Essaying the Essay
I'm going out to clean the pasture spring; I'll only stop to rake the leaves away (And wait to watch the water clear, I may): I sha'n't be gone long. You come too. Through the years, many of my colleagues—not to mention nearly all the essaywriting guides to be found in textbooks and on the internet—have taken the position that every essay must must be built around a stated or implied thesis. I beg to differ. Although I mean no disrespect to the thousands and thousands of educators who hold this truth to be selfevident, and who pass it along to their students as if it were gospel, I think the assertion is mistaken, and demonstrably so. Anyone who has reached adulthood can certainly recall having read many kinds of essays, some of which clearly do have a point to make, some of which have a story to tell, some of which have a question to ask, and many of which simply have a territory or an idea to explore. The very history of the word “essay” suggests as much: it comes from the French essai, which is a trial or an attempt; further back, it comes from the Latin exagium, which means a weighing. One weighs something in order to find out how heavy it is. The result of the measurement is not known beforehand; if it were, there would be no reason to measure in the first place. Similarly, students can, and in my class do, write at least some essays which amount to an attempt to find out how much substance a line of thought might have, or to discover where the act of writing might lead. I often ask students to do freewrites or zero drafts for this purpose. These pieces of writing might very well at some point lead to the development of a thesis, which might be expressed in a thesis essay. But they might also stand alone as essays in their own right. For sake of discussion, let us consider the following assertions. I choose to use single sentences because they are more compact than fullblown essays, but will serve the purpose of indicating some small part of the range of rhetorical possibilities in the framing of an essay. 1) If you want to be healthy, you should eat bread. 2) Bread contains nutrients essential for human health. 3) I bought two loaves of bread yesterday, and ate one today. 4) I wonder why Christ chose bread and wine to represent his body and blood. 5) My mother used to bake bread at home. 6) The table was buried beneath broad brown loaves of freshlybaked bread.
This second sample sentence also has the feel of a thesis. Perhaps she would like to document her life for posterity.
.” Such an essay would presumably explain why “you should eat bread. Let’s consider them one at a time. what would follow would be arguments in support of the thesis. for whatever reason. you should eat bread.” While at some point the author might arrive at something in the way of a thesis—the essay might turn into a thesis essay—the more likely line of development would be for the author to shape a narrative that would provide us with a window on her life and whatever events she might be inclined. Perhaps she might want to simply entertain us by telling a good story. the structural framework of the thesis essay would be an appropriate choice in this instance. In any event. This sentence appears to be a fragment of autobiography. The phrasing of this “starter sentence” suggests that a writer continuing in the same vein would produce a persuasive essay targeted squarely at the reader. and perhaps tell what their impact is on the body. 3) I bought two loaves of bread yesterday. 2) Bread contains nutrients essential for human health. Clearly. and ate one today. or what is sometimes called “personal narrative. but is couched in the more oblique. and an attempt to develop this topic by use of the thesis essay framework would seem misconceived. Again. “objective” style favored—and sometimes mandated —by many high school teachers.” The framework of the thesis essay would work just fine here. any of the five statements here could provide a controlling idea for an essay. the thesis is already stated. 4) I wonder why Christ chose bread and wine to represent his body and blood. 1) If you want to be healthy. The implied essay would inform the reader about which essential nutrients are present in bread. addressed directly as “you. Perhaps she would be trying to sort out the details of her daily life in such a way as to give them shape and lasting meaning. It says something close to what the first sentence says. But the nature of each essay would vary according to the rhetorical trappings of the originating idea. add the margarine and rub into the flour using your finger tips. an essay arising from such impulses would not necessarily have a stated or inferable thesis. to share with us.7) Put the flour in the mixing bowl and add the sugar and the salt.
