By: Michael Von George
The first moment I became aware of essay writing was in fifth grade. We were learning paragraph structures and how to organize writing to tell cohesive stories/ arguments. I was given the assignment in my social studies class, write an essay where you imagine yourself as a child in the American Revolutionary War. It was a very simple test, and they couldn’t have expected much in terms of storytelling from a classroom of fifth graders who had rudimentary writing knowledge. I remember vividly writing a story of myself working with Paul Revere, a story of a child helping this key historical figure in American history, with plenty of imagery and sparse dialogue to impress my reading audience (the teacher). The very next day, the teacher had made a point of praising my work in front of the class, by reading it aloud for all my classmates to hear. I remember showing this piece of writing to my parents; and my mother, being a writing professor, I was very eager to impress. Whether the fifth-grade teacher wanted to make the new transfer student feel welcome in the classroom, or if she genuinely was impressed with the writing I submitted, this writing had taken ahold of me and filled me with a newfound passion of creative writing. This was my first dive into the world of personal essay-based writing.
As an English Literature major, I have had plenty of opportunities to write academic essays for classes. These essays are primarily an analysis of the text, applying related research to help understand an author, and putting text in contrast with one another. I do really enjoy the act of writing these essays. Applying social lenses like gender, race, and class can help in breaking down a text and understanding the author’s purpose of writing. This writing is the best way for me to engage with literature, because there is active communication between myself and the author’s work. I can apply my own perspective and understanding to make an academic argument either for or against an author’s work. When writing these essays, I am focused on the audience of the piece: and the audience is very limited. I am writing for the professor to assess my analysis and grade my rhetoric. I am not writing for an interdisciplinary audience, only for a singular audience, the professor in this instance, to be the sole reader of this piece of work. I often will feel limited in this aspect, I am not writing for the world to see but merely a singular person. I will also ask myself what it would even look like if I did write academic essays for a larger audience outside of the classroom setting, and I always feel discouraged because I understand that I need a strong background in a subject to be taken as an authority figure worthy of reading. Though academic essays very much interest me, I feel as though I haven’t had the opportunity of moving past the teacher-student relationship of essay writing.
I am currently working as a tutor at Keene’s Center for Research and Writing. This will be my second year working for them, and I have worked with many students in essay crafting and editing. I have learned that students most often feel frustrated in starting the process of writing the essay, it is like they are about to paint on a canvas but the blank page and countless options of what to paint scares them so badly into never putting anything on the page. I have felt this fear of where to start before in writing essays, the fear of how to express my arguments and organize my thoughts to keep the audience of the piece interested. Creating strong outlines, I have found, is what makes some of the strongest of essays. Knowing what you want to tackle before jumping into an essay will give you enough framework to focus on the topic rather than breaking off into stream-of-conscious type tangents.
While I have been at Keene State, I have taken part in a book club hosted by the Writing Center. For the last semester, we were assigned the reading of Kiese Laymon’s essay collection titled How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. This book club was very eye opening in understanding how an audience breaks down a text and how they are responding to essay writing (a basic form of reader-response theory). The essays delved into race and community, how identities are formed and evolve as we grow as people. Hearing how others responded to the essays, not only from a personal account but also how Laymon structures his prose, helped me in understanding the purpose of essay writing. Laymon had found a way to connect to most readers, all being from different backgrounds and audiences, and yet had something to say to elicit a strong emotional reaction from everyone. Laymon drew on human experiences and told pieces of his life’s story through the essays. I strive to someday reach the level of essay writing that Laymon crafts in his writing, and being a reader of Laymon’s writing, I feel that I have already taken the first step in that process.
There was only one class in which I had a strong reaction against how the professor was using essays. It was an intro to a writing course, and the professor was trying to have the class reach an understanding of what essays are. The professor was delving into defining genre and the text we used was the Best American Essays of 2020. The professor created rules for the genre, rules like “truth” and “lies”. I found this thought exercise to be reductive for thinking of essays. In the text Essayists on the Essay, by Carl H. Klaus and Ned Stuckey-French, they argue, “the hopelessness of trying to classify essays: ‘There are as many kinds of essays as there are human attitudes and poses, as many essay flavors as there are Howard Johnson ice creams.’” (Carl H. Klaus and Ned Stuckey-French, xxii). To attempt to classify the genre doesn’t give it the proper ability to be whatever the author envisions for the piece, a perfectly flexible piece of writing that is individually shaped to the author’s purpose of writing.