An essay is an entity in itself that moves, explores, sometimes discovers and enlightens, explains, clarifies, and attempts to relate in some way to the world outside of it. An essay moves on its own and is sometimes moving its readers to do the same, or at least to think about its movement in a critical way. In her essay “Montaigne,” Virginia Woolf writes, “Movement and change are the essence of our being; rigidity is death; conformity is death: let us say what comes into our heads, repeat ourselves, contradict ourselves, fling out the wildest nonsense, and follow the most fantastic fancies without caring what the world does or thinks or says. For nothing matters except life; and, of course, order” (135). I have been wondering a lot about “movement” and “change” recently. On a personal level, I recognize how mentally and emotionally challenging it is to relocate oneself and how resistant one becomes to change over time. While I appreciate progressive change for the better, change on a personal level is more difficult to cope with, even the slightest change: sometimes accepting faults such as ending a sentence with a preposition, however intentional or unintentional this fault may be. But, as Woolf points out, “rigidity is death.” If nothing in a person’s life ever changes, then life would become even more monotonous than it already is, and cease to be meaningful or useful. There is a slight distinction between meaningful and useful. A useful life implies purpose or calling, an ability to do something useful to someone else or a group of people. A meaningful life implies the positive implications made by one’s purpose or calling, which makes a meaningful life slightly more impactful than a useful one. A meaningful life may or may not be useful to someone else, but is definitely self-fulfilling. A meaningful life is meaningful to oneself. Nearly all meaningful aspects of my life occur when I make uncomfortable decisions, not unsafe, but uncomfortable. I might be afraid, lost, lonely, or doubtful, but it is only going against my own mentally prescribed definitions of what is “easy” and what I am capable of that leads me to any place I have later felt is a place worth having been. Woolf says, “conformity is death,” thus implying that to conform is to settle, to fail to live up to one’s full potential.
What Woolf says after the colon in “Montaigne” appears to be more about the life of an essay than the life of a human: “let us say what comes into our heads, repeat ourselves, contradict ourselves, fling out the wildest nonsense, and follow the most fantastic fancies without caring what the world does or thinks or says.” Beyond essaying, this part of this passage also demonstrates the essence of the essay, which I gather to be an exploration of one’s mind, and therefore an exploration of one’s life. It is through one’s crazy consciousness that one discovers things like purpose and meaning in life, and for an essayist, releasing that chaos from within onto a page is quite possibly the only method of achieving self-awareness, self-discovery, and ultimately, self-identity. An essay identifies with itself, with the essayist, and with some readers. Some readers will identify, and some will not. Any given essay has its limits, but the essayist as an essayist is rather limitless so long as the writing is in such a tone that is not pompous or somehow off-putting for the reader. Because, as Woolf says, “nothing matters except life, and, of course, order.” Order is an interesting concept because humans, in my experience, have appeared far from orderly. There is very little consistency from human to human. Possibly the only consistency I’ve noticed is that humans are capable of good and evil, should one decide to accept that such terms are in any way valid because the grey area between good and evil has run rampant in modern academic discourse. In an essay, the essayist explores the grey area and ponders her own conceptions of what may or may not be black-and-white. Deconstructing binaries is fuel for an essayist. In life, one generally needs some sense of order so as to avoid an unnecessary spiral into the chaos of one’s own mind without order. In an essay, in which an essay has its own life, there need not be as regimented an order as there is in a person’s daily life.
The word “essay” is derived from the Middle French term “essai,” meaning trial or attempt (Harper). In the literal meaning of the word, an essay does something that life does. Each day life persists is a day of making attempts: to breathe, to awake, to move, to produce, sometimes to reproduce; all of these are attempts to live and to continue to be alive. Granted, an essay cannot literally breathe, but it can grow and expand. An essay can move from a state nearly as calm as sleep into excitement and liveliness. An essay can feel reproductive either in content (one’s reproductive endeavors or conquests) or in form (strategic repetition). In Eros the Bittersweet, Anne Carson writes, “Mere space has power” (18). I believe Carson has a strong point. Space does have power. Arguably, there is no wasted space, just efficiently or inefficiently used space. Space has as much power as we give it. Space in one’s life is occupied physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. The point on the spectrum of each of these spaces at which one resides is infinitely diverse and subjective to each individual. This returns me to choices. Each choice we make is an attempt at something: to use time and space as we see fit, to improve one of our personal uses of space in some way (to use space more efficiently), and/or to expand our idea of how to most efficiently use the spaces we occupy. The more efficiently we occupy a space on paper, for example, determines the accessibility, the circulation, and demographic of the reception of that space. The space an essay occupies is highly vitalized with the help an essayist who understands the power a space can have, and this power is infinite as well. Carson writes, “A space must be maintained or desire ends” (26). The space an essayist occupies is no different than any of these personal spaces. An essayist must occupy all of the personal spaces, or at least make an attempt to do so. If this happens, readers will desire more and keep reading. An essayist who can seep into the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual space of her readers does her job as an essayist successfully.
