Defending the Essay as a Form

“What is an essay?”

One of my friends asked me that question when I explained my goal to write an essay every day until my birthday. I knew what I was writing were essays, but I didn’t really know what that word meant. After grappling with a definition for a moment, I finally said, “It’s something between a short story and a poem.”

I’m not sure what else to say about it, because there are almost no other rules about what an essay is or isn’t. James Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work is often described as “a book-length essay.” Well what the hell does that mean? I thought essays were short?

When all else fails, fall back on the appeal to authority, and the authority I’ve chosen is Wikipedia:

An essay is, generally, a piece of writing that gives the author’s own argument — but the definition is vague, overlapping with those of a paper, an article, a pamphlet, and a short story. Essays have traditionally been sub-classified as formal and informal. Formal essays are characterized by “serious purpose, dignity, logical organization, length,” whereas the informal essay is characterized by “the personal element (self-revelation, individual tastes and experiences, confidential manner), humor, graceful style, rambling structure, unconventionality or novelty of theme,” etc.

That doesn’t help at all either. If there’s no place to find a definition that works, I suppose that I might as well take a crack at it.

To me, an essay is a complete thought, in writing. Sure, we have our fleeting thoughts (tweets) and our long-term plans (novels). We have really good daydreams too (short stories), and then we have our things that we roll around in our heads for a bit, turn over a few times, and then move on to the next thing. That’s what an essay feels like to me, and that’s what I like about it. It gives me just enough of a topic without boring me.

I try to make my essays fun because reading should be fun, even if you’re learning something or commiserating. Books have always felt like a chore to me, and I don’t mean that as a judgment for anyone else. I just mean that I don’t have the attention span to read a book, and I certainly don’t have the attention span to write one. I like to get in and get out to the next interesting topic. I’ve recently started reading manga, and while I still greatly prefer watching anime to reading it, I like reading manga now more than I like reading books. It’s no wonder- the average manga volume has between 7,000-10,000 words, which is right in the sweet spot of my attention span.

I can’t draw, so I don’t do manga. But I can write, so that leads me to the form that I like reading the most. My brother used to box, and he explained to me the month before a fight, where you cut out all the smoking and drinking and really prepare your body to be in peak condition for the fight. I’ve started thinking about this 36-day challenge as my training for when I go big time. The original idea was to write 36 essays, and maybe one or two of them would be any good and I could edit them later. But no, this is all training and practice, and the real writing doesn’t start until day 37. That’s how I’ll stay motivated to keep going. Right now, I’m teaching myself how to create. Once I turn 33, I’ll be ready to create something good.

I want that something good to be an essay, because I want you actually read it and I want to actually write it.


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