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Image by Jess Bailey

Writing Essays

“A writer—and, I believe, generally all persons—must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.”
—Jorge Luis Borges

“There are as many kinds of essays as there are human attitudes or poses, as many essay flavors as there are Howard Johnson ice creams. 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.”
—E.B. White

“What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory—meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion—is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.”
—William Maxwell

“An essay is something that tracks the evolution of a human mind. It tracks the evolution of a single consciousness in order to give us an experience—an experience of looking for something and then finding ourselves in a different place by the time we’ve finished our journey. It doesn’t mean that the thing we went in search of has been found or that a problem has been solved; it doesn’t mean that the world has changed, or has been fixed. It means that our understanding of the initial question or subject is different. It’s clearer—or maybe muddier—but it’s at least different. And that experience that we’re allowed to share with the writer feels very pure because the whole movement of an essay is propelled by a fundamentally human impulse to want to figure things out. That’s the thing that moves an essay forward, that inquiry. It’s not narrative posturing or poetic costuming. It’s just thinking, and sharing the experience of thinking.”
—John D’Agata


Image by Jess Bailey

From its inception, the word “essay”—from the French word essayer, to try—implied a sense of experimentation, and in this course, that’s exactly what we’ll do: attempt, to the best of our ability, to weave the abstract qualities of beauty and truth so as to construct artful narratives of our lives. In this class, students will read and interpret a wide variety of contemporary essays and essayistic forms—including personal essays, narrative essays, braided essays, lyric essays, and experimental essays, name a few—and together, we’ll explore the craft and formalistic guidelines inherent to each while simultaneously drafting our own imitations through writing exercises that target point-of-view, form, voice, and structure. Students should expect to produce ample writing throughout the course, offer weekly constructive feedback on the classmates’ manuscripts, and reflect on their own unique creation and revision processes as they begin to identify their own influences and preferences within the genre.

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