An Essay About Essays

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By Megan Stielstra

In the introductory paragraph to this essay about essays I will tell you that you don’t need an introductory paragraph, at least not of the 1) topic sentence 2) structural methodology 3) thesis statement varity that we were all taught in high school. What you do need is That Thing; maybe a question, a fear or a fury. It makes your blood boil. It’s all you can talk about when you sit down with your friends over a glass of wine or two or five, or maybe you can’t talk about it with anyone, just your own heart, alone with the impossible architecture of words. As Cheryl Strayed wrote in her introduction to The Best American Essays 2013, “Behind every good essay is an author with a savage desire to know more about what is already known.” I want to talk about essays. I don’t have a topic sentence or a thesis statement, just a savage desire to know.

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In the first body paragraph paragraph of this essay about essays I will talk about how the writing of essays is currently taught: five paragraphs — introductory paragraph, three paragraphs of support, conclusion. Sound familiar? I’d wager we all learned this particular form, and yes, I think it’s vital to know how to organize our thoughts and back up an argument, however, the assumption that there’s only one way to do so is increasingly problematic, especially in light of this country’s current testing culture. We’re not teaching writing as a course of exploration and discovery, a way to follow your own passion and curiosity and then share that passion and curiosity with others; we’re teaching writing as a way to get a grade. Every year, thousands of high school students across the United States and other countries sit for the three hours and forty-five minutes required to take the SAT. Twenty-five of those minutes are spent writing an essay, which is then graded on a scale of 1-6 by two independent readers who, according to the Collegeboard website, score in a holistic manner, taking into account such aspects as complexity of thought, substantiality of development, and facility with language, which is really fascinating because these independent readers are expected to grade a minimum of twenty essays per hour and they get a bonus if they hit thirty. Let’s bring on the math, shall we? Thirty essays in an hour means two minutes per essay. Two minutes in which to judge one’s complexity of thought, substantiality of development, and facility with language, a judgment which may very well determine whether or not somebody can even go to college, let alone which college, or the potential financial aid they might receive. The stakes in this case couldn’t be higher, and to meet them, we’re taught to the test, both by classroom teachers and testing teachers—‘cause FYI: specialized teachers who train kids in how to ace tests are a Thing; when I was in high school (and this was Michigan public school in 1993, long ago, yes, but we’re not talking Laura Ingalls Wilder-one-room-schoolhouse-shit) I had a teacher who would stand in front of the classroom banging a ruler on the table and the thirty of us, in unison, would recite vocabulary words—irony: a statement or event in which the opposite is said or the unexpected happens multiplied times 300 other words we’d be tested on and yes, fine, to this day I can still recite the definition of irony, but it wasn’t until years later, when I walked in on my boyfriend getting down with my roommate that I understood what irony actually meant. Recitation is not learning, and tens of thousands of teenagers pulling five speed-written and panic-driven paragraphs out of their asses that will be read in two minutes by someone who can can make or break their entire fucking future is no way to teach something as awesome and thoughtful and badass as the essay! I LOVE essays! I love writing them and reading them and learning from them and teaching from them and Dear American Education System! Please stop fucking with the essay! Please stop teaching us to fear it, to speed through it, to bullshit through it, and while I’m yelling let me be really loud and clear on this next part: I’m talking to the system, not its teachers. In a recent article at Slate titled “We Are Teaching High School Students to Write Terribly,” Les Perelman, the retired director of MIT’s Writing Across the Curriculum program tells us that “high school teachers have to make a choice between teaching writing methods that are rewarded by SAT essay-readers—thereby sending worse writers out into the world—or training pupils to write well generally, at the risk of parent complaints.” He goes on to say that “teachers are under a huge amount of pressure to teach to the test and to get their kids high scores… they don’t get a promotion, or get a lower raise. So it actually costs them to be principled. You’re putting in negative incentives to be good teachers.” I teach writing at the college level. At the beginning of every semester, I write the word ESSAY on the board in big letters and ask my students to share their perceptions. The word Boring comes up often. So does Excruciating and Waste of time. Sometimes they only have sounds: UHG. GAH. GGRRR. But the one that really got me, that made me want to light shit on fire and also maybe weep, was a couple of months ago, when the new semester started, a student of mine said, “Essays are terrifying.” “Terrifying,” I said. “Why terrifying?” “Because you have to be totally, completely certain about everything,” she said. “I’m eighteen years old—I’m not certain about anything.” I tried to explain, as I always do, that an essay does not have to be definitive. It can be a place where we examine an idea, where we follow our curiosity as a way to discovery. As E.M. Forster wrote, I don’t know what I think til I see what I say. “That’s crazy,” said my student. “Nobody can pull that off in only five paragraphs.”

