Abstract: The essay is a powerful persuasive art that when used correctly allows writers to successfully have a solid argument. A good essay contains different elements such as originality, self-reflection, epistemology, and other poetic techniques to help strengthen the writing. The idea of originality can be questioned by essayists such as Emerson, but the idea is that since it comes from our mind, our writing is original. The idea of the essay shows the freedom the essayist has with their piece of writing.
When I was a younger writer, I was lead to believe that all essays in life were the same form: 5 paragraph form, with an underlined thesis. The essays I would write would be a regurgitation of another piece of writing and my discoveries. These discoveries were however not my own, but someone else’s that I was being told to view things like. These essays were not essay’s in my opinion, but rewritings. Writing an essay is an art form that not many can quite grasp. This leads to the common question of: what is the essay? The essay is everything from personal, to informative, and very much original. The beauty of the essay is that it is in the hands of the writer to choose where the essay travels.
Essays can be understood to be a reflection of the author’s life. Since the essay is made personal, an author must begin to be wary of showing too much opinion in their writing. Showing too much opinion would stray away from the facts, weakening an author’s argument. Montaigne writes, “I do not teach, I tell.” The essay’s purpose is to not teach individuals, but to relate the individuals to the text. An essay must be “immersive” enough to evoke some sort of emotion in the reader. For an essay to be immersive it must appeal to the reader allowing them to grasp the concept of the essay. Using personal experiences and facts in the essay to support opinions is important to take the formality out of teaching to allow the readers to relate to the essay. If the essay were to strictly teach, it would be too formal; however, if the essay were to be solely based off of opinion, there would be no argument. The frame of the essay is based off of the line between opinions and facts, all branching off of a central argument. A good essayist uses personal experiences mixed with justified beliefs to develop a good argument.
A good essayist uses plenty of different poetic, rhetorical, and philosophical elements to help strengthen their argument. This means that the essay can be dissected into those three main elements: poetic, rhetoric, or philosophy. In one of the essays written by Scott Sanders, “The Singular First Person,” he touches on the formality of the essay. He writes, “The essay is the closest thing we have on paper, to a record of the individual mind at work and play. It is an amateurs raid in a world of specialists.” This excerpt shows the battle between the essay being a teacher, and the essay relating. It shows that there is a lot of leeway as to how an essayist may go about attacking an argument in his writing. Our minds are “at work and play,” at the same time. The essay is a form of writing that is considered more free and leisurely from the incorporation of passionate opinion and factual evidence.
When an essayist uses his personal experiences to help form an argument, he is using his originality. The essayist uses originality and a central argument to show that the essay has a greater meaning. In “The Death of a Moth,” Dillard uses personal experience to tell a story of greater meaning. At a glance, a reader may say that “The Death of a Moth,” is nothing but a narrative of the observance of a moth flying into a candle, but the essayist had more in mind. Dillard writes “All that was left was the glowing horn shell of her abdomen and thorax—a fraying, partially collapsed gold tube jammed upright in the candle’s round pool. And then this moth essence, this spectacular skeleton, began to act as a wick. She kept burning… That candle had two wicks, two flames of identical height, side by side (Dillard).” For some, this is a simple story of Dillard observing the death of a moth, but the story may very much so question what death is. Dillard may be arguing that the moth never died, because he body is being used as a wick.
This also poses the plausible question of who is the essay written for? The essay is written for nobody more than the essayist, just the same way a song writer would not make a song he does not like. The essay is reflective. Montaigne is known for his philosophies of self-reflection: “You yourself only know if you are cowardly and cruel, loyal, and devout: others see you not, and only guess you by uncertain conjectures, and do not so much see your nature as your art: rely not therefore upon your opinions, but stick to your own (Montaigne).” In this short except, Montaigne tells readers that they people themselves are the only one who truly knows what they are thinking. Another interpretation of Dillard’s “The Death of a Moth,” could be that the moth is a reflection of himself as a writer. The moth dying symbolizes the death of his creative genius, and it burning like a wick is how his ideas stay alive, even after he dies. The essay if filled with different metaphors which helps build poetic and philosophical elements of a good essay.
As one can argue that our essays are original, others can argue it is not. Emerson is one of the greatest essayists because of his ability to incorporate all the right elements to write his essays. In “Quotation and Originality,” he writes that throughout our existence as humans, there has been “millions of men, and not a hundred lines of poetry.” This idea confronts the originality and personality of the essay. Emerson tells us that writers are influenced by older pieces, and convey our interpretation using our thoughts and knowledge. This challenges all of the pieces of writing that have ever been made. This challenges this essay I am writing using the philosophies of several writers. Our interpretations are our own beliefs and words; therefore, they are to be considered original.
A good essay has its own twist, like a remix. This is what makes all essays original. In “The Essayification of Everything,” Wampole writes: “The essayist samples more than a DJ: a loop of the epic here, a little lyric replay there, a polyvocal break and citations from greatness past, all with a signature scratch on top.” This ‘signature scratch’ is what makes each essayist different. Emmerson’s ‘signature scratch’ is how he intertwines the philosophy between nature and humans. This is much like the concept of sampling between rappers. Multiple rappers can rap over one producer’s instrumental, but they are all different songs. It is much like when a DJ remixes a song, the new song is his song, this can also translate to a writing remix. The goal of the “remix” is to be better than the original song.
The act idea writing an essay is an art that is perfected by none. There is always room for improvements with every writing piece because of the endless combinations of poetic, rhetorical and philosophical elements that can be incorporated into writing. Each essay is unique in the sense that it is a relation of personal experience, opinion, and fact, to a central argument. The essay is a unique form of writing because the writer chooses which way the essay travels, much like a DJ, or a songwriter. Each essay has its own ‘twist’ to it making it an original piece. The freedom of the essay is endless while our minds are “at work and play,” writing.
Wampole, Christy. “The Essayification of Everything.” The New York Times 26 (2013).
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Quotation and originality.” The North American Review 106.2 (1868): 543.
Montaigne, Michael Seigneur de. “Of repentance.” (1776).
Sanders, Scott Russell. “The singular first person.” The Sewanee Review 96.4 (1988): 658-672.