Essay Writing

Tonight Paul made the comment that he would be reading and correcting essays tonight that his students wrote as part of their semester tests in his class.

It got me thinking about essay writing in high school and college, and the teacher I had in English 104 in college at the University of Idaho who made essay writing something relevant for me.

I'm not sure I really learned to write an essay in high school.  I remember taking a "Basic Composition" class, and an "Advanced Composition" class.  I believe these where the classes that were suppose to teach us to write an essay.

Then I got to college, and my first semester I took English 103.  Again, a class to teach that illusive form of writing, the essay.  In fact, I'm not sure we got past the introductory paragraph and the first two or three paragraphs in English 103.

Then second semester of my English 104 class we learned to write a whole essay.  But something even greater happened to me in that class.  The instructor gave the essay form of writing relevance.

He did this by using a Rolling Stone magazine.

He brought a current copy of this magazine, and showed us an article someone wrote.  Well, it wasn't really an article....it was an ESSAY.

What?  People write essays for the fun of it?  People write essays outside the realm of a high school or college English class?

I'm not sure anyone had ever explained to me that an essay was an actual form of writing, like a novel or a short story.

Until I saw this piece in Rolling Stone magazine.

And Rolling Stone continues to publish essays.  For example, here is an essay Laurie Anderson recently wrote, as she reflects on her 21-year relationship with Lou Reed and his final moments.

If you look up the definition for essay, it says:  A short literary composition on a single subject, usually presenting the personal view of the author.

Somehow this meaning got lost in translation as a high school student.  To me, an essay was an introductory paragraph with a topic sentence, a body with three paragraphs explaining the topic sentence, and a conclusion.  It was a writing exercise, not a literary composition.

I have actually read and enjoyed books of essays.  A couple of my favorites are Kim Stafford's "Having Everything Right:  Essays of Place", and Barbara Kingsolver's "High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never."

Here is a description of Stafford's book:

A collection of essays first published to critical acclaim in 1986, Having Everything Right revolves around the history, folklore, and physical beauty of the Pacific Northwest. Kim Stafford writes poetic and evocative prose as he reflects on such subjects as Indian place names, bears, and local eccentrics. An essay titled "Pine, Fir, Cedar, Yew," begins with Stafford describing his workbench, which he fashioned from scavenged boards, and slowly turns into a beautifully rendered meditation on wood. "Any table of virgin fir, any maple chair, any oak floor is a bundle of stories," Stafford writes, artfully pointing out what most of us would never take time to notice.

And remark's on High Tide in Tuscon:

Novelist Kingsolver (Pigs in Heaven) is not one to let her miscellany stagnate; she has revised or expanded many of the 25 essays included here, most of which have previously been published, and yes, there are thematic links in her view of family, writing, politics and places. The strongest link is Kingsolver's wise and spirited voice, animated by poetic and precise language.

I wish I knew that Teaching Assistant's name who taught English 104 back in the spring of 1982 at the University of Idaho, so I could write him a letter and thank him for showing me how essay writing can be a very beautiful and meaningful thing to read and write.

1 comment:

Christy Woolum said...

Both of those are excellent choices. There are some good essays in Northern Lights edited by Deborah Clow and Donald Snow. This collection also includes poems and short stories. I always love reading about the process of writing.