Essay – from the middle French “essai” – ‘to try, to move forward, as in battle.’
As E. B. White says in the Foreword to his Essays collection, "The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest. He is a fellow who thoroughly enjoys his work, just as people who take bird walks enjoy theirs. Each new excursion of the essayist, each new 'attempt,' differs from the last and take him into new country."
Many essayists aspire to bring childlike perception and enjoyment to the everyday. It would be interesting to know what White would think of how today's blogs, Twitters and phone technology have opened the floodgates for the sharing of 'everything that happens' as if it were 'of general interest.'
The sense that writing takes one "into new country" has always been important to me. Words are the means by which we explore. Back in the nineties, I was teaching introductory college composition and E.B. White was my salvation. I could retreat to my office, re-read Going to the Lake for the umpteenth time in the guise of class preparation, and feel that the world was a reasonable and sensitive place. My students, typically, were too busy with much bigger priorities like their social plans (or lack thereof), part-time jobs (or lack thereof) and exams in their “major” subjects to have much interest. But essays, to me, were great attempts to absorb, understand, communicate.
The more I worked with my own essays, the more I realized how the process of writing teaches. Through a grappling with words, we discover something closer to the truth than what we set out to say.
Recently, I have explored David Foster Wallace’s non-fiction. Unlike White, Wallace wants the essay to be messy, to offer up all the author's attempts at capturing experience and thought. A central challenge that Wallace took on was to find a way to show the tumbling multiplicity of what happens in our minds.
I am currently working in ‘creative non-fiction’ which is, for some, an oxymoron. But in taking the creative approach to non-fiction (narrative form and pace, the personal focus of memoir) we bring life to ‘facts’ and other debatable certainties.
In each attempt, the writer takes on the challenge of working within the realm of words – to essai.