The Shape of the Essay

Essay FormDespite what teachers might have taught you, essays often lack a singular form.  Instead they take shape in more organic ways, and resist, as Tim Bascon writes, “predicable approaches.”  But between pure freedom and dogmatic structure, Bascon diagrams a few ways of thinking about the shape and direction an essay can take.  In these approaches, form becomes crucial to the shape of experience and the contour of ideas.

“My own theory is that most personal essayists, because of a natural ability to extrapolate, do not struggle to find subjects to write about. Writer’s block is not their problem since their minds overflow with remembered experiences and related ideas. While a fiction writer may need to invent from scratch, adding and adding, the essayist usually needs to do the opposite, deleting and deleting. As a result, nonfiction creativity is best demonstrated by what has been left out. The essay is a figure locked in a too-large-lump of personal experience, and the good essayist chisels away all unnecessary material.

One helpful way to understand this principle of deletion is to think of the essayist looking through a viewfinder to limit the reader’s focus. The act of framing a selected portion of raw experience from the chronological mess we call “life” fundamentally limits the reader’s attention to a manageable time and place, excluding all events that are not integrally related. What appears in the written “picture,” like any good painting, has wholeness because the essayist was disciplined enough to remove everything else.

Virginia Woolf’s “Street Haunting” is an odd but useful model. She limits that essay to a single evening walk in London, ostensibly taken to buy a pencil. I suspect Woolf gave herself permission to combine incidents from several walks in London, but no matter. The essay feels “brought together” by the imposed limits of time and place.

As it happens, “Street Haunting” is also an interesting prototype for a kind of essay quite popular today: the segmented essay. Although the work is unified by the frame of a single evening stroll, it can also be seen as a combination of many individual framed moments. If we remove the purpose of the journey—to find a pencil—the essay falls neatly into a set of discrete scenes with related reveries: a daydreaming lady witnessed through a window, a dwarfish woman trying on shoes, an imagined gathering of royalty on the other side of a palace wall, and eventually the arguing of a married couple in the shop where Woolf finally gets her pencil.

Today, many essayists are comfortable simply letting go of the overarching story line (such as Woolf’s journey to buy a pencil) so they can organize disparate scenes in a more segmented fashion, separated by bits of white space. All that remains to unify the parts is an almost imperceptible thread of theme, not narrative. Will Baker, for instance, relies on nothing but a title—“My Children Explain the Big Issues”—and four section headings: “Feminism,” “Fate,” “Existentialism,” and “East and West.” Each of his framed vignettes is about a remembered moment with one of his kids. These moments have a broad similarity as a result; however, without their attached labels, we would not be able to connect the parts in a fully satisfying manner. The titles allow us to string together a kind of thematic necklace.”

read more at Creative NonFiction.

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