As accommodating as they are to subject matter and formal experimentation, essays permit no substitutes; every piece of short nonfiction prose is not an essay. And yet, it is sometimes difficult for many of us who teach the essay to acknowledge and even more frequently to act on this fact, which is far from a simple one. It is hard to acknowledge because we do not have a rich and consistent enough language for what it means to ask for essays; the term “essay” is ambiguous and thus allows those who use it to project onto it whatever it is that we either find most desirable or objectionable about certain kinds of nonfiction writing. It is hard to act on because once we say we want to write or read, teach or learn the essay, we feel we must immediately and securely define this kind of writing in some way.
As Phillip Lopate tells us, “It is easier to list the essay’s practitioners than to fix a definition of this protean form.” It is also easier to define the essay by insisting on what it is not. A habitual skepticism and self-awareness are qualities of mind we often associate with the genre’s most famous practitioners—Montaigne, Hazlitt, Emerson, Woolf, White, Baldwin, Didion, and Sontag; these stances tend to ensure that essayists undo certainties almost as soon as they dare to appear in their own minds, or at least on their pages. Likewise, there has been a strong tradition among the genre’s commentators to reject imposters and poor substitutes: genuine essays must not be confused with stories, and formulaic school writing . . . and worst of all, scholarly articles.
William Gass identifies the essay as “obviously the opposite of that awful object, ‘the article’,” which tends to ignore “the process, the working, the wondering” inherent in essays. The article is not just neglectful, it’s a liar, too, “very likely a veritable Michelin of misdirection.” An article draws attention away from lapses in its author’s logic or method and toward its own verities, which are siphoned from others’ reputations and trustworthiness: “it furnishes seals of approval and underwriters’ guarantees . . . it knows, with respect to every subject and point of view it is ever likely to entertain, what words to use, what form to follow, what authorities to respect.” The article acts as “proof of the presence, nearby, of the Professor, the way one might, perceiving a certain sort of speckled egg, infer that its mother was a certain sort of speckled bird.” For Gass, then, the “Professor,” produces articles to pretend to know and be more than they should. Even so, Gass acknowledges that articles and those who write them have some power—noble or not.
Gass’s mistrust of scholars revives the concerns of Michel de Montaigne, who was the first to name his compositions “essais” when he first published them in 1580; these 94 pieces range widely in length, tone, and approach. His titles reveal curiosity and reach: several of his most famous essays on topics with broad appeal, “Of friendship,” “Of books,” and “Of experience,” find for company more unexpected foci, “Of the custom of wearing clothes,” “Of smells,” and “Of thumbs.” In his author’s note to the volume, Montaigne makes a promise to his readers, a disclaimer that dissociates his work from scholarly books with their built-in approvals: “This book was written in good faith, reader. It warns you from the outset that I have set myself no goal but a domestic and private one . . . If I had written to seek the world’s favor, I should have bedecked myself better, and should present myself in a studied posture.” For Montaigne, this “posture” of the scholar, however, is not merely an affectation; it expresses a fundamentally corrupt relationship with knowledge and knowing.
Montaigne envisions his own goals as the opposite of those scholars—“pedants”—who, “go pillaging knowledge in books and lodge it only on the ends of their lips, in order merely to disgorge it and scatter it to the winds.” However, Montaigne acknowledges how he is implicated in their practices: “I go about cadging from books here and there the sayings that please me, not to keep them, for I have no storehouses, but to transport them into this one, in which, to tell the truth, they are no more mine than in their original place.” Unlike these scholars who might write articles to assemble their “cadged” quotations as a bulwark for their own authority, Montaigne has the essay, a praxis (in Paolo Freire’s sense) that promotes self-critique: “We know how to say: ‘Cicero says thus; such are the morals of Plato; there are the very words of Aristotle.’ But what do we say ourselves? What do we judge? What do we do? A parrot could well say as much.”
With his own example, Montaigne offers his reader the possibility that the essay itself can protect us from our worst impulses—to “parrot”—and gives us something to do with what we know. We need such outlets, because knowledge can be dangerous: “Knowledge is a good drug; but no drug is strong enough to preserve itself without alteration and corruption, according to the vessel that contains it. A given man sees clear but not straight, and consequently sees the good and does not follow it, and sees knowledge and does not use it.” For Montaigne, the primary way to “see” and “use” knowledge ethically is to filter it through the alembic of his own capacities in essays.
As Graham Good suggests, “‘essays’ were essays of something (natural faculties, or the faculty of judgment) on something else (a topic or occasion).” As Kurt Spellmeyer has noted in his analysis of Montaigne’s “Of the Education of Children,” none of us, not even a teacher, is immune to a false belief in “the rigor of scholarly discourse [which owes] to its exclusionary purity—its abstractness, its power of discrimination.” Instead, Montaigne seeks an education that would require students to examine “the relationship between individuals and the conventions by which their experience is defined and contained.” It is not learning itself that Montaigne troubles, but its distance from life-as-lived: “The true mirror of our discourse is the course of our lives.” Let us not miss Montaigne’s proposition; here he is most concerned not that our language reflects our actions, “the course of our lives,” but that we will shape our lives to fit the language we have learned to value; his essays model a use of language that encourages us to examine lies we are tempted to tell about those lives.
From Crafting Presence: The American Essay and the Future of Writing Studies. Used with permission of Utah State University Press. Copyright © 2017 by Nicole B. Wallack.
A mark of a good writer, whether fiction, essay, or poetry, is the ability to unflinchingly illuminate the emotional issues that people often try to suppress.
An exemplar is Phillip Lopate, long acclaimed as a fine writer of the widest range: from film reviews to poetry, novels to, most of all, personal essays.
Lopate is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, been a judge for the Pulitzer Prize, and is Professor and Director of the nonfiction writing program at Columbia University. He is my The Eminents interview today.
On the personal essay
Marty Nemko: How would you define your métier, the personal essay?
Phillip Lopate: A personal essay often includes some or a lot of personal confession. That makes the reader feel less lonely in their confusion and darkness. And confession makes you a more trustworthy narrator. But that’s not enough. The essay must also be artistically rendered: You must keep the reader engaged, whether with wit, conflict, mischief, and/or yes, with honesty.
MN: I’d like to write more personal essays. What would you say to me?
PL: In addition to the above, you must read a lot of personal essays—you needn’t reinvent the wheel. In new work, we need to see the shadow, however faint, of previous effort.
Also, most good essays are conversations with yourself, not just your decided thoughts but your dilemmas. Contradictory strands create an essay that’s richly ambivalent.
Oh and have fun writing because it enhances both the writer’s and reader’s experience.
MN: I believe the personal essay is underrated for both writer and reader. It affords the writer great freedom: not only to be confident or admit doubt but to speak personally yet invoke others’ ideas, to be rational and/or emotional. And essayists write at a length that enables them, within a year, to explore a number of topics, whereas in a book, they’ll likely only tackle one. And as a reader, per-minute of my time, I’m getting a helluva lot: practical takeaways, a literary experience, and an intimate experience with the writer.
PL: Yes, the essay is a wonderful medium. I might mention that some writers who longed to be novelists were better as essayists: Sontag, Baldwin, Vidal, Mary McCarthy, Mailer.
On personality and relationships
MN: In your essay, Against Joie de Vivre, you wrote, “There is no harder work I can think of than taking myself off to somewhere pleasant, where I am forced to stay for hours and have fun…I don’t even like water beds.” But why not fan the flames of, as you term it, “hedonistic delusion” rather than, as psychiatrist Irv Yalom writes, “stare into the sun?”
PL: Hedonism can be a rational response to a difficult life. I’m fortunate in being able to find great satisfaction in my work. Give me something interesting to work on, not two margaritas.
MN: If you have an ability, you want to exercise it, not anesthetize it.
MN: I’d guess that, for you, work is especially appealing because, as a writer, you have control: You can play around with your own thoughts and when you find those insufficient, draw upon others’: their wisdom, their humor, their failings.
PL: My other work, teaching, also is satisfying because I can be with people but in controlled circumstances, which aren’t as likely to yield the pain of dealing with family.
MN: But in Against Joie de Vivre, you lament that you can’t consistently focus on the quotidian. Isn’t an admirable definition of the life well-led to maximize your time doing what you’re best at, especially if it’s pro-social?
PL: Honestly, that “lament” was a form of discreet bragging. I really do like to write and when I’m not, I think, “Okay, I’ll be a good citizen now” but fact is, that’s secondary.
MN: The essays you suggested I read in preparation for this interview focused heavily on family, and earlier in this interview you spoke of pain of dealing with family. What do you want to say about family?
PL: Domesticity has been a challenge for me but painful as it’s been, engaging with family has been a school for reducing solipsism and increasing my understanding of people’s different reactions to stress. If someone in my family is getting emotionally bent out of shape, I’ve had to learn to adapt.
MN: Why, instead of their adapting to your self-described hyper-rationality, is it important for you to adapt to their emotionality?
PL: James Baldwin wrote that he wants to be a nice person and a good writer, in that order.
MN: I'd argue they should be in reverse order because being a good writer may result in your being nicer to more people, having a bigger positive impact. Agree?
PL: For most of my life, I wanted broad impact but now, at 72, I’m not so sure that’s always my first priority.
MN: In your essay, The Story of My Father, you describe taciturnity as a privilege. Explain that.
PL: It enabled my father to go into internal exile while remaining in the family’s bosom. Indeed, at times it’s best to shut up. My wife and daughter have accused me of being too silent at breakfast but I don’t want to talk when I don’t have much to say.
MN: In that essay, you focused a lot on your dad's late-in-life dementia. You’re now almost 73 and live a life of the mind. Do you worry at all about dementia?
PL: I do and it bothers me when I can’t, for example, remember a name. I don’t know if it’s pre-senility or whether there are too many names packed in our brains.
MN: Alas, senescence is an inevitability. All we can do is try to strike the balance between graceful acceptance and raging against the dying light. But from having engaged with you in this interview, at the risk of presumptuousness and being patronizing, it’s clear to me that whatever decrement you’ve suffered, your brain remains enviable.
PL: Thank you. I’d like to end by saying that I’ve had an enduring appreciation of psychology and so I’m pleased that this will appear in Psychology Today.
Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia. His newest book, his 8th, is The Best of Marty Nemko.