The Wisdom of The Essay
Some thoughts from a recent craft seminar with award-winning writer Alexander Chee.
I had the great privilege of attending a craft seminar this past Sunday with the award-winning novelist and essayist Alexander Chee. It was hosted by the Shipman Agency, and was called What I Learned About the Essay While Editing Best American Essays. Chee has been teaching writing for thirty years, and to say that he has a wealth of insight into the subject of essays would be an understatement. On top of that, his recent experience as the editor for the 2022 edition of Best American Essays, now with Mariner Books, has given him a unique perspective on the state of the essay today. What are essays doing? What should they do? How do you write one? How do you write a good one? Which essays do we tend to celebrate, and which do we overlook?
As writers, I think many of us are walking around with some degree of creative damage. Certainly not all writers, but many. We carry all those voices of disaproval in our heads. Some of them we pick up during childhood, and some in the years since. They accumulate, and compound, and talk to each other. They disguise themselves as the truth, as ambiance, as the sound of the wind. They become such a part of our mental landscapes that we don’t even notice they are there anymore. Some of them come from the well-meaning advice of writing courses past. Someone with authority or influence once told us that we shouldn’t mix genres, or that genre writing is inferior to literary writing, or that literary fiction is plotless and boring, or that we should only “write what we know,” or that what we know isn’t interesting, or that we’ll hurt people if we write about our own life, or that good boys and girls don’t talk about such things, or that we lack the authority to write on a certain topic, or that we have to be an expert before we can even begin. Maybe some of us were raised in totally supportive environments, and have lived blessedly creative adult lives where no one has ever questioned our right or ability to make art, but that is not the case for most of us.
Speaking personally, I have spent the past few years trying to untangle some of my own creative damage. I won a literary journalism prize after the publication of my first book, but then had a series of very strange and upsetting professional experiences that sent me into a tailspin. I don’t want to get into the details now, but suffice to say that I wish I had been stronger in the face of the kinds of things women have been facing in this industry since pretty much forever. We should not have to face these things, or to overcome them with such superhuman strength just to prove our professional worth, but pretty much every successful woman in the field has had to do exactly that. The margins of literary history are littered with all the women (and others) who could not overcome these obstacles, not because they weren’t good enough or didn’t deserve to, but because doing so is simply very, very hard.
So I think writing essays can be particularly challenging for people who are not usually granted authority—the authority to speak, to know things, to be an expert, to be a generalist, to be an intellectual, to be an individual and not just a representative member of a socially constructed underclass—and that doing so can be an act of heroism. At least for the writer, but usually for others too.
In order to respect Chee’s work, I don’t want to go into too much detail about what was said during the seminar, but there were a few things I scribbled down in my notes that I think I can safely share. These are the things that have been ringing in my head ever since, and which felt like little keys I could use to unlock something very valuable:
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