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In the second body paragraph of this essay about essays I will talk about reading essays. I just read an essay by Roxane Gay that challenged me to read more diversely. There’s an essay by Annie Dillard called “Living Like Weasels” that inspired me to grab life by the balls. There’s an essay by Kiese Layman that made dive back in to an ongoing discussion I have with myself about my own privilege. There’s an essay on place by Dorothy Allison that made me realize how who I am connects with where I am. There’s an essay by Sherman Alexie called “Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood” that reminded me of how a story can save us. There’s an essay by James Baldwin that reminds me, over and over again, of how writing is a part of the healing process. There’s an essay by Lindy West called “Hello, I am Fat” that made me feel less alone. There’s a whole book of essays by Samantha Irby that makes me feel less alone. There’s an essay by  Deb Lewis that challenges me to consider what it means to be a parent. There’s an essay by Cheryl Strayed that gave me the permission to not have an “acceptable credit score.” There is an essay by Kafka, hidden in his Diaries—I doubt he ever would have called it an essay, but I like thinking of a writers journal as a hundred little essays, a hundred little thoughts, one huge, messy place to make discoveries about yourself and the world. The first sentence reads:

“When I think about it, I must say that my education has done me great harm in some respects.”

Then he talks about this idea for a paragraph. Then there’s a space break. Then he says it again:

“When I think about it, I must say that my education has done me great harm in some respects.”

He talks about it for another paragraph, coming at it from a different angle. Then:

“Often I think it over and then I always have to say that my education has done me great harm in some ways.”

And he comes at it from yet another angle. This goes on seven times, each time getting deeper into the idea, and this beautiful, simple structure is something I have ripped off a thousand times, both in my essays and my own journal, as I try to slow down and figure out what I really think. Right now, in this life with its speed and its media, with my jobs and my kid, with every fucking day a challenge and a profound, crazy joy, writing is the only thing that slows me down. The only space I have to sit, quietly, and shhhhhh. What do I think about this? How do I feel? The structure of Kafka’s piece gives me space to do that. It gives method to the madness, a road map, an option above and beyond those five paragraphs. All the essays I mentioned, any essay that you allow to teach and inspire and educate and challenge and enlighten, can give you a road map on how to write your own, how to join in this dialogue about what it means to be a human being in this crazy, mess of a world.

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In the third body paragraph of this essay about essays I will talk about how to write essays. Read them.

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In the final paragraph of this essay about essays my conclusion will be… what the fuck.  I don’t know. In 2008, a few months after my son was born, I wrote the words I think I need help in my journal. I was scared I might hurt him. I didn’t know there was a name for what I was feeling, that postpartum depression was a Thing, and it would take three more years for me to be able to look at those words—I need help—without crying. When I sat down to write the piece that would eventually be selected for The Best American Essays 2013, there was a single question pulling me: How do I talk about depression in a way that’s not depressing? I felt that pull throughout my entire body. It made my blood boil, was all I could talk about when I sat with my friends. In his Letters To a Young Poet, Rilke writes that “a work of art is good if it has sprung from necessity.” An essay is good if it has sprung from necessity. Imagine if we could teach it that way.

Hear Megan perform an Essay About Essays at The Paper Machete.

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Megan Stielstra is the author of Everyone Remain Calm, a Chicago Tribune Favorite of 2011, and Once I Was Cool, a book of essays forthcoming in May 2014. Her fiction and creative nonfiction have been included in The Best American Essays, The Rumpus, PANK, Other Voices, and elsewhere, and she’s the Literary Director of Chicago’s 2nd Story storytelling series.