What Makes a Good Essay?



Michele Filgate interviews Leslie Jaminson and Roxanne Gay on their two recent essay collections.  Both agree that a good essay needs to look both inward and outward, combining personal experience and larger cultural ideas, all grounded upon a creativity and intellectual rigor.

Well, going along with what both of you said, I wanted to ask what each of you think makes a good essay. You kind of hit on it already a little bit but … I feel like the essay can be so different, much like a novel. There are different kinds of novels, and there are different kinds of essays. But for both of you, when you’re writing them and when you’re reading them, what do you want to see in an essay?

Gay: I definitely want to see writing that looks both inward and outward. I love the exposure, the way in which people reveal themselves, but I also want an essayist to connect to something beyond themselves, something bigger … that kind of inquiry that’s both personal and beyond personal is what makes a really… Read more »

Reconciling With Dubai


Maryam Wissam al Dabbagh writes about what it means to be from Dubai, and ponders the paradox of exile. 

Do you remember how Dubai was? It’s a question I am often asked when the other person finds out that I was born and raised in this city.

I cannot answer this question, like many others about me and Dubai: “You were born in Dubai, but you are Iraqi? How? What do you mean Sheikh Zayed road was non-existent in the 1990s?” It’s a relationship so complex that I don’t know how to negotiate it anymore. When do I stop examining it, and start living it?

But the truth is, I cannot remember Dubai because I have lived in it all my life. How can you remember what you never left behind? I don’t recall how it was, because I know what it is: Dubai for me has always been constant. The rate of change in Dubai was never alarming, but reassuring—a characteristic I grew accustomed to. I remember during the late 1990s, for example, streets would change in a… Read more »

Between Judgment And Spontaneity


Aging literary scholar, Mark Edmundson reflects on his final days on the basketball court. “Many activities that we pursue with particular fervor,” he notes,  ”are attempts to make time go away, to let us live in a pure present.”  Edmunson finds in the art of writing and the art of sport a deeper awareness of life’s constant push forward.

“This process of imagining a physical act, doing it, then revising it, isn’t far removed from what a writer does. I like to think that the two activities, writing and playing ball, might feed each other. There’s no basketball weakness quite so severe that I can’t figure out a way to begin to compensate; no first draft so chaotic that the right kind of patient, smoothing hand can’t make something out of it. I once heard the novelist Bernard Malamud say that he found revision to be one of the most humanly ennobling things that a person could commit himself to. To be a good reviser, you need the ability to throw yourself out there and, possibly, to make a… Read more »

Beyond the Personal

Empathy Exams

Leslie Jamison describes her sense of the personal essay and its connections to journalism and critical writing.  Her recent collection of essays entitled “The Empathy Exams” combine the personal with the the cultural.  ”I’m interested,” she writes, “in essays that follow the infinitude of a private life toward the infinitude of public experience.”   In this approach, personal experience is not the end of the essay but rather the beginning of making connections to the larger world.  In many ways, empathy is at the heart of what an essay can achieve between the writer’s personal experiences and our own.

“In my own essay, “The Empathy Exams,” I tell several personal stories—an abortion, a failed heart surgery—inside a broader inquiry into the terms of empathy itself: What does it consist of? Can it be taught? I write about my work as a medical actor—following diagnostic scripts—and I write about falling in love and drinking too much wine and crying on the phone, but I also write about a neuroscientist who is using fMRI scans to figure out which parts of… Read more »

The House Allows One to Dream in Peace


“A house protects the dreamer,” writes Gaston Bachelard. Drawing on this idea, Sandell Morse recounts her travels to a house that protected Jews during the war, woven with her own memories of the yellow stucco house she grew up in.

“Toute le monde, everyone, knew it was a Jewish house,” Monsieur Le Hech said, leading me out of the plaza and around a corner. Clearly, this was a grand house, more expansive than I’d thought, belonging, once, to a nineteenth century nobleman, Louis de Veyièves, a man faithful to the Bourbons. What would this nobleman have thought of this refuge for Jewish children? Monsieur Le Hech pointed upward, then watching my face as if to gauge my perception, he asked, “You see?”

Red roof tiles, blue sky, a balcony. Ah, a courtyard. In the History of Beaulieu, I’d seen a photograph of girls scrubbing, then wringing clothes, all posing for the camera’s eye. Above their heads this balcony and blouses hanging on a line. This was ordinary life, the dailyness Germaine described the day we talked—girls washing clothes, peeling apples, and perhaps,… Read more »