Essay, I Say

by Tina Blue
January 11, 2001

     ~(This was the inaugural article of the column "Essay, I Say," which I used to write on Themestream.  I have modifed it slightly to omit references and links to Themestream articles and authors.)

          I have been asked to write an article about paragraphs, but since that topic doesn't quite fit into any of my existing columns, though it is related to other topics that I plan to write about, I will use the present article to initiate a new column, "Essay, I Say," devoted to the writing of various sorts of essays. Several articles I have already posted for this column deal with the paragraph, its purpose and structure. In this article, I want to consider the essay itself--what it is and what it is for.

          Essay-writing is a large part of what I teach here at the University of Kansas. Even when I am teaching literature, I am teaching my students not only how to understand and appreciate various types of literature, but also how to express their understanding in the form of an analytical essay.

          The etymology of the word essay is instructive. Both
and assay are derived, by way of Middle English, from the Middle French essai. The French word was itself derived from the late Latin exagium (act of weighing). We typically use the form assay to refer to a scientific test made to determine the presence, absence, or relative quantity of one or more components in a substance. The word assay is also used in a nontechnical way to refer to a test, an attempt, or an estimate of value, though such nontechnical use is no longer very common.

          The form essay can also be used to mean a trial or test, or an attempt to perform some act. But the word essay has primarily become attached to a particular form of literary composition, an analytical or interpretive treatment of a specific subject from a limited or personal point of view.

          The personal essay is concerned with the author himself, his experiences, his feelings, or his mood. Personal essays are usually either narrative (telling a story about something the author has experienced) or expressive (expressing the author's mood, his feelings, or his sense of himself).

          Discursive essays may be written in either an objective or a personal voice, but their purpose is to analyze a topic other than  the author and his experience. A discursive essay may be an opinion essay, but the author's opinion will be presented analytically (based on evidence), not impressionistically (based on emotional response or immediate, unconsidered reaction).

          A good example of discursive essays written in in a personal voice would be Seneca's Letters, which are treatises on moral philosophy, ostensibly written as letters to his young friend Lucius. Nowadays, even quite academic subjects are often presented in a personal voice, if they are intended for the lay reader rather than for a specialist. The articles I have written for my "Grammar and Usage for the Non-Expert"
website demonstrate this approach.

          Many popular essay writers work predominantly in the
vein, using their essays to express mood or feeling, or to represent the uniqueness of their own character or experience.

          But whatever its mode, the essay is, well, an essay--a trial, a test, an attempt. In an essay, the author is trying out a hypothesis or testing the validity of an idea. Or he is attempting to capture and convey the essence of a mood or experience. Or he is trying to embody in words some essential aspect of himself. He is essaying to communicate to his reader what he has discovered, what he has experienced, or who he is.

          In "Why Students Should Have to Learn How to Write Dsiscursive Essays" I argue that the discursive essay is invaluable as an educational tool. I believe that the personal essay, though it has its own independent value, and even some limited use in education, should not be overemphasized in schools, because education should focus the student's attention outside of himself.

          But the personal essay is tremendously effective as a tool for (often therapeutic) self-discovery. Journal-writing is actually just a precursor to the personal essay, for the journal-writer's presumed audience is himself, whereas the personal essay is intended to be read by others.

          And that is an important distinction between the personal journal and the personal essay--the presumption that you are writing not just for yourself, but for an audience. That means your writing must make at least some concessions to the audience's interests and needs. In other words, even the most personal, expressive essay should, if intended for an audience, make use of some essayistic devices and conventions, if only to ensure that it is read rather than discarded in annoyance and disgust. Mere self-absorbed self-indulgence is seldom of interest to a reader, no matter how "creative" or "clever" the writer may feel while pouring his stream-of-consciousness (or, more often, meaningless strings of random associations) out onto the page.

          There is a lot of flexibility in the personal essay, but there are some limits to what a reader will put up with. Haven't you sometimes put an article or book down because the author's personal ramblings seemed pointless or uninteresting? On the other hand, are there not authors that you read regularly, even when they write about their feelings or about what is going on in their lives, because they have presented this purely personal material in a way that effectively engages the audience?

          As a teacher I am strongly biased in favor of the discursive essay, but I also enjoy a well-written personal essay.  I even write some personal essays myself. In fact, one of my own websites, "Pet Tales", consists almost entirely of amusing stories about animals I have kept company with, and my "Kidbits" articles are also amusing personal narratives (about small children), though they are sometimes intended to make an analytical point, whereas my pet stories are not.

          The demands of the discursive essay are quite different from the demands of the purely personal essay. But all essays do make demands on their writers--i.e., the implied demands of the reader. We writers can't just do whatever we want, unless, of course, we don't care whether anyone wants to read us or not.           

          My purpose in this column is to discuss various topics of interest to essayists. Many of you are authors who have expressed a desire to learn more about the craft of writing. Some of you teach writing, either at the college level or in public or private schools. Some are parents who wish to supplement the sometimes inadequate or misdirected training in writing that your children get in school. And many of my readers are homeschooling parents who have heroically undertaken the difficult but rewarding task of providing all or most of their children's academic education.

          I hope that all of you will find at least some of the articles on this website both interesting and useful.
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