On Writing Essays

We have all written essays, too many essays, in high school, in college, job applications, and they were mostly terrible. At least I have great confidence that mine were. I did go to university, but not the one that required the essay. I did pass my English classes, but I did not get good grades in those which involved literary criticism. I mean, who cares about the use of alliteration or onomatopoeia in “[classic work]” by “[famous author]”? I certainly didn’t, and it took me years to be able to read classic literature and actually enjoy it. Funny thing is, I actually enjoyed reading some of those classics before I had to write the essays.

Why then would I read a book of essays? Well, of course, I have a colleague who writes them, and especially when I was offered a free copy if I wrote a review, I did jump at the chance. Yes, that’s part of it. But honestly, I wanted to read “Searching for San Viejo” by Larry Moffitt just because I enjoy his writing. So, when I opened the book and read the Introduction, I was struck by the way he referred to himself as “an obscure early-twenty-first-century essayist.” Obscure and essayist seemed to me to go together well. But then I reminded myself that when I hear the term “essayist” I think of people like Samuel Johnson (aka Dr. Johnson), and he wasn’t really very obscure at all.

So, what is an essay (when you’re not in high school)? And why would anyone want to be an essayist and write one, if they didn’t have to?

Apparently, Aldous Huxley (yes, of “Brave New World” fame, one of those classics I had to suffer writing an essay on and finally was able to enjoy reading decades later) also wrote essays. He described the essay as “a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything” and added that it is usually brief. Now this is getting interesting! I wish I could write almost everything about almost anything, and keep it short! Seems like there is a special talent there. How on earth do you do it?

Ben Jonson, in his “The Art of the Essayist” wrote:

It is generally supposed that Montaigne is the first writer who wrote what may technically be called essays. His pieces are partly autobiographical, partly speculative, and to a great extent ethical. … The only thing necessary is that the thing or the thought should be vividly apprehended, enjoyed, felt to be beautiful, and expressed with a certain gusto. It need conform to no particular rules.

I have to say, that describes Larry Moffit’s essays perfectly. They are certainly partly autobiographical – he has plenty of interesting material to choose from, with his travels to over 60 countries as well as his everyday interactions with “Honey Nim,” his incredible wife – partly speculative – yes, indeed, he easily imagines people in a restaurant to be part of organized crime – and to a great extent ethical – absolutely, he warns of the dangers of such serious problems in society as suicide and pornography, and extols the virtues of true love and harmony in the family.

As an author myself I gravitated to the essay on writing, appropriately entitled “(Don’t) Kill Your Darlings.” The advice to “Kill your darlings,” apparently given by such successful authors as William Faulkner, Oscar Wilde, G.K. Chesterton and Stephen King, must have merit. Unless in some devious conspiracy by great writers over the centuries they threw it out to lessen the competition, which I doubt. However, it’s not exactly full of encouragement, apart from the fact that the very act of deleting your favorite sentences is hard to do. Sometimes we need a kinder way to accomplish the same result. In his essay, Larry Moffit suggests removing offending sentences with reverence for the creativity that brought it into being. In other words, “Be kind to the muse” and to your own imagination when editing.

I discovered that essayists use their observations and commentaries on even the smallest details about life to bring about social change. Of course, some essays are pure entertainment, enjoyable and not necessarily thought provoking. But the ones that really make a mark are those that get you to think, really think, and even make changes in your life. Essays can educate, they can inform, and the good ones make the reader look at the topic in a new way. Done right, the essay is a really powerful tool – isn’t the pen mightier than the sword?


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