“What Can the Essay Be?”

I’m taking on the challenge of writing one essay a week in 2017.  My essays will be formulated to answer a question or prompt.  This first essay is my response to the question “What can an essay be?” offered by Leslie Jamison.  My weekly essays, regardless of topic, will be exploring the boundless nature of essays and what this particular form makes possible.

What can the essay be?

The ever-reach of the essay is its finest “can.”  The ever-reach.

Like when you find that essay letter from your ex-lover.  Even if that version of you no longer exists, you can still feel the power of those aged words finding relics of that former you.  The barbs. The accusations.   Like when you discover Baldwin as a time traveler who casually wipes away the smug creases on your face.  You come back to works like these after lapses in time and discover they are not unalive.  The tawdry precept that words die, dies in the power of their reoccurrences.

And. Even when I read a writer who performs and adheres to traditional essay rules, even when that writer shows no evidence of derailment or digression, I’m always waiting to be surprised.  Because the essay itself holds the possibility that at any moment it can turn on you, punch you, or grab your head in the weirdest, most unanticipated way.  It can turn violent or surreal by absconding all the lucidity that had just been so carefully laid.  (As a trap, I often hope.)

img_1980What drew me to the essay as a child was its reliability; like a religion assuring me the form would hold all my internal wandering.  A certain logic of the lines made me feel safe.  I suppose, as a child writer, I needed that kind of guarantee.  What seduced me as an adult, though, was the inverse: the revelation that the rules could, actually should, be abandoned.  Writing is worshipping and traditional, unexamined forms of prayer like the essay sell an illusion of safety.  Ironically, liberation is in the abandonment of rules and the literary embodiment of formless, freestanding nudity.

Even in the attempt at essay, even in a bombastic failure of stopping short of a pronouncement, or a tsunami of boring prose, or cringe-worthy unoriginality, or a spineless compromise  — even the nothing-essay, to me, is something because the sound of utter collapse, in an essay, sounds like a throw.  The essayist, therefore, is incapable of failing, even if the last sentence remains unfin