and a certain denseness of imagery. While memoir and autobiography are quite similar and in many cases overlap. the framework the framework “Thesis Argument1 A2 A3 A4” is not structurally much different from the framework “Question Answer1 A2 A3 A4. 5) My mother used to bake bread at home. and I’m going to do my best to persuade you to change your mind.” The second is more complementary. questions that interest them.” The rhetorical relationship between reader and writer is invitational. The essay would be one worth writing and worth reading. like the one which would likely follow from this sentence.” But the tone of the piece and the covenant it creates with between the reader and the writer are quite distinct.” Of the various structural or organizational designs available to an author attempting to develop such an essay. I’m going to assume you disagree. there is again a distinction to be made between an essay in which the focus is on the personal experience and interior life of the narrator. The feel of such an essay. The first is essentially adversarial. calls attention to itself by virtue of the deployment of resources of language normally associated with poetry: metaphor. alliteration. the attempt to seduce
. While it is possible that at the end of this process a student may end up endorsing one of the answers—and. I then ask them to write exploratory reflective essays in which they brainstorm possible answers to the question and test—or weigh—them out. “I’m going to try to figure something out here. collegial.Here is a question arising from reflection. in a very deliberate and self conscious way. when they are confronted with thoughtprovoking material. and I’d like you to walk through it with me. hyperbole. The structure a questionbased essay such as this one is certainly analogous to the structure of a thesis essay. I frequently ask my students. it says “I have a point to make. it says. Here we are in the territory known as memoir. to make an effort to articulate. in much the same vein as the excerpt from Robert Frost with which this essay begins. in which the attention of the narrator is directed toward someone else’s personal experience and interior life. have arrived at a thesis—it is also possible that the student may wind up with a purely reflective paper which shows the movement of the student’s thought but does not result in the student taking a stand. the thesis essay framework is perhaps the least useful. rather than adversarial. 6) The table was buried beneath broad brown loaves of freshlybaked bread. It is difficult in either case to see how such an essay could be said to be “making a point. which might conceivably occur somewhere in the middle of the essay of reminiscence discussed just above. but for again for much different reasons. It just doesn’t work in this case. in so doing. This sentence. the element of performance. its texture and tone. and an essay.
strangely inhabited. it was now deserted—or rather. Normally a fairly busy road in summer.the reader not by means of argument but by means of craft. but to subject the process to the kind of patient attention that the act of writing frames and enables: what we might simply call reflection. This sentence might appear in an essay describing the process by which bread is made. At one point in the road a goodsized deer stood in full view. both the author’s and our own. 7) I put the flour in the mixing bowl. A processbased essay is nothing more than an attempt to translate experience into words. as a horse will stretch its neck over a fence. to fix it in words so that it can hold still and be the subject of reflection and sustained attention. Catbirds. then added the margarine and rubbed it into the flour using my finger tips. For example. as though it had not expected to see me. no argument. added the sugar and the salt. Robert Finch has a lovely essay called “Dawn Walk. There is an artfulness to this kind of writing which arises precisely from the quality of the attention that is being paid to the experience and the shaping of it in words. and I caught the fluttering indistinct forms of bats chasing late moths. white tail flashing.” The writer has been unable to sleep. Sometimes there is an explicit pedagogical agenda—one might teach someone how to make bread by articulating the process—but more often. It’s not the subject matter as such that is important. The essay is an attempt to recreate his own experience. robins and towhees fed freely on the cool paved surface. the darkness gradually diluting. ebony hooves thumping the hard ground through the underbrush. the air still heavy and palpable. A thrush flew straight at me and veered off only at the last second. The pleasure of reading such a passage arises in large part from being able to spend time in the company of a person who views the world with such clarity and compassion. As I passed she thrust her head out over the stones to peer at me with large black eyes. we enter into the consciousness of the author as he makes an effort to translate this wholebody experience into black marks in a sequence on a page. casually pecking at fallen seeds or torpid insects. so he gets up and goes for a walk. Then. Faint leathery sounds whipped about my head. leads again to an entirely different set of writerly opportunities and readerly expectations than a thesis essay would generate. Instead. as though suddenly realizing what I was. she was gone. calmly munching leaves on the other side of a stone wall. I suspect
. Midway through the essay. the generative impulse is neither to instruct nor to persuade. There is no thesis here. we read this passage: I set off down the highway.
an unraveling of identity. There’s an intimacy. and she cannot examine herself without examining the world.
