Perhaps you hear the word “essay” and you flash back to your school days. Most Americans learned something called the “five-paragraph essay” in school. It comprises an introduction, a conclusion, and three paragraphs in-between of exposition and analysis. Essay-writing assignments were dry as dust, with the emphasis seemingly on making certain that the points laid out in the introduction had been proven by the time of the conclusion, which was a means of reminding the reader of what they had just read.
But the essay is one of the most protean of our ways of writing, and, in literature, the essay can be a container for some of our greatest writers’ greatest work. Most literary scholars credit Frenchman Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) with the invention of the essai, the name he gave to the pieces he wrote. “Essay” is drawn from the French verb essayer (to try, to attempt), and referred to the short pieces that Montaigne wrote on various subjects. Rather than declare himself such an expert that he could write treatises or books on certain subjects, he wrote, instead, these shorter pieces in which he attempted to create meaning.
Since then, essays have become ways for exploring any number of subjects. In our current age, many people associate the essay with the “personal essay,” which are pieces written that expose some aspect of self, whether a confessional about a fault or a story about a relationship. In the last few months, a debate among writers has centered on whether the personal essay has reached its end point. That is, have people shared every last aspect of their lives? Jia Tolentino’s essay drew a number of responses. I found an essay written by Virginia Woolf in 1905 where she complained that too many people were writing essays for the multitude of magazines of her day. This need for content by today’s plethora of websites has made writers feel that they are expected to reveal secrets to slake the demand.
But, just as readers have had literary book choices ranging from “penny dreadfuls” to Nobel Prize-winning prose, so too are there a range of levels of literary essays out there. And literary essays bear as much resemblance to the five-paragraph essay as simple arithmetic bears to calculus. But literary essays have some recognizable structures, which describe their framework but not necessarily their content. I would argue that just about anything can become content for an essay, and because of that, writers have unlimited writing opportunities still available.
Here are some of those structures along with some examples of essays. All together, these types of essays are known as “lyric” essays.
Want more on writing nonfiction? Check out Signature’s Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction.
The linear narrative essay: This essay structure is self-explanatory. The story is told in a straightforward narrative, and is usually told in chronological order. Sometimes, there are flashbacks contained in the essay, but that doesn’t disrupt the forward motion of the narrative. One essay that may be of interest in the coming weeks as we approach the August 21 “Great American Eclipse” is Annie Dillard’s “Total Eclipse,” which is published in her collection, Teaching a Stone to Talk.
The triptych essay: Just as a triptych painting features three panels, so too does a triptych essay feature three separate sections that are not continuous with each other, but that may shed light on the other two parts. See “Triptych” by Samina Najmi, which was published in World Literature Today.
The collage essay: This type of essay features bits and pieces – vignettes – of prose that are collected together to form an essay. They often resemble poetry as the writing for a collage essay tends to be lyrical. One of my favorite collage essays is Sherman Alexie’s “Captivity,” which appeared in First Indian on the Moon.
The experimental essay: These essays seem to buck all known structures. One of the most unusual of these essays is “The Body” by Jenny Boully. The pages of the essay are blank – except for the footnotes, which are extensive. It turns out that the footnotes are the entire essay. “The Body” is characterized as a lyrical essay
The last two forms of essay that I wish to discuss are the “hermit crab” essay and the “braided” essay, and here I’d like to offer more exploration of two particular essays that are examples of them.
The hermit crab essay: In 1972, John McPhee wrote “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” and it was published in the New Yorker. He used the original game of “Monopoly” – the original American version that was based on the streets of Atlantic City, New Jersey – and he uses going around the board as the frame for the essay, making this a perfect example of a “hermit crab” essay.
In the essay, McPhee is playing a game of Monopoly but he is also recounting walking the streets of Atlantic City. The game is taking place at an international singles championship of Monopoly play, where it is possible for two skilled players to play an entire game in fewer than fifteen minutes.
McPhee intersperses the history of America in the details, but also how Atlantic City was the planned “invention” as a railroad terminus that would be a “bathing village.” In preliminary sketches, the village was labeled as an “Atlantic city,” and the name stuck. In the early 1930s, Charles B. Darrow took those early sketches of the city and based a game board on it.
So, as McPhee lands on each property or group of properties, he tells the story of each part of town. When McPhee’s piece lands him in jail, he uses it as an opportunity to visit the city jail, which in 1972 seemed to be chock-full of drug offenders. He also documents the “facade” aspect shared by resort towns. Once you travel off the beach-side main drag, you are in “the bulk of the city, and it looks like Metz in 1919, Cologne in 1944. Nothing has actually exploded. It is not bomb damage. It is deep and complex decay. Roofs are off. Bricks are scattered in the street.”
He walks these streets and sees long lines of people standing in line at the unemployment office. Newspapers in 2017 tell us that we have an “opioid crisis,” but a multiplicity of signs urging addicts to get help are present in Atlantic City in 1973 (perhaps another reminder that something doesn’t become a crisis until middle class white kids in the suburbs are dying).
McPhee walks through these neighborhoods looking for the one Monopoly property he can’t find: Marvin Gardens. No one with whom he speaks, those living in their bombed-out neighborhoods, has heard of it. It turns out that Marvin Gardens, “the ultimate out wash of Monopoly, is a citadel and sanctuary of the middle class.” It is a suburb within a suburb, what we might now refer to as a “gated community,” separated from the rest of Atlantic City and patrolled with a heavy police presence to keep the rest of the city out.
If you’ve been paying attention while reading, you realize that McPhee has used his hermit crab essay to write a critique of capitalism.
The braided essay: “The Fourth State of Matter,” by Jo Ann Beard is, I must confess, my favorite essay. It, too, was originally published in the New Yorker in 1996. Beard offers a braided essay – in which she is telling a number of stories that are all related to the time she spent on the editorial staff of a physics journal at the University of Iowa. Over the course of the essay, which begins with Beard’s poignant description of the daily routine she experiences as she cares for her aged, incontinent dog, the reader is braced in anticipation that the dog will die.
But Beard plaits in three additional stories: the scurry of squirrels that have taken over a room upstairs in her house after finding entry through a loose board; the separation from her husband who has left her but who calls Beard a number of times to ask her whether he has done the right thing in leaving her; and the men she works with in the physics department, their disparate personalities, and her friendship with them.
In the third paragraph of the essay, she provides a description of the night sky that contains clues of what is to come: “In the porchlight the trees shiver, the squirrels turn over in their sleep. The Milky Way is a long smear on the sky, like something erased on a chalkboard.”
The fourth state of matter is a physics term that refers to plasma, “the plasmapause, a place of equilibrium, where the forces of the Earth meet the forces of the sun,” and Beard demonstrates how her marriage and the dying dog are metaphorical representations of plasma. But the reader will also be reminded of plasma’s more immediate meaning. Even though Beard lays down clues like breadcrumbs throughout the essay, the revelation of what the fourth state of matter is still sneaks up on readers, and that knowledge devastates.
I think it a shame that the essay’s versatility is hidden from most of us throughout our primary education. It’s only in specialized writing classes that the kaleidoscopic nature of the essay is taught, and after years of being told that the five-paragraph model is the only acceptable way to write nonfiction, some students find it hard to work with all those choices. But if you’ve ignored collections of essays because you can’t imagine that they contain interesting work, now is the time to give them an essai.