The Essay Series #1: The Essay As Energy
Make your own kind of music: How to write an essay on any topic and of any length that will satisfy your reader.
The is Part 1 of The Essay Series.
We’re often told that really good writers can get away with anything. But how?
I’m sure you’ve heard this one before, but I’ll say it again here: writing is like music. But it’s like music in more ways than you might think. Before we delve into the various common forms that essays can take, from the braided essay to the lyric essay, the personal to the topical, there’s something on a related note that we ought to discuss first: energy. I want to touch on this before we get into the next installments because I don’t think we can adequately discuss what those essay forms are really doing, structurally, without first having some understanding of this principle.
I often say during my semiannual write-along workshop Essay Camp that every essay, no matter its type, has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning draws you in, the middle holds your interest, and the ending sees you out again with a sense of closure. It’s my mantra as a teacher of literary essay writing for a reason. If all of these parts do their job and do it well, your essay will succeed, no matter its length, style, format, or what happens within it in terms of narrative.
But there is something else at work. Something that causes those three components to succeed or fail, to draw us in, sustain our interest, and leave us feeling satisfied. When mastered, it makes all other concerns virtually irrelevant.
The basic comparison between writing and music makes sense. Human speech is musical, employing tone, tempo, and pitch to convey additional layers of meaning. We mimic the spoken music of language in written texts with punctuation. Words themselves are musical. They have melodic or percussive qualities depending on their vowel shape and their consonant sounds. It does not have to be an onomatopoeia to have this effect.
Beyond the words, there is the music of phrasing. Your sentences make music based on their length, complexity, and construction. Even in regular nonfiction prose, the rhythm of your sentences, both individually and in tandem, matters. Their meter—as in poetic meter—matters. It matters in how we understand the feel and urgency of what we are reading.
Poets, of course, know all about this. It is their bread and butter. But other forms of writing, and essays in particular, are also governed by these principles. Most people with an ongoing interest in writing are at least vaguely familiar with this idea. But essays are also similar to music in another way, which I have not seen discussed as often. Essays are like music in the way a story, narrative, discovery, or emotional journey—large or small—is communicated through the varied build up and release of energy.
In this installment of the Essay Series, I’m going to be talking about how the conscious deployment of energy release through narrative, language, and phrasing is one of the most important factors that decides whether a piece of writing is perceived as successful or not. The controlled release of energy is why some essays are thrilling even when not much happens in them, and some essays in which a lot of things happen can fail to catch our interest at all.
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