First-person essays span space, time and subject: the town dump, an obsessive bird, or a toy from the 60s–all subjects of essays I’ve published–are just one shuffle of an endless deck of compelling themes. Mongrel lot or not, it’s never the main topic of an article that tells, however the style and stance of its author–what may appear the least likely of essay subjects could be made a piquant page-turner with a writer’s winning hand. We’ll look only at choosing the topic, slant and voice of one’s essay, constructing a lead, building an essay’s rhythm and packing a punch at essay’s end.
Tackling a Topic
Because one of the great appeals of the non-public essay may be the conversational tone essayists take, it seems a given that it’s far better be conversant together with your subject. But “write everything you know” may also be an inkless cage; some of the best essays are a voyage of discovery for both writer and reader. You may accidentally flip some breakfast cereal together with your spoon and have an epiphany about the origins of catapults. That little leap might take you seven leagues into the history of siege engines and voila!–a piece for a history journal comparing ancient weapons to new.
Subjects sit, stand and float throughout you: should you write about baseball, bacteria or bougainvilleas? The important thing is engagement together with your topic so that the angle your writing takes is pointed and penetrating. That you don’t write about cars, you write about the fearful symmetry of a 1961 T-Bird. The essayist must be, to paraphrase Henry James, one of the people on whom nothing is lost. Idly looking over at a fellow driver stopped at a traffic signal might be considered a moment to yawn help me write my essay, however it may also be considered a moment to think about how people amuse themselves in their vehicles. An article here about new car technology, an article there about boredom and its antidotes.
Essays are actually at your fingertips: consider a piece on how fingerprint technology evolved. Or at your nosetip: my lately published essay was in regards to a lurking smell in my own house that generated a mad encounter with attic rats. Humble topics can spur sage tales: Annie Dillard’s recounting of seeing a moth consumed in a candle flame morphs into a elegy on an individual’s decision to reside a passionate life. That you don’t need glasses to find your topics, just a willingness to see them.
Slant and Voice
Which way should your essay tilt? Some essays wrap blunt opinions in layered language, ensnaring a reader with charm, not coercion. Louis Lapham’s essays often take a political angle, but any advocacy is cloaked in beguiling prose. A how-to essay might explain a procedure, but its steps wouldn’t function as the mechanistic ones of an information, but more the strategy of throwing procedural doors open, lighting from within. Personal-experience or “confessional” essays done well deftly break free with impressionistic strokes: words evoking sensations, scents, and subtleties. Consistency in tone is compelling: leading your reader through your essay with sweet conceptual biscuits only to possess them fall hip-deep in a polemical cesspool at essay’s end is counter-productive. Essays need elasticity-they can feint and jab at ideas, but shouldn’t sucker-punch.
Essays are personal–the best of them can seem like conversation having an intelligent, provocative friend, but one with remarkable discretion in editing out the extraneous. Whether the phrase “I” appears at all, you need to maintain your essay, and pungently. It can’t be simply “How I Spent My Summer Vacation”; it must certanly be “How I Spent My Summer Vacation Tearfully Mourning My Dead Ferret.” Never hide in an essay. Essays aren’t formless dough, they’re the baked bread, hot and crusty. Cranky, apprehensive or playful, your candid voice must be a continuing: you never want your essays to roar just like a lion in a single paragraph and bleat just like a mewling lamb in another (unless it’s done for effect).
Lead or Lose
Leads are big. If your first bite of a meal is bitter, you’re likely to put the fork down and call for take-out. You’ve got to seize readers from the get-go. One method is direct address. Here’s the lead from a write-up of mine about dictionaries:
Consider your favorite book. No, better yet, go and get your favorite book, feel its heft in your hand, flip through its pages, smell its bookness. Read a passage or two to send that stream of sparks through your head, the alchemy that happens when the written word collides with the chemicals of one’s consciousness. Delight may be the fruit of this collision.
It tells the reader to complete something, with a visual and sensual context. It’s hard for a reader not to read that lead and avoid doing what it requests, at least in the reader’s imagination. Here’s another lead of mine that has a different tack, certainly one of identification or empathy:
Scuttlebutt had it that Barbara Cartland, the doyenne of romance writers, did much of her early writing at the piano, stark naked. However that strains credibility, everyone’s heard about writers who insist they can’t write without their ancient manual typewriters with the missing keys, or their favorite fountain pens (or possibly even a stylus and hot wax). Writers could be a peculiar lot, and it’s not surprising that their composing methods could be all around the map.