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Essay Camp Day 4
Thinking about structure.
“When I start to write, I don’t have any plan at all. I just wait for the story to come.” — Haruki Murakami
Welcome to the fourth day of Essay Camp.
Hello campers. How is the writing going? Have you had a chance to take any walks around our chimerical campus to see the autumn colors? Have you pressed any dream-leaves between the pages of your notebook? If you’re not writing this session, maybe 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, and thank you
Today we’re going to talk about essay structure. Last session, I had a lot of requests to spend some time on the topic of how to actually finish an essay, and we’re going to that again here. By talking about it today, I hope I can give you a little extra time to think about all the different ways that your writing might take shape, before the last day. Your assignment, after the end of Essay Camp, will be to finish one essay or other piece of writing. It does not have to be long, and it does not have to be good, it just has to be finished.
Finishing things is important. Honestly, it is probably the most important thing you can do to help 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. In order to finish an essay, it helps to understand a little bit about how it’s all supposed to come together.
So again, we can ask ourselves—what is an essay? There are many definitions, and many different kinds. I’m not talking about compositional essays here, or the essay portion of a test, but rather the essay as literature. Even then, the genre is a blurry one. To understand how to shape an essay, it helps to understand what it is an essay is supposed to do.
There are many things 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 nonfiction writing that explores, argues, describes, recounts, depicts, 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. But it can also be much simpler than that.
One thing that distinguishes an essay from 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 “lyric essay,” although there is not a strong consensus on what precisely these two terms even mean. Over the past year I’ve personally been interested in what I’ve started to call “vignette essays,” which are a bit like lyric essays—brief snapshots that function more like poems than an essay as its usually conceived.
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 is to alternate between one narrative thread that is very personal, and another 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.
The lyric essay is 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.
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.”
As Virginia Woolf said, “arrange what pieces come your way.” You can decide what form of essay you’ll be crafting based on the material that you have.
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 that 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 produced this week, ask yourself: do parts of this feel like a beginning? A middle? An end? Does this work as a vignette, or could it be used within a larger narrative?
Then you can begin to experiment, revise, and rearrange things accordingly.
"There’s no such thing as perfect writing.” — Haruki Murakami
Writing Assignment, Day 4
If you have already written three Five Things drafts, write another one today. When you’re done, read back over your drafts from today and the previous three days and see if you like anything that you’ve written. Do not panic if you hate all if it, but see if there’s anything that strikes you. Does it feel true? Are there any topics here that you’d like to expand on? Pay attention to any sentences or passages that might serve as a beginning, a middle, or an end.
Alternate Option 1: Freewriting
If you still have not tried the Five Things prompt, I encourage you to give it a try, just to see how it feels. If you’re not working with that prompt today, proceed to freewriting instead.
Set a timer for whatever interval of time you have, and write whatever comes. As with the Five Things prompt, try not to look back at what you’ve written. Keep moving forward without worrying about the quality of what you’ve written, until you’ve reached the end of your allotted time.
Remember, do not worry about beginnings or about the structure of your sentences at this stage. That comes later. For now just focus on getting words down on the page.
When you’re finished, feel free to read back over what you’ve written these past four days and see if any parts of it feel like a beginning, a middle, or the end of an essay you might write.
In case you need a prompt:
Write about a situation in which you wish you had said something, but didn’t.
Describe the first restaurant you remember going to as a child.
Write a letter to a friend you haven’t spoken to in years.
Write about being seventeen years old.
Write about someone else’s dog.
Write a series of questions intended for someone or something that cannot respond.
Write about an injustice.
Write about bananas.
Write about a ghost.
Alternate Option 2: Rebel Mode
Do your thing. Work on your own project, in whatever way you see fit, for as long as you can.
Reading Assignment, Day 4
For today’s reading assignments, I want you to select an essay to read, and then think a little bit about the structure that the essayist has chosen. How does it inform your experience of the material that they present? You can choose from the essays I’ve linked today below, or pick one from Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday.
To give fair warning, today I have included two essays in particular that are very intense. “The Heaviest Pain in the World” by Rob Delaney is about the death of his toddler son from cancer. It presents the narrative sequentially, in unflinching detail. The second, “Ugly, Bitter, and True,” by Suzanne Rivecca, deals frankly with suicidal ideation. If you’re feeling sensitive to either of these topics, you may want to skip them.
Then there are two reading options that are not essays. The first is the short story, “Chicxulub,” by T.C. Boyle. Although it isn’t an essay, the story uses the kind of braided structure that is commonly found in essays. The second is the flash piece “Lost-and-Found” by Sean McMenemy. I’m not sure whether this one is fiction or nonfiction or something in between, but like “Chicxulub,” it’s a story that could be nonfiction, and it’s worth reading to see what can be accomplished in so few words.
(And please forgive me, but I have also included one of my own short essays, because it employs a conscious recapitulation as the ending.)
“Lost-and-Found,” by Sean McMenemy, 141 words, 30 second read (link)
“Passing Mary Oliver at Dawn,” by Summer Brennan, 764 words, 3 minute read (link)
“How to Skin a Bird,” by Chelsea Biondolillo, 1,863 words, 8 minute read (link)
“The Heaviest Pain in the World,” by Rob Delaney, 4,240 words, 17 minute read (link)
“Chicxulub,” by T. Coraghessan Boyle (a short story), 4,374 words, 18 minute read (link)
“The Fourth State of Matter,” by Jo Ann Beard, about 7,200 words, 30 minute read (link)
“Ugly, Bitter, and True,” by Suzanne Rivecca, about 16,000 words, 1 hour 10 minute read (link)
“Bluets,” by Maggie Nelson,” about 28,000 words, 2 hour read (PDF)
Time To Write!
There was a lot of information today, so let’s get to it.
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