Essaying the Essay


I'm going out to clean the pasture spring;

I'll only stop to rake the leaves away

(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):

I sha'n't be gone long. You come too.


Through the years, many of my colleagues—not to mention nearly all the essay-writing guides to be found in textbooks and on the internet—have taken the position that every essay must must be built around a stated or implied thesis. I beg to differ. Although I mean no disrespect to the thousands and thousands of educators who hold this truth to be self-evident, and who pass it along to their students as if it were gospel, I think the assertion is mistaken, and demonstrably so.  Anyone who has reached adulthood can certainly recall having read many kinds of essays, some of which clearly do have a point to make, some of which have a story to tell, some of which have a question to ask, and many of which  simply have a territory or an idea to explore.

The very history of the word “essay” suggests as much: it comes from the French essai, which is a trial or an attempt; further back, it comes from the Latin exagium, which means a weighing. One weighs something in order to find out how heavy it is. The result of the measurement is not known beforehand; if it were, there would be no reason to measure in the first place. Similarly, students can, and in my class do, write at least some essays which amount to an attempt to find out how much substance a line of thought might have, or to discover where the act of writing might lead. I often ask students to do freewrites or zero drafts for this purpose. These pieces of writing might very well at some point lead to the development of a thesis, which might be expressed in a thesis essay. But they might also stand alone as essays in their own right.

For sake of discussion, let us consider the following assertions. I choose to use single sentences because they are more compact than full-blown essays, but will serve the purpose of indicating some small part of the range of rhetorical possibilities in the framing of an essay.


1) If you want to be healthy, you should eat bread.

2) Bread contains nutrients essential for human health.

3) I bought two loaves of bread yesterday, and ate one today.

4) I wonder why Christ chose bread and wine to represent his body and blood.

5) My mother used to bake bread at home.

6) The table was buried beneath broad brown loaves of freshly-baked bread.

7)  Put the flour in the mixing bowl and add the sugar and the salt; add the margarine and rub into the flour using your finger tips.


Clearly, any of the five statements here could provide a controlling idea for an essay. But the nature of each essay would vary according to the rhetorical trappings of the originating idea. Let’s consider them one at a time.


1) If you want to be healthy, you should eat bread.


The phrasing of this “starter sentence” suggests that a writer continuing in the same vein would produce a persuasive essay targeted squarely at the reader, addressed directly as “you.” Such an essay would presumably explain why “you should eat bread.” The framework of the thesis essay would work just fine here; the thesis is already stated, what would follow would be arguments in support of the thesis.


2) Bread contains nutrients essential for human health.


This second sample sentence also has the feel of a thesis. It says something close to what the first sentence says, but is couched in the more oblique, “objective” style favored—and sometimes mandated —by many high school teachers. The implied essay would inform the reader about which essential nutrients are present in bread, and perhaps tell what their impact is on the body. Again, the structural framework of the thesis essay would be an appropriate choice in this instance.


3) I bought two loaves of bread yesterday, and ate one today.


This sentence appears to be a fragment of autobiography, or what is sometimes called “personal narrative.” While at some point the author might arrive at something in the way of a thesis—the essay might turn into a thesis essay—the more likely line of development would be for the author to shape a narrative that would provide us with a window on her life and whatever events she might be inclined, for whatever reason, to share with us. Perhaps she would like to document her life for posterity. Perhaps she might want to simply entertain us by telling a good story. Perhaps she would be trying to sort out the details of her daily life in such a way as to give them shape and lasting meaning. In any event, an essay arising from such impulses would not necessarily have a stated or inferable thesis, and an attempt to develop this topic by use of the thesis essay framework would seem misconceived.


4) I wonder why Christ chose bread and wine to represent his body and blood.


Here is a question arising from reflection.  I frequently ask my students, when they are confronted with thought-provoking material, to make an effort to articulate, in a very deliberate and self-conscious way, questions that interest them. I then ask them to write exploratory reflective essays in which they brainstorm possible answers to the question and test—or weigh—them out. While it is possible that at the end of this process a student may end up endorsing one of the answers—and, in so doing, have arrived at a thesis—it is also possible that the student may wind up with a purely reflective paper which shows the movement of the student’s thought but does not result in the student taking a stand. The structure a question-based essay such as this one is certainly analogous to the structure of a thesis essay; the framework the framework “Thesis - Argument1 - A2 - A3 - A4” is not structurally much different from the framework “Question - Answer1 - A2 - A3 - A4.” But the tone of the piece and the covenant it creates with between the reader and the writer are quite distinct. The first is essentially adversarial; it says “I have a point to make, I’m going to assume you disagree, and I’m going to do my best to persuade you to change your mind.” The second is more complementary; it says, in much the same vein as the excerpt from Robert Frost with which this essay begins, “I’m going to try to figure something out here, and I’d like you to walk through it with me.” The rhetorical relationship between reader and writer is invitational, collegial, rather than adversarial.


5) My mother used to bake bread at home.


