Essay Camp Day 4
“Arrange whatever pieces come your way.” ― Virginia Woolf
Welcome to the fourth day of Essay Camp.
Hello campers. How is the writing going? Have you had a chance to sit by the pond and listen to the chorus of frogs in the evening? Have the fireflies left footprints on your notebook? If you’re not writing this session, perhaps you’ve managed to do some reading instead. If you’re reading this sentence at least, it means you’re still here. You’ve stuck with it. Well done.
Today, we’re going to talk about essay structure. For this session of Essay Camp, I promised that I would spend some time on the topic of how to actually finish an essay, rather than simply telling everyone to go and do it. I figured I ought to do this before the end of camp, so you can have some time to think about it. Because I would like you to finish an essay. It does not have to be long, and it does not have to be very good, but it does have to be finished.
Finishing things is important. It is one of the most important things you can do for your writing, especially when you’re starting out. Writers must learn by doing, and it is a very different experience to actually write an essay, or a story, or a book, than it is to imagine writing one. But in order to finish an essay, it helps to understand a little bit about how it’s supposed to all come together.
I usually get into this on the first day, but this time I’ve saved it for the fourth: the definition of an essay. I wanted to give you a few days to write in full innocence first. I think that’s important, but now that we’ve hopefully managed to get some writing done, we can begin to ask ourselves a few questions. For example, what the hell is an essay, anyway? There are a lot of definitions out there, and there are different kinds of essays, too. We are not talking here about compositional essays, or the essay portion of a test, but rather the essay as literature. But even then, the genre is a blurry one. Most attempts to define the essay itself bring up its connection to the French word essai, meaning “to try.” I don’t know how useful that is to a person who is trying to write an essay, except perhaps to give a certain kind of permission. To understand how to shape an essay, it helps to understand what it is an essay is supposed to do.
There are lots of things that an essay can do, but few hard and fast rules. There is often an I present in an essay, or a discernible speaker with a particular voice, but not always. An essay is a piece of writing that explains, explores, argues, describes, recounts, or narrates, using literary techniques. An essay can be personal, and tell the kind of story you might find in a memoir, or it can be analytical, and present one’s thoughts on a cultural or political topic. Quite often, an essay can serve as a space for intellectual curation, in which the writer brings together seemingly disparate topics or ideas, and invites the reader to regard them in association. The essayist puts these ideas in conversation with one another.
One thing that distinguishes an essay from, say, a report, or an article, or an informational blog post, is the shape of it. An essay has an intentional shape. It is consciously a work of literature.
There is not a universal, mutually agreed upon taxonomy of literary essay types. Some common essay forms that you might hear about are the “braided essay” or the “lyrical” or “lyric essay,” although there is not a strong consensus on what precisely these two terms mean.
Generally speaking, a braided essay weaves together two or more seemingly disparate narratives or subjects, switching back and forth between them. A common convention with this type of essay is to alternate between one narrative thread that is very personal, and one that is less so, perhaps based on research. The different threads inform and reflect off one another. Towards the end of the braided essay, a direct connection between these threads will be revealed, or else one will show itself to be a kind of metaphor for the other, or both.
The lyric essay is a little less specific as a genre, but the term is generally used to describe an essay that employs poetic language, and possibly an impressionistic, unconventional narrative structure, or no discernible narrative at all. It can sometimes be described as sitting somewhere between an essay and a prose poem.
There are other kinds of literary essays, too. There is the narrative essay, which tells a story in a more or less straightforward manner, with a sequential beginning, middle, and end. Many writers choose this format, and for good reason: it works. Then there is the fragmented essay, presented in short, disjointed vignettes, snapshots, or aphorisms—Sarah Manguso and Maggie Nelson are both known for working in this genre. There is the essay that pretends to be something else, like a questionnaire, an obituary, a set of instructions, or a letter. For example, in her essay “Wolf Moon,” Nina MacLaughlin presents a fanciful questionnaire intended for the moon. In a recent quiz designed by writer Esmé Weijun Wang, she calls this kind of essay a “mimicry essay.”
But whatever kind of essay you choose to write, it must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning draws you in, the middle holds your interest, and the ending sees you out again. Each section has only one job, and that is it. Like with a piece of music, the ending of an essay can have many different flavors and effects, but it must provide a sense of closure. It can crescendo in a climax, or offer a new perspective. It can end very quietly, or with a bang. Some sentences simply feel like ending sentences, because of the strength of their language, their imagery, or their poetic rhythm. In journalism these are called “kickers.” To borrow further from the language of music, there may be what is known as a recapitulation, in which the previous themes are presented again, sometimes with a secondary development—something is repeated or called back to, but from a slightly different perspective.
Most of the time, however, as readers, we don’t really know why an ending feels satisfying, we just know when it does. There is only so much you can learn about how an essay is put together, or how to properly finish one, by reading about it like this. Instead, it is better to read a lot of essays, and to write some. Afterwards, you can identify why certain essay forms are effective, and why an ending feels satisfying, but it is hard to do this without a working familiarity with the examples.
Ultimately, you will need to learn to recognize how an essay feels when you’re writing one. The more you do it, the more you will find yourself circling in on an ending without even meaning to. It’s a muscle memory thing, a kind of sixth sense. You need to feel the shape of it in your mind. That’s really the best way to write one, in the end; to practice reading and writing so much, that you find it coming together on its own. When it’s not native to you like this, formed as part of your creative reflexes through experience as a writer and reader, it will always be difficult.
When you’re reading back over the drafts you have produced, ask yourself: do parts of this feel like a beginning? A middle? An end? You can begin to experiment with rearranging them accordingly.
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