Uncategorized | June 04, 2004
WHAT MAKES A GREAT ESSAY?
The comments to my June 1 posting have been thought-provoking and welcomed. Today, I’d like to focus on one of the topics under discussion: our essays. Finding and publishing compelling personal essays remains a top priority for The Missouri Review. With that in mind, I thought I’d talk about my own influences, perhaps as a preview for what our readers can expect and as a guide for potential contributors.
At the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) conference held in Chicago this last April, I had the privilege of attending a panel featuring Phillip Lopate. I had long admired his work and used his anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay, in teaching creative nonfiction. His introduction alone is worth the price of the book. And, in fact, it has helped shape my own understanding and appreciation of the essay. Some of the hallmarks of the personal essay, according to Lopate, include intimacy, an openness of form, a conversational quality, honesty (“a drive toward candor”), and the author as one who notices the small, aware of his or her own weaknesses and frailties. “I am more than the perpetrator of that shameful act; I am the knower and commentator as well,” Lopate writes.
I think the above quote points to one important aspect that separates short stories from creative nonfiction in style. The essay is more than a short story that’s “true.” More than narrative alone. Patricia Hampl has another way of getting to that point. She says you show and tell. Carol Bly, in Beyond the Writers’ Workshop, says that creative nonfiction attaches meaning to anecdote. “All you have to do is be truthful, tell things in your personal voice, and have your modus operandi be revealing your own life circumstances through anecdote or narrative and revealing the meanings you attach to those circumstances, rather than arguing a point. Creative nonfiction is basically about the author’s wisdom,” she writes.
I don’t know about you, but the expectation of having to be wise is enough to send me into writer’s block. And none of the above aspects of the personal essay addresses writing at the sentence level. So a great personal essay has to mean something—answer the question, “So what?”—display a certain wisdom, and offer sentences that are “fresh and exciting,” as one blog responder puts it. A tall order. But before closing, I want to remind our readers that in addition to publishing seasoned writers, we’re in the business of discovering new writers. I’ll look for the “perfect” essay, but appreciate the promising essay as well.
Now it’s your turn. As a reader or writer, who has influenced your tastes? What themes and subject matters do you find appealing? Do you prefer a more traditional essayistic approach, lyrical essays, those that “push the genre boundaries,” memoir? Some responders listed their favored authors. I’d like to hear more. In the meantime, I’ll circulate a request for our staff to propose some of their favorite creative nonfiction authors. I eagerly await your responses.
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