16 Nov

Essay Assay

I’ve been working my way through a volume of essays by E. B. White (aptly titled Essays of E. B. White), and yes, this is totally cheating, but today I’m going to let a real expert do the talking. Here’s what the esteemed Mr. White has to say in the forward to his Essays, about the essay form. It should be obvious why this speaks to me:

The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about everything that happens to him, is of general interest.[...]Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays.

The essayist arises in the morning and, if he has work to do, selects his garb from an unusually extensive wardrobe: he can pull on any sort of shirt, be any sort of person, according to his mood or his subject matter–philosopher, scold, jester, raconteur, confidant, pundit, devil’s advocate, enthusiast. I like the essay, have always liked it, and even as a child [I] was at work, attempting to inflict my young thoughts and experiences on others by putting them on paper.[...]

There is one thing the essayist cannot do, though–he cannot indulge himself in deceit or in concealment, for he will be found out in no time.[...]

[...]The essay, although a relaxed form, imposes its own disciplines, raises its own problems, and these disciplines and problems soon become apparent and (we all hope) act as a deterrent to anyone wielding a pen merely because he entertains random thoughts or is in a happy or wandering mood.

I think some people find the essay the last resort of the egoist, a much too self-conscious and self-serving form for their taste; they feel that it is presumptuous of a writer to assume that his little excursions or his small observations will interest the reader. There is some injustice in their complaint. I have always been aware that I am by nature self-absorbed and egotistical; to write of myself to the extent I have done indicates a too great attention to my own life, not enough to the lives of others. I have worn many shirts, and not all of them have been a good fit.

Two of the best compliments I’ve received lately have been been about my writing, and the satisfying part was not their praise of content or quality but their confirmation that I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do. In a comment on this Thanksgiving craft post (which has gone minorly and inexplicably viral on the Eastern Europe Facebooks, where I’m pretty sure they don’t celebrate the pilgrims’ first harvest on the shores of the New World, Roberta said my crafts were “cute [yet] achievable for those of us who are lazy/time-challenged/uncreative/lazy.” Yes! My first round of vetting for WIM crafts is “Do I want this in my house?” and the second round is “Will lazy/time-challenged/uncreative/lazy people be able to do this?” You might think by now I wouldn’t care if anyone read my paid posts (because I get paid no matter what), but it really does make my day when someone takes the time to say, “Hey! I’m going to do this!”

The other compliment came from Shalini, who said in a FB comment on another NaBloPoMo post, that I was an essayist–not a blogger or even a generic “writer” but an essayist. I’d never thought of it that way, never thought of myself that way, but when I saw it put in those terms–and coming from a capital-W Writer no less–it clicked that blogging for me is a spectrum that includes both casual online journaling and *tiny fanfare* composing essays, and holy crap, yes, that’s what I’m trying to do here on my best days, and wow, someone got it, and that feels amazing.

For those of you who come here to read about banalities and see too many photos of what I did over the weekend, fear not: Even now that I’ve discovered my special purpose as an essayist, I’d be a jerk fool to swear off the lo-fi journaling that helps me at the very least flex my ability to write in chunks longer than 140 characters, not to mention remember important minutiae like how much my kids weighed at their three-month checkups (14 lbs. 4 oz. and 14 lbs. 3 oz., respectively). Even E. B. White has some clunkers in his collection.

But regardless of what I do (or don’t do) here on any given day, the thing that will hopefully always make this forum more than just an outlet for a navel-gazing egoist is you. An audience of oneself is just a mirror; it takes two to have a conversation, even if the conversation is still “congenitally self-centered.”

So in the spirit of Thanksgiving, thank you for coming here and reading and commenting, and especially for doing so in greater numbers and with more enthusiasm when I’m striving to be an essayist than when I’m just blathering on about what I did over the weekend. Your feedback gives me reassurance that I’m achieving what I’m attempting, at least on some level, and it also makes me want to attempt and achieve more, which considering my natural complacency is really saying something.

The chronic essayist will always write, because she has to write, but to write for and to and with others cracks the mirror in a thousand places and proves, time and again, that I’m not just a “me” but an “us.” Thank you for being my “us.”

By    4 Comments    Posted in: Regular Entries


  • I love the combination of everything you do. I feel bored by my usual journaling but I don’t feel like I have the brainpower left in the day to do anything else.

  • I’m thankful for great writers like you that are willing to pour their heart out to the internet. I would read your posts no matter what the topic, or craft.

  • If I were a better nerd, I’d do an analysis of that excerpt from E.B. White along with Montaigne, but, well, my total lack of advanced degrees clearly shows I’m lazy (can you tell I spent time with my parents recently?). However, I’m going to say that you DO follow in Montaigne’s path of essayist and do him proud.

  • I’ve always loved to read your writing, and essayist captures it perfectly. You have a way with words and stories that is utterly compelling, and a true pleasure, to read.

Have at it!

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