.... and writing..In reading an essay. but an exploration. the ideal essay is not an assignment. the sound of an engaging voice. a complicity. I feel that I’m going on a journey. An essay. I want to see a piece of the essayist. either in agreement or in controversy. It thrashes and moves. the essayist cannot examine the world without examining herself. and I lay their books aside with a sense both pleasant and regretful. Even in a good thesis essay. must go past the facts. When I read a good essay. the sense of being present to the workings of a alert mind. that can arise only when the writing arises from deep within the soul. and a person who cares what he or she is writing about. in the end.. for the establishment of a kind of kinship and fellowfeeling arising out of a set of shared values.For me. The essayist is searching for something and taking me along.. and I won’t either. there is more at stake than an argument. containting the essay from which my own essay borrows its title. Alan Lightman. looking after them as they move away as one watches a friend out of sight. I want to see a mind at work. the real subject of the essay is the essayist. in his introduction to Best American Essays 2000. a questioning. in this conception of it. I want to feel that I’m communicating with a real person. An essay. — for an exchange of thoughts. Burges Johnson articulates his sense of what the rewards are for a reader who comes to know a writer in the collegial sense that I have been discussing: Those essayists whom I love best have somehow mastered the art of writing to me direct. That something could he a particular idea. articulates a similar sentiment: . an introspection. to be dispatched efficiently and intelligently. The facts are important but never enough. imagining. is the vehicle for the connection of one mind to another. in such a way that I feel every now and then that here is my time for reply. When you care about something. struggling to understand. an essay must travel and move. for me. not the least of which is that both reader and writer invite and honor one another’s company. like all living things.. you continually grapple with it. because it is alive in you. too. In his 1927 book of essays The Well of English and the Bucket. spinning. a meaning in the wallow of observations and facts. of shaking hands in goodby.that this author could write as compellingly about reading Shakespeare or baking bread or buying a pair of shoes. then he isn’t struggling to grasp. The payoff for the reader here is the pleasure of collegiality. If the essayist has all the answers..
is the first paragraph of a student essay: Land. read this. in magazines and anthologies and textbooks and on the internet. First. Here for example. “Here. reflection papers by the hundreds—which they found entertaining or thoughtprovoking or inspiring. To define the essay as the statement and defense of a thesis is reductive and largely inaccurate. Throughout the years. that their own voices must be untrustworthy and unreliable. What a terrific thesis essay this is. I really do. one which puts the writer in a predetermined role and demands that he stay there. none of which are necessarily predetermined. Many of us compound the artificiality by telling students they must not use the pronoun “I. in Harper’s. In all those years. Every week I read essays in the New Yorker. is now one of the world’s most coveted resources. even English teachers whose devotion to the thesis essay is the cornerstone of their educational edifice. What’s wrong with this picture? Three things. I have often had colleagues recommend and share with me essays— student essays. The vast majority of the essays I read are not in fact thesis essays at all. When America purchased the entire west through the Louisiana purchase. the thesis essay is an artificial form. I spent many years as a teacher dreading the essays I was going to have to face. I sympathize. many ways to develop a line of thought on paper. students often do the kind of horrendous violence to the language that makes these essays torture to read and agonizingly slow to correct. the only places where thesis essays are the predominant form of writerly discourse are the high school and college classrooms where students are made to write them. once in abundance and cheap in price. in the New York Times. professional essays.
. forsaking their own more straightforward conversational diction and syntax. predictably.” The effect of this restriction is to encourage the students to indulge in a different kind of pretense— that they are being “objective” if they simply refuse to own up to what they are in saying. We make a rule that students cannot write in their own voices. perhaps. I have never had anyone. and yet we demand that they pretend to be. in the effort to arrive at this “objective” voice. many decisions that a good writer will make from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph. come to me saying. I have heard teachers complain week after week and month after month and year after year about the piles of (thesis) essays which they “have to” read. essays which I suspect the students were dreading having to write. in the Op Ed pages of the Honolulu StarAdvertiser. the students conclude.” On the other hand.The point is that there are many types of essays. and they begin to work on developing an essay writing “voice” which is located in some imagined objective consciousness existing somewhere outside of themselves: in textbooks. Second. In fact. Most students are not in fact authorities.
