For many of us, the word “essay” conjures up thoughts of college application essays or the essay portions from exams in middle school and beyond. Or, perhaps we remember the assigned readings of essays by thinkers like Frenchman Michel de Montaigne (who was the first person to describe his writing as essays back in the mid-1500s), John Locke, Thomas Malthus or Francis Bacon.
Though they’ve been around a long time, and might remind us initially of their use in education, the essay in its modern form is still very much alive and well. Writers as diverse as Joan Didion, John Jeremiah Sullivan, David Sedaris, Jonathan Franzen, and the late David Foster Wallace all have employed essays in their bodies of work to great effect.
The definition of an “essay” is hard to pin down exactly, as there are as many different kinds and expressions of the form as there are people writing them, but perhaps the easiest definition is simply, “a short piece of writing on a particular subject.” What differentiates an essay from memoir is that typically an essay will link or tie personal reflections or stories from the author’s life to a bigger theme or idea. Essays also may require research and need to be supported with facts. Done well, essays provide a way for a writer to explore a topic in a unique way, and for readers, they can be like getting an inside look into someone’s mind and thought processes.
Author Michelle Orange’s book of essays, This Is Running for Your Life, is an excellent example of the power of the essay form from an up-and-coming writer. I hadn’t heard of her or her book, but just stumbled across it in a bookstore and was intrigued. She’s quick-witted and wry, and is as comfortable exploring our culture’s fascination with famous people who die young (and the way that the definition of “famous” has changed for many to now encompass reality television stars and the like) to her Canadian family’s various quirks and history to the way we all get stuck at some point in nostalgia for the music and movies of our youth.
For me, an essay is successful if I finish it feeling like I both learned something about the author and his or her life and I learned about something else, too. Bonus points for essays that really challenge my own viewpoints and thinking. I found those qualities repeatedly in Orange’s book, which made it a pleasure to read.
— LouAnn Lofton, firstname.lastname@example.org