Christy Wampole's fascinating essay in today's New York Times takes on the essay and demonstrates that it isn't what most people think it is (and what most teachers lead students to think it is).
It is not this: a "short prose form in which the author's subjectivity is purposely erased or disguised." It is not one of those "untentative" texts that "know what they want to argue before they begin, stealthily making their case, anticipating any objections, aiming for air-tightness. These texts are not attempts; they are obstinacies. They are fortresses. Leaving the reader uninvited to this textual engagement, the writer makes it clear he or she would rather drink alone (paras. 8 & 9).
It is, instead, this: "short prose with a meditative subject at its center and a tendency away from certitude" (para. 8). Wampole adds, "the force of the essay . . . impels you to the undecidable. It asks you to get comfortable with ambivalence" (para. 7).
She connects the closed, false form and the "dogmatism of today's political and social landscape" (para. 22). In its place, she claims an "intutive attraction . . . toward this genre and its spirit as a provisional solution. . . . [A] more meditative and measured version a la Montaigne would nudge us toward a calm taking into account of life without the knee-jerk reflex to be unshakeably right. The essayification of everything means turning life itself into a protracted attempt."
Some years ago, I designed and taught a course in creative nonfiction, moving from reading and writing memoir to exposition to argument and culminating with Walden and a final exam essay defining creative nonfiction. Every year I truly enjoyed the final exam experience: small groups of students shared abstracts of their essays, each group chose one for me to read aloud, and after the reading everyone worked together to define creative nonfiction. I loved teaching that course. I miss teaching that course. And I miss hearing those beautiful explorations in which thinkers engaged "in thinking about [themselves] thinking about things" (para.13).
Some colleagues complained that I didn't teach "the essay," by which they meant the false form Wampole condemns by associating it with dogmatism. But I persevered because true essay writing "is an invitation to maintain . . . elasticity and to get comfortable with the world's inherent ambivalence. And, most importantly, it is an imaginative rehearsal of what isn't but could be" (para. 22).
I walked today and thought about Wampole's words and that course and those writers who trusted themselves to engage in essayism. How brave those students were, how good those essays were, how much I miss them all.