
To me, there is a big difference between recounting an outlandish personal experience and carving out a life lesson from a seemingly ordinary life experience. Such as what E.B. White and Scott Russell Sanders do best. I like to think that when I sit down to write an essay, I try to convey a big picture lesson, something I’ve learned from experience and find valuable to share. I like to think that I have altruistic intentions, that perhaps someone will potentially glean a life lesson or light bulb moment if they can relate to my experience. But maybe I’m just delusional. After all, we all have a little bit of vanity within us, and the essay gives us a pass to write about ourselves.
Despite Ira Glass’s opinion, that not everyone has a story to tell, and not every story is unique, I believe writers can navigate around this obstacle, especially if one can extract meaning from the seemingly mundane and create a unique perspective. A lesson that can be learned from Scott Russell Sanders. He molds the events of his life into profound, unique commentary and lessons that contain meaning, wisdom, and truth about the human condition. I can’t think of a better reason to write an essay.
No matter what the reason—to preserve a culture, or convey a personal experience—essays seem to always come back to the self. Whether it’s self-reflection, self-exposition, or self-indulgence, it takes hard work, courage, and insight to write essays. And it’s even harder to create the sensational out of the mundane and craft something truly unique. Annie Dillard says it best in her essay, “Write Till you Drop,” “At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your fists, your back, your brain, and then—and only then—it is handed to you.” In other words, the essay requires personal introspection and a willingness to let the story develop. Perhaps this is why for those us who love writing essays, it is worth the time and effort.
Cofer, Judith Ortiz. Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1990.
Dillard, Annie. Write Till You Drop. The New York Times on the Web. 28 May. 1989.
Florio, John. “Montaigne’s Essays.” Renascence Editions Ed. Ben R. Schneider. 1999.
Howarth, William. “Itinerant Passages: Recent American Essays.” Sewanee Review 96 (1988)
Sanders, Scott Russell. The Paradise of Bombs. Boston: Beacon Press, 1987.
White, E.B. Essays of E.B. White. New York: Harper and Row, 1977.