unwilling to explain.“). Although many American’s were upset. they realized that now they were able to expand from their meager east coast and now had the opportunity to own their own land. American’s expanded into the west. consider this passage: I spent a lot of time trying to decipher what the narrator meant by "I have passed by the watchman on his beat and dropped my eyes. Where to begin? There are too many things wrong here to even hope to address without overwhelming the student. was unheard of. Most of the American’s had come over from Britain where owning land of your choice of location and size. She has a thesis. outright falsehoods: (“Land in Britain was never owned by the citizens but rather by the government. But it was a once in a lifetime opportunity and Jefferson knew that it would better the nation. And yet the writing is a disaster. and unintentionally humorous misstatements (“American’s expanded into the west. Land in Britain was never owned by the citizens but rather by the government. One might overlook the minor mechanical errors. molded Americans’ core values and ideologies of individualism. achievement.Jefferson was criticized for making such a “poor decision” and for not passing the idea through congress. But the essay is also loaded with inaccuracies: overgeneralizations about what is being asserted: (“America purchased the entire west through the Louisiana purchase”). was only trying to do what she was asked to do. the effort to work in an “objective” voice drives the student to create a syntax that may sound authoritative but makes no sense either grammatically or conceptually (“A natural inclination of being competitive soon developed between the American’s. taking their churches and homes with them.” She has tried to gather what facts she possesses together and come up with a credible analysis of how the existence of the western frontier helped to shape American values. who after all. By way of contrast." My question
. It is hardly surprising that a teacher faced with this essay would throw up his hands in despair. it gave many ambitious men a chance to make a plot of land into a substantial business and life. creating a drive in our society that would forever remained embedded in America’s culture. During the postrevolutionary era. She has striven to mirror the language of the textbooks by avoiding the use of the pronoun “I. taking their churches and homes with them. A natural inclination of being competitive soon developed between the American’s.”) No student writing in her own voice would ever assert that an inclination developed which created a drive that became embedded in a culture.“). Furthermore. and is sitting there now. mass quantities of uncharted land and the quest to obtain it. When Americans’ got a chance to explore and conquer the land. hoping that she has earned it. and progress. stated in the last sentence. waiting to be praised. This student is laboring mightily here to fulfill the teacher’s expectations. creating a drive in our society that would forever remained embedded in America’s culture.
but that still didn't answer why he was unwilling to explain it. Students are not being asked to consider all the facts. or plausibility? Which paper is more successful as an essai? Why do we assume that students will get more benefit if we teach them to write like that rather than like this? Third. this is called footwear. Given the builtin handicaps we ask students to labor under. She does not have point to argue. Whenever you want to go outside. How do you tell someone you just felt like wandering around in the dark? It might have been an impulse of the narrator. and even if they did they would not suit the purpose of students wishing to dance or play tennis or walk on the beach or get married. It's a hard thing to explain an impulse or whim to another person. It’s like handing every student a pair of size ten combat boots and saying. because of the time constraints surrounding most of the writing students are asked to attempt. it is not right to say or imply to students that this is the only or most important kind of writing they must learn to do. since it is unusual behavior. “Here. I know that there have been times when I've been sitting in the middle of math class or something. Quite often. is it any wonder that they buckle under the strain? There is of course a value to asking students to learn about and practice writing the thesis essay as one form among many others. instead. positive and negative. I realized there really is no explanation for taking a nighttime walk. and for no apparent reason I suddenly get an urge to practice piano.was. The world of essay writing
. And yet. they do not have time to do an adequate job of considering all the relevant data and all the points of view that might be pertinent to a thoughtful examination of the topic at hand. authority. which paper would you prefer to read? Which paper shows greater control. the very logic of the thesis essay encourages bad thinking. But upon further consideration. explain what? At first I thought he meant he was unwilling to explain to the watchman what he was doing walking around at that hour. I mean. clarity. if he wasn't doing anything wrong. The narrator just didn't want to try to make the watchman understand. then he shouldn't feel reluctant to tell anyone what he's doing. so he avoided the watchman's eyes as he passed. The narrator had probably foreseen that the watchman would question his reason for taking a night stroll. he was simply in the mood for it. She uses the pronoun “I. This student is violating almost all of the conventions of the thesis essay. As a result. However. they often put together essays which make compelling sense only if the reader is willing to ignore all the information which the writer has chosen—or been forced—to ignore.” Such shoes would not fit everyone. Even though I usually hate piano lessons. they are being asked to select the facts which will bolster their arguments.” She consciously makes connections between the “objective” material under discussion and the subjective experience of her life. especially if they find it upsetting. since night/darkness is generally considered an inappropriate time for doing so. and how she went about coming up with a plausible answer. she is using the writing to explain the thinking process she went through: the question that the text generated in her mind. logic. wear these on your feet.