Occupying mental space of one’s reader is no easy task. An essayist must write in a way that is entertaining enough to hold a reader’s attention and intelligent enough to intrigue the reader’s thought process. In The Gastronomical Me, MFK Fisher writes, “it is wrong to think that children with any spirit and intelligence welcome complete monotony” (10). I pulled this quote out of the context Fisher establishes in regards to a child craving diversity in the taste of food. I think Fisher’s point about monotony holds true for adults in the way that it appeals to whatever is left of our childhood self in our adult bodies. Arguably, certain aspects of monotony are appreciated, such as waking up from sleep on a daily basis or the ability to use the restroom when necessary. Beyond biological necessity, the desire to make life meaningful to oneself persists. Thus, monotony becomes overrated quickly for one who desires to imagine something greater for oneself than what currently exists. Potential resides, and it is the childhood spirit that believes in the potential to reach one’s potential, whatever that is. Potential and the peak of one’s potential is another entity that is infinitely diverse. Humans have the capacity for great goodness and great evil. Most people land somewhere in the middle of that spectrum; no one is pure good or pure evil. Carson writes, “Imagination is the core of desire. It acts at the core of metaphor” (77). Imagination leads to desire, which leads to imagination. Without imagination, the essayist, the reader, or anyone else cannot acquire that which is desired. When the essayist lands in metaphor, this is the mark of the active imagination at work, the desire to intrigue the reader to understand the world through the eyes of the essayist. I do this in my own writing when there is no other way to express the particular thought I have in mind. Sometimes this includes strong emotional content or a crying scene that I can’t bring myself to describe literally because the clichéd language of tears brings me to tears.
Metaphor is a persistent, stubborn, malleable tool. Earlier I said the essay attempts to breathe, which is highly metaphorical. Metaphor is necessary as a literary tool, but also in everyday speech. People exaggerate all the time in everyday speech for dramatic effect or to lighten a subject that becomes too heavy during a conversation with unfamiliar acquaintances. Carson writes, “An act of arrest and interception that splits the mind and puts it in a state of war within itself is the act called ‘metaphor’” (74). Metaphor as an act of arrest suggests that metaphor is a trap, containment, a temporary restraint, and I would argue that it is indeed just that. A spoken metaphor forces listeners to stop speaking in order to process the metaphor they just heard, possibly connecting the comparison in their heads, and begin to understand what the literal meaning behind the metaphor suggests. Metaphor as an act of interception reminds me of a conversation moving along like a bouncing ball, and someone takes the ball in her hands and rubs oil on it. The ball is still usable; it just changed in a way that makes it more challenging to maneuver, which stimulates the physical and the intellectual. Like so, metaphor does this with conversation; it intercepts the convolution of a potentially complex subject matter and makes the subject more understandable using an illustrious method: metaphor. Interception may seem intrusive and even interruptive, but is sometimes necessary to explain things to multiple types of learners, readers, speakers, or whoever is on the receiving end of the metaphor. Carson continues, “Together the two halves compose one meaning. A metaphor is a species of symbol” (75). Carson brings this point further, just as I am about to: subtext is a big part of metaphor. An essay as an entity functions like a metaphor. For example, in this essay, I have made a point to speak experientially, metaphorically, theoretically, and critically about only female essayists. Nothing I have written is overtly feminist, but as a female, pansexual essayist in the 21st century, I thought a subtle expression of solidarity would suffice. Over time, I have acquired the belief that discussions of religion and ideology or political affiliation are volatile and thus, difficult to discuss unless I know for absolute certain that I can speak freely. I can count the people with whom I discuss these topics on one hand. Metaphor triggers digression. Metaphor is multifunctional and almost essential for any essay.
An essay that appeals to a reader’s emotions probably also appeals to the reader’s senses. Sensory appeal through metaphor allows the reader to recall memory in an experience similar to déjà vu with one scent. For example, each time I smell a book at a resale store, I automatically return to my friend April, who loves books more than any other material thing in the world. Each time I smell lavender hand soap, I recall the smell of my friend LJ’s incense burning when I first met her. These are common scents that others may not associate with any personal memory whatsoever. But, the same concept applies to the scent of cherry pie. I have no memory association with cherry pie, but someone else might have a significant memory to accompany that scent. In this sense, an essay functions quite like memory association; the essay appeals to some readers and not to others. However, the essay is a form flexible enough to allow the essayist enough freedom to cater it to many kinds of readers. There is no singular type of human; there is no singular type of essay. The essayist and her style of writing develop and change over time. Carson writes, “We habitually describe time in metaphors of passage. Time passes” (120). Carson’s statement is paradoxically appropriate in description of metaphor, a description that can also be applied to the essay itself. There is something habitual that returns the essayist to the essay form. In describing time as “passage,” I feel compelled to explore this idea of passage in writing even further.