Here we are in the territory known as memoir. While memoir and autobiography are quite similar and in many cases overlap, there is again a distinction to be made between an essay in which the focus is on the personal experience and interior life of the narrator, and an essay, like the one which would likely follow from this sentence, in which the attention of the narrator is directed toward someone else’s personal experience and interior life. It is difficult in either case to see how such an essay could be said to be “making a point.” Of the various structural or organizational designs available to an author attempting to develop such an essay, the thesis essay framework is perhaps the least useful. It just doesn’t work in this case. The essay would be one worth writing and worth reading, but for again for much different reasons.


6) The table was buried beneath broad brown loaves of freshly-baked bread.


This sentence, which might conceivably occur somewhere in the middle of the essay of reminiscence discussed just above, calls attention to itself by virtue of the deployment of resources of language normally associated with poetry: metaphor, hyperbole, alliteration, and a certain denseness of imagery. The feel of such an essay, its texture and tone, the element of performance, the attempt to seduce the reader not by means of argument but by means of craft, leads again to an entirely different set of writerly opportunities and readerly expectations than a thesis essay would generate.


7)  I put the flour in the mixing bowl, added the sugar and the salt, then added the margarine and rubbed it into the flour using my finger tips.


This sentence might appear in an essay describing the process by which bread is made. A process-based essay is nothing more than an attempt to translate experience into words. Sometimes there is an explicit pedagogical agenda—one might teach someone how to make bread by articulating the process—but more often, the generative impulse is neither to instruct nor to persuade, but to subject the process to the kind of patient attention that the act of writing frames and enables:  what we might simply call reflection.

For example, Robert Finch has a lovely essay called “Dawn Walk.” The writer has been unable to sleep, so he gets up and goes for a walk. Midway through the essay, we read this passage:


I set off down the highway, the air still heavy and palpable, the darkness gradually diluting. Normally a fairly busy road in summer, it was now deserted—or rather, strangely inhabited. Catbirds, robins and towhees fed freely on the cool paved surface, casually pecking at fallen seeds or torpid insects. Faint leathery sounds whipped about my head, and I caught the fluttering indistinct forms of bats chasing late moths. A thrush flew straight at me and veered off only at the last second, as though it had not expected to see me. At one point in the road a good-sized deer stood in full view, calmly munching leaves on the other side of a stone wall. As I passed she thrust her head out over the stones to peer at me with large black eyes, as a horse will stretch its neck over a fence. Then, as though suddenly realizing what I was, she was gone, white tail flashing, ebony hooves thumping the hard ground through the underbrush.


There is no thesis here, no argument. Instead, we enter into the consciousness of the author as he makes an effort to translate this whole-body experience into black marks in a sequence on a page. The essay is an attempt to re-create his own experience, to fix it in words so that it can hold still and be the subject of reflection and sustained attention, both the author’s and our own.

There is an artfulness to this kind of writing which arises precisely from the quality of the attention that is being paid to the experience and the shaping of it in words. The pleasure of reading such a passage arises in large part from being able to spend time in the company of a person who views the world with such clarity and compassion. It’s not the subject matter as such that is important. I suspect that this author could write as compellingly about reading Shakespeare or baking bread or buying a pair of shoes. The payoff for the reader here is the pleasure of collegiality, the sense of being present to the workings of a alert mind, the sound of an engaging  voice.

In his 1927 book of essays The Well of English and the Bucket, containing the essay from which my own essay borrows its title, Burges Johnson articulates his sense of what the rewards are for a reader who comes to know a writer in the collegial sense that I have been discussing:


Those essayists whom I love best have somehow mastered the art of writing to me direct, and writing, too, in such a way that I feel every now and then that here is my time for reply, — for an exchange of thoughts, either in agreement or in controversy; and I lay their books aside with a sense both pleasant and regretful, of shaking hands in good-by; looking after them as they move away as one watches a friend out of sight.


Alan Lightman, in his introduction to Best American Essays 2000, articulates a similar sentiment:


...In reading an essay, I want to feel that I’m communicating with a real person, and a person who cares what he or she is writing about...For me, the ideal essay is not an assignment, to be dispatched efficiently and intelligently, but an exploration, a questioning, an introspection. I want to see a piece of the essayist. I want to see a mind at work, imagining, spinning, struggling to understand. If the essayist has all the answers, then he isn’t struggling to grasp, and I won’t either. When you care about something, you continually grapple with it, because it is alive in you. It thrashes and moves, like all living things.

                When I read a good essay, I feel that I’m going on a journey. The essayist is searching for something and taking me along. That something could he a particular idea, an unraveling of identity, a meaning in the wallow of observations and facts. The facts are important but never enough. An essay, for me, must go past the facts, an essay must travel and move... in the end, the real subject of the essay is the essayist... the essayist cannot examine the world without examining herself, and she cannot examine herself without examining the world.


An essay, in this conception of it, is the vehicle for the connection of one mind to another, for the establishment of a kind of kinship and fellow-feeling arising out of a set of shared values, not the least of which is that both reader and writer invite and honor one another’s company. There’s an intimacy, a complicity, that can arise only when the writing arises from deep within the soul. Even in a good thesis essay, there is more at stake than an argument.


The point is that there are many types of essays, many ways to develop a line of thought on paper, many decisions that a good writer will make from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph, none of