there are many. to know that there is more to the writing life than the thesis essay. I don’t mean to suggest that I have any plans to give up on structured discussions. more ways of thinking about how to write well and think well
. But like any other formulaic solution to any other real problem. “If all you’ve got is a hammer. and its own limitations. They’re outgoing. I learn a great deal about my students. When I sit down at the table with a stack of papers to read. by what they choose to write. letters. but looking forward to the experience. And I’ve got to say that the results are always interesting. Each form has its own dynamics. its limitations are debilitating. I am always amazed that some of the very same students who would never speak in a structured framework just come out of the woodwork in the open forums. a formula. Each of these forms encourages the student to essai. This is as it should be. they begin to take a more active part in the structured class discussions as well. Sometimes we do ask students to work within structural constraints or time constraints. But if that is all we do. they’re funny. personal narratives. but also so that all students can see that there are many ways to shape and participate in a discussion. as people and as writers... a weighing. Students need to play in these fields as well. I almost always find myself not dreading it. reflective essays. to make a trial. other than that it should represent an hour’s worth of time on task. Even when framing directed assignments for students. questionbased essays. if we don’t allow students the opportunity to explore on their own the directions their thoughts take them in. As the old saying would have it. It is useful for some purposes in some situations. in which I simply ask students to write down any topic they like on file cards. analogical essays.is infinitely more various and nuanced and seductive than what we generally choose to show to students. but as someone sincerely interested in trying to understand what it is the writer is trying to do. many possibilities other than thesis essays: process essays. For the last fifteen years I have asked students to hand in one piece of writing each week for which I provide no direction and no constraints. and then we just flip through the cards and toss out the topics. But I do want to make sure that I provide other kinds of discussion experiences. But every once in a while I set aside a class period for what I like to call “Open Forum” discussions.” Students need to have more tools at their disposal. we do them a real disservice. The shift in the frame seems to give them “permission” to be themselves and speak in their own voices. once they have “come out” in an open forum. The thesis essay is a structured frame. And no matter what they write. so I perhaps help her with it. not only for those whose strengths emerge in those settings. voices which are rich and wonderful. they have lots of things to say. its own potential power. and always instructive. Every year I have students who are reluctant to speak up in organized class discussions. comparison/contrast essays. everything looks like a nail. I can position myself not as someone waiting to be convinced. they’re articulate. and the range of student capability in writing is much broader and more impressive than the thesis essay allows them to demonstrate. dialogues. the list is potentially infinite. an attempt. The analogy to essay writing should be clear. Quite often.
. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. situations in which none of the tools they have ever used is adequate to the demands of this new situation. You wield it. We have an obligation as teachers to show our students the greater possibilities. you will find a box canyon. You hammer out reports. and in a twinkling. The writing has changed. they have to learn how to invent—as I have done here—an appropriate form when the need arises. they have to be prepared to face. how to use the writing as a catalyst for exploration and discovery rather than as a blunt instrument to beat the reader into submission—is a student who has never been given the chance to learn how to write. The new place interests you because it is not clear. Annie Dillard begins A Writing Life with these words: When you write. and it digs a path you follow. or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow. You attend. dispatch bulletins.than just this one primary tool. You go where the path leads. a woodcarver’s gouge. who has never had to try to solve the problems any real writer must face—what to write about. or this time next year. In your humility. At the end of the path. how to listen to what the writing has to say back to the writer. Furthermore. and have some experience in dealing with. The line of words is a miner’s pick. in your hands. you lay out a line of words. A student who has never gotten inside the process described here. how to get it started. of learning how to use writing to teach themselves how to think. who has never undergone the dilemma of having to face a blank page without a plan.
. You make the path boldly and follow it fearfully. how to shape it. . how to pay attention. Is it a dead end. and allow them to experience the greater rewards. a surgeon’s probe. how to use the act of writing to help them find out what they really think and who they really are. watching all the angles. you lay down the words carefully. In other words. from an expression of your notions to an epistemological tool.