Why do we describe time in metaphors of passing? Is it human nature to impose passage onto time as if to simplify time as an entity that merely happens around us? Is it to say that we are not obligated to use time as efficiently as we use space? In a way, using time is using space. We all have a limited amount of time, which we know but don’t enjoy thinking about because it leads to discussions about human mortality and inevitable temporariness that stretches our eyelids open further than we enjoy having them stretched. Our temporary stay on the planet and inevitable departure from it, our limited impact on the course of infinite time is beyond our logical capacity and understanding. We can only ever speculate purpose or calling, which is why I speculated earlier that there is a difference between a useful life and a meaningful life. Carson writes, “Logos in its spoken form is a living, changing, unique process of thought” (132). Talking about time and life to a random passerby on the sidewalk on the way to work could appear quite strange. The essay form allows the flexibility to discuss such things without restraint. The essay allows the freedom to speculate, debate, question, and admit not knowing anything with complete certainty. The essay is an attempt. To what end does the essay attempt to reach? For me, there is no clear end an essay must reach. Unlike a short story in fiction or a short memoir piece, the essay does not require resolution, only acceptance that an attempt was made. Arguably, this attempt just needs to be exploratory enough to have exhausted a particular subject and compel readers to follow along. Do not be mistaken. The reader does not need to agree with everything the essayist says, or anything the essayist says, but the reader should be able to at least follow along with the essayist. The essay should move like a magnifying glass moves over an ancient fossil: slowly, stopping for observation, and moving on at a reasonable pace. I am admittedly inexperienced as an essayist, but from all the reading I’ve done, I’ve noticed that essayists often use aphorisms.
The best essayists who use aphorisms are the ones who use them subtly and sparingly, smoothly slipping them into their writing so as not to appear like a fortune generator for fortune cookies or Dove chocolate candy wrappers. Essays are sort of like chocolate under the candy wrappers. They come in all shades, but generally have a similar texture. Like chocolate inside the candy wrapper, the essay flows smoothly and pulls its consumer with it, regardless of the direction it takes. The shape, structure, size, and prose in every essay will vary from one to another. Chocolate does that too. Chocolate also has an effect on the taste buds. Tastes evolve over time, as does the taste of the essayist, which leads to a slow and steady evolution of an essayist’s writing. Fisher writes, “My hungers altered: I knew better what and how to eat, just as I knew better how I loved other people, and even why” (180). Fisher is a very detailed writer. This is a brief period of aphoristic writing I sifted out of Fisher’s very well written collection of essays that read like memoir, are classified as fiction/literature or food writing in bookstores, and challenge genre lines in many ways. Whether or not a piece of writing is an essay is up to the audience and the essayist. I return to chocolate only to use a metaphor that makes sense in my head. Follow me there. As a child, I loved white chocolate. White chocolate has no cocoa in it whatsoever, yet it is still called “chocolate” and resides next to all the other chocolate in the candy aisle at Target. As an adolescent, I was purely a fan of milk chocolate, which is cocoa convoluted and drowned out of its flavor by milk. Milk chocolate is a bastardized version of chocolate. My palette, however, insisted on refusing dark chocolate and labeled it as bitter, foreign, disgusting. Years passed, as time does, and my palette evolved. I began to consume Ghirardelli dark chocolate and now view 86% dark chocolate as my absolute favorite chocolate delight. I still enjoy the occasional white or milk chocolate, but have a preference towards dark chocolate. My taste in chocolate evolved in and around the many classifications of what chocolate is. Likewise, essays and essayists reside in a genre that has endless flexibility. The genre criteria of the essay form is what the essayist attempts to create within the genre. The common standard seems to be decent prose writing, and everything else about an essay is flexible, so long as the essayist is attentive towards the occasion for the essay.
My own occasion for writing an essay often involves a particular question I have about my past or a question I have about something I’ve observed in my present. The things those occasions share in common are “I” and “question.” I question. As an essayist, I must question everything, including my purpose for writing any essay, the words I choose to include on or exclude from my page, the topics, themes, memories, and other content I choose to explore in an essay. I choose to make it personal and explore my own thoughts and memories. Fisher writes, “How can I write the love story of a woman I don’t know?” (229). I can’t hold agency over anyone’s life but my own. That is what readers will see on my pages. Little parts of me and my memories and experiences and observations appear in my head and gradually seep out, overflowing as my mind often does. My mind gets lost in thought on a regular basis: in the shower, walking to work or classes, listening to music on the train ride to my hometown during the holidays, or cooking in my grandma’s kitchen as my grandma verbally essays her own stories in the same way. We make homemade chocolate covered cherries or peanut butter cookies and the whole house smells delicious. I release my overflowing words and thoughts onto the page in hopes of creating something beautiful or sad or powerful or reaching in some way that will appeal to the spirit, emotion, mind, or body of at least one audience member. Even when I write memoir, it is not pure memoir because I have the freedom to muse as much as I choose. Regardless of where I place my own writing in the grand spectrum of the essay genre, I acknowledge the importance of understanding the history of the genre’s origins while also understanding the need to write for a contemporary audience and have a target demographic in mind. At least for this essayist, there is an occasion for wanting to be read. I want my words to be heard, but not heard by just anyone. I want my words to be read, received, understood, and thought about by those who need them. There are essayists I will always return to because I need to, because their words resonate with me, my thoughts, my writing style, and connect to me in a way that I expect an essay to connect with a reader.
Like most writers, my goals involve eventual publication with the intent that someone will read the words I have placed on the page. In “Essaying the Feminine: from Montaigne to Kristeva,” Nancy Mairs writes, “As far as I’m concerned, my text is flawed not when it is ambiguous or even contradictory, but only when it leaves you no room for stories of your own” (306). My thoughts and emotions and stories will not be identical to anyone else’s experience. But, some of the subtext contains natural reactions and emotions that any human could potentially experience at some point. Grief, for example, is one theme I return to over and over in my writing. I imagine this is because like essay writing, in life we attempt to do whatever it is we set out to do and loss along the way can hinder our attempts at life. Loss and grief go hand in hand, and serve as the interruption of desire, hunger, and attempt. It is a process to lose and grieve, and it is a challenging one. Essay writing is also a process, just as any attempt of action in pursuit of one’s desires is a process, and these processes sometimes involve risk. Carson writes, “Change is risk. What makes the risk worthwhile?” (159). I grapple with this question constantly. As a relatively cautious person, I continue to write, and putting my words in the public sphere for full view and potentially ridicule is a risk. Why am I willing to put myself at risk for constant rejection, critique, and hard work that encompasses the rewriting process? I believe it’s simply because my brain keeps spewing out new thoughts and sorting them out on paper is a sort of release and can be used to relate to the world outside in a way that is productive. Arguably, most essayists would probably appear institutionally insane if outsiders were to reside in the essayist’s brain for an extended amount of time. However, most essayists who appear insane aren’t insane. The seemingly insane essayist simply has many thoughts and constantly observes and questions the world around her.
Readers may question my consistent use of neutral or feminine pronouns. Readers may wonder about my intent in this tactic, but readers need not worry. I enjoy the masculine voice, the feminine voice, and the non-binary voice. I seek to validate all of these voices and hope to hear more from all of them in my future reading. Historically, the essay genre has been heavily masculine, but I am one of many new female essayists sharing my experience and my voice with contemporary readers. Mairs writes, “a woman’s capacity for uttering what is distinctive about her self’s life is especially blunted. Her mutedness tends to become muteness” (310). The feminine voice was silent for far too long, and now the feminine and non-binary voices have the freedom to share the literary canon of essayists with their masculine partners. I will utter my distinctive fiery words on my pages, and allow other essayists to do so as well on their pages. I will choose words like “partners” because I do not want to shut down the masculine voice or downplay the great history of the essay genre. I do want to make clear that feminine and non-binary essayists came into the essay genre’s canon long after the masculine voice had been established there. I am a quiet person, but my voice will not be silenced. I could not say this better than Cynthia Ozick does. In “She—Portrait of the Essay as a Warm Body,” Ozick states, “She may be privately indifferent to us, but she is anything but unwelcoming. Above all, she is not a hidden principle or a thesis or a construct: she is there, a living voice. She takes us in” (324).
Carson, Anne. Eros the Bittersweet. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986. Print.
Fisher, MFK. The Gastronomical Me. New York City, NY: North Point Press, 1943. Print.
Harper, Douglas. Online Etymology Dictionary. 2001-2014. Web. 11 November 2014.
Mairs, Nancy. “Essaying the Feminine: from Montaigne to Kristeva.” Essaying the Essay. Ed. David Lazar. Gettysburg, PA: Welcome Table Press, 2014. 304-317. Print.
Ozick, Cynthia. “She—Portrait of the Essay as a Warm Body.” Essaying the Essay. Ed. David Lazar. Gettysburg, PA: Welcome Table Press, 2014. 318-324. Print.
Woolf, Virginia. “Montaigne.” Essaying the Essay. Ed. David Lazar. Gettysburg, PA: Welcome Table Press, 2014. 130-138. Print.
Jann Kalscheur says
Shannon, reading your essay was like eating Swiss pralines from the Chocolate Caper. I savored its perfect concentration of dark chocolate. It’s sophisticated and irresistible and definitely worth sampling a second time.