It might be disingenuous to say I have no idea what I am doing. But then it might not be since I have not done anything quite like this before. I’ve been blogging about books and bookish things for twelve years, writing about my garden for three, and just recently began to write about bicycling too. So I’ve got the writing thing down. Or at least I’d like to think I do, sometimes I just can’t tell.
This is different. This venture into the full-blown essay. What was I thinking? And why? I am not entirely certain. I can say that it comes from all the years of blogging and a growing desire to try something new. I am just crazy enough to say that I enjoy writing. I want to write more than blog posts and book reviews.
Even though I blog about books, I have no burning desire to write one, especially fiction. I have tried my hand at fiction and I kind of suck at it. I have written one and a half novels and if the author herself finds them ridiculous and boring and wouldn’t want to read them if she found them on a library or bookstore shelf, why would anyone else?
Essays are a different beast. They require skill and imagination but they are short and can be about anything. An essay might be as ridiculous or boring as my fiction but because of the personal element it is the “I” the adjectives apply to not my story or imagination and I mind less claiming those adjectives for myself than for my writing. The form also appeals because, as Michel de Montaigne writes in his essay “Of Repentance”, “If my mind could gain a firm footing, I would not make essays, I would make decisions; but it is always in apprenticeship and on trial.” Didn’t get it right the first time? Change your mind? Learn something new? There is always the option with essays to try again, they are, after all, an “attempt.” Less pressure to perform, more permission to fail.
At first I thought I’d try my hand at writing gardening essays and flog them around to gardening magazines and websites. But I suck at self-promotion even more than I suck at writing fiction. Do you have to write self-assessments at work during annual performance review time? I’ve had several jobs that required this of me and I never know what to say. I did my job and I did it as best I could, here are some of the unremarkable things I did. But I have had more than one supervisor tell me I am selling myself short and that I need to work on “blowing my own horn.” This is not something I am comfortable doing and I am not particularly interested in getting better at it. Which also makes resume writing, job interviews and networking things I am not good at.
Writing and then selling essays runs smack into my difficulties with self-promotion.
Dear Garden Magazine Editor:
Attached please find an essay I wrote about keeping squirrels from eating your garden vegetables. I’ve been gardening for a long time and some people might find some useful tips.
Thanks for your consideration.
Yup. Garden magazines will be fighting to see who gets my next essay.
Still, part of me wanted to try. The other part just laughed. Essay writing went nowhere and stayed in the realm of vague desire; something I wanted to do but couldn’t possibly. Until I recently came upon an article at The Guardian about how the internet is the ideal home for essays. Hey, I thought, I could publish my own essays on the internet instead of trying to convince other people to do it for me! I’d say I’m brilliant but I’ve already told you I am bad at self-promotion and clearly at this point in the history of the internet my little epiphany was a very long time in arriving, revealing a distinct lack of brilliance on my part.
Because I want to be free to write essays about whatever moves me, my (mostly) book-focused blog did not seem the right venue. When I mentioned the idea in a blog post, others were interested even to the point of saying they would consider contributing an essay. This is how a new website gets born.
What, exactly, am I aiming at for this site? Personal essays. But what is a personal essay? When I was creating the Contributor Guidelines page I began to try and define what I meant but then deleted it because who am I to tell someone what a personal essay should be or could be when I wasn’t even entirely sure myself?
In trying to figure out what a personal essay is I learned that everyone who has written essays has his or her own idea about it. There are essays about essays. There are books about essays. It is not just one thing. And I like that. The personal of a personal essay isn’t only about including oneself in it. It’s what Montaigne says, “What I write here is not my teaching, but my study; it is not a lesson for others, but for me” (“Of Practice”). And if what is useful to him also turns out to be useful to someone else—bonus!
Personal doesn’t necessarily mean revealing deep, dark secrets either. Leslie Jamison views essays from an investigative angle as opposed to the confessional: “I often think of the subject of an essay as something like a courtyard full of questions—questions about grief, or longing, or memory, or empathy. Writing means walking a furious labyrinthine path in order to peer at them from every possible direction. Every mode of inquiry—history, memoir, criticism—is a doorway that opens onto this courtyard from a different angle. Each glance offers some gift.”
The gift is both for the writer and the reader. The essay as investigation, as discovery, as gift. It seems to be a form that invites both writer and reader to share: here’s something I’ve noticed and have been thinking about, is it like this for you too? It invites a conversation—yes it is like that for me too. Or—no it is different for me and here is how. And sometimes: I’ve never even thought about that before.
Cynthia Ozick describes the essay “as the movement of a free mind at play” (“She: Portrait of the Essay as a Warm Body” in Quarrel and Quandry). She is not alone. I lost track of how many writers have their own variant of Ozick. Basically it all boils down to an essay being a kind of thinking out loud.
I am a long time diary keeper and will readily tell anyone that I think best on paper. If you ever read my diaries you might disagree, but this is how it feels to me. Of course thinking on paper in my diary is not the same as an essay. An essay is public and revealing in a way my diary is not. What if I look stupid?
It was a comfort to read an interview with Charles D’Ambrosio who tells Leslie Jamison that the “essay isn’t a form for know-it-alls.” Even though I like to think I know everything and am always right, I also know it is not the truth and I regularly hope that no one will call my bluff. When the likes of D’Ambrosio says about his own essays, “Probably the truest thing I can say about most of these pieces is that I was stumbling around in the dark and then left a trail of that lost wandering on the page. I hate to sound that dumb but in some ways I am that dumb, so why pretend?” this gives me a little thrill. Hey, I might actually be able to do this essay thing!
The way I see it, essays are an adventure. You might start off towards a particular destination and end up someplace else entirely. Along the way you may befriend a dragon, rescue a prince and marry a princess. Adventures are exciting and scary and full of possibility. It’s also nice to have some company. Consider this an invitation to an adventure or your own.