Remember essays? You know, those structured paragraphs of writing that were graded for how well they conformed to the prescribed formula that your fifth grade teacher dictated? Yeah, those. They’re baaaaaaaaack. And before you delete this post for the cringe-worthy feelings it might evoke of writer’s block and broken pencils (remember pencils?) there’s something you need to know about The Essay: Today’s essays are not the essays of your elementary school days. They’re better. Much better.
Like that kid who was the bane of your existence, The Essay also has grown up and evolved and has a heart and a soul. If it isn’t obvious, I love essays. And in another shocker, I admit that I was one of those kids who loved writing them, too …five sentence paragraphs and all. (I often took some liberties in my essay writing, but that’s another post for another day.)
I love essays in the same way I love short stories – although the two are very different. For me, it’s all about time. Essays (and short stories) are perfect for shorter chunks of time, like a lunch hour or 15 minutes before going to bed or waiting for someone.
Maybe it has been awhile since you read an essay. If so, the Library has a great selection to choose from. At the top of my list is Creative Nonfiction, one of my favorite magazines and perhaps my favorite form of writing. I like Lee Gutkind’s description; as the editor and founder of Creative Nonfiction the magazine as well as several books on the subject, he knows a few things about essays and whatnot. (Pictured: True Stories Well Told, from the first 20 years of Creative Nonfiction Magazine and one of the books currently on my nightstand.)
“In some ways, creative nonﬁction is like jazz—it’s a rich mix of ﬂavors, ideas, and techniques, some of which are newly invented and others as old as writing itself,” Gutkind writes on his magazine’s website. “Creative nonﬁction can be an essay, a journal article, a research paper, a memoir, or a poem; it can be personal or not, or it can be all of these.”
Creative Nonfiction offers tremendous content; some pieces are from well-known authors and others are by writers who have never submitted anything for publication. It’s compelling journalism and every issue is different. Best of all, it is published right here in Pittsburgh and has a devoted readership that extends well beyond our bridges.
Additional essay collections that I’ve enjoyed recently include:
Men Explain Things to Me, by Rebecca Solnit You may know the name Rebecca Solnit from her now-viral essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” which launched the book of the same name. You might also think that this is a humorous essay collection, but aside from the first essay it isn’t. Solnit writes honestly about a range of women’s issues and social justice topics.
Whatever … Love is Love: Questioning the Labels We Give Ourselves, by Maria Bello We’ve already discussed this back on June 9 in this Eleventh Stack post, but it’s so good that it is worth highlighting again.
I consider Anne Lamott a national treasure and love her writing. If you haven’t experienced her particular blend of religion, politics, self-reflection, parenting wisdom and advice from the school of life, start with Small Victories: Improbable Moments of Grace, which is a collection of previous and newly-published essays. And after that, go back and read all of her work. (Except her novels. You can skip those.)
In This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett does, indeed, write about her marriage and a lot more, including writing.
Reading these essays has made me want to read more of Roxane Gay, Barbara Kingsolver, classics by Virginia Woolf, and—although I am partial to female writers—male essayists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Baldwin, Henry David Thoreau, Oscar Wilde, Adam Gopnik and David Foster Wallace.
Who am I missing? What say you?
~ Melissa F.