By: Noelle Sterne
Shushing, Exploring, and Writing What You Will in the Essay
I’ve always admired, and giggled at, Phillip Lopate’s much-reprinted essay “Confessions of a Shusher.” An acknowledged master, in this essay Lopate chronicles his monumental piss-offs at the movies at other people who insist on editorializing out loud throughout the film or worse yet, talking about the film to a friend on a phone. It ruins the experience for all of us.
Lopate chose a subject familiar to most of us, whether we’re shushers or shushed.
Recalling my own repressed desires, and occasional courage, to shush movie-blabbers, I found the essay hilarious and full of truth, and the form became a favorite, for reading and writing.
What is a Personal Essay?
Lopate’s confession is not cataclysmic. Nor is G. K. Chesterton’s “Running After One’s Hat” or Joan Didion’s “In Bed” on her migraines (although it may be for migraine sufferers). Yet Tom Paine’s essay “Common Sense“ sparked the bravery of Colonialists to rebel in what became the American Revolution.
In his brilliant introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present, Lopate characterizes the form. Intimate, conversational, often full of humor and irony (as in his own “Confessions of a Shusher”), honest (often squirmingly so), and self-revealing.
The Essay’s Uniqueness
The essay lives between secret thoughts and edited craft. It originates from fires of heart and head, from the writer’s need from sharp, almost painful, observations that clamor. They must be recorded.
To gain acceptance, though, the essay must be tempered with seemly prose and a semblance of structure. Yet it cannot lose its fire, smirking under the correct verbal tea service. Nor can the fire, conversely, burn down the parlor.
In a review in the New Republic of two new collections, Leslie Jamison asks, “What Should an Essay Do?” And answers: “It blends inquiry and confession into a hybrid weave that deepens each. It draws personal material into public mattering.” Chesterton’s “On Chasing One’s Hat” deftly segues into other “awkward” and momentous physicalities, such as making love.
Look for the Meaning or Mischief
Sara Suleri’s “Meatless Days” (from the memoir of the same name) evolves from an ironic look at organ meats to the history of her family, conflicts of culture, and deep emotions.
So the essay can seesaw between triflings and profundities. Two sections of Lopate’s introduction capture these sometimes oxymoronic swings, “The Contractions and Expansions of the Self” and “The Personal Essay as Mode of Thinking and Being.”
If these possibilities excite you for your own writing, good.
But before you dig out that yellowed file of abandoned half-essays, I feel it only sporting to point out a few negatives about the essay.
Why Should You Shun the Essay?
Not to dampen your zeal, these are followed by positives, but some problems with the essay are:
- Less popular today than in the past, you may want to consider writing an essay especially if you want to build writing credits. For example, an excellent magazine called The Pedestrian, solely for essays went ‘on hiatus’ in 2011 after the publication of two quarterly issues. Sadly, only a ghost Facebook page remains.
- There’s’ usually no CIA antiheroes, exploding cars, blonde political interns, impossibly tight-skirted and flip assistants, or paranormal crypt-crossed lovers. The essay is Mozart in a metal-soaked world, and often seems like it written for the elite.
- The essay takes literary patience. Reading can be like plowing through a dense novel (although shorter). When you stick with it, though, the essay yields sublime satisfaction in the exquisite use of words and ideas that invigorate your own.
- The essay has the best welcome from high-end publications. For instance, there are The New Yorker, The Sun, and Tin House.
- Other pubs for less sophisticated subjects and writing, although still with a high credit-amassing quotient, continue to be The Christian Science Monitor, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and “The Last Page” of some glossies.
Why Should You Consider the Essay?
Despite the essay’s delicious freedom for excursions and leisurely ruminations, you still need craft-based judgment on what’s in and what should come out, and how far to go out before you come back in.
- You can choose any topic and make it as meaningful—or playful—as you wish.
- Your essay is highly personal.
- Wallow in describing the experience without worrying about the typical novel’s problems – exposition, rounded characters, or plot contradictions and tie-ups.
- You don’t have to give any craft advice.
- Each reader’s takeaway is their experience.
Why I Love Writing the Essay
I love the essay for all of the above and more, because it tolerates, nay, celebrates, your diving into the smallest details, pondering a while, re-emerging as you choose, and drawing, or intimating grand conclusions. Without abandoning discipline or yielding to the wildly tangential, you can give full reign to your stream-of-associative faculties.
Nor do you have to fear reader alienation.
However you fashion your essay, whatever you hone in on and then swell out to, you’ll connect with readers. Our smalls join with theirs—Chesterton’s chasing, Didion’s migraine, Sulari’s family rituals. Click To Tweet
The old truth is right: the deeper we dare go into ourselves, and the more we discover, expose, and express, the more others will feel and connect.
The more we write about our experiences and thoughts, the more readers will relive their own experiences and relate to ours. And remember our writing.
Two Drops of Ink: The Literary Home for Collaborative Writing
Bio: Dr. Noelle Sterne
Author, editor, writing coach, writing and meditation workshop leader, and spiritual counselor.
Noelle has published over 400 writing craft articles, spiritual pieces, essays, short stories, and occasional poems.
She also contributes pieces to other national and international publications, on dissertation issues and writing. In July and August 2018 she was one of six webinar presenters for its “Writing Gym.” Her topic: “Get Started, Continue Your Draft, and Finish.”
Eons ago, she published a children’s book of original (groan-worthy) dinosaur riddles, Tyrannosaurus Wrecks (What do you get when dinosaurs crash their cars?). Riddles from the book appear in several elementary school language arts texts, and the book was featured on PBS’s Reading Rainbow.
A Chicken Soup for the Soul podcast (May 16, 2017) featured her story “Time to Say Goodbye” from a 2013 volume: https://chickensoup.podbean.com/e/tip-tuesday-why-you-should-remove-toxic-people-from-your-life-and-how-to-do-it/_
Noelle’s book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011) contains examples from her practice, writing, and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings.
Her book Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and SpiritualStruggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015) is an invaluable resource for doctoral candidates.
As part of pursuing her writing dream, Noelle’s mission is to help other writers reach theirs and create the lives they truly desire. Taking her own advice (hard as it may be), she is completing her first novel.
What can you add to the knowledge base at Two Drops of Ink? Problem-solving for the writer and blogger? An essay? Grammar advice? A short fiction piece? A memoir that relates to writers? These are what we are looking for in submissions. Send your submission or pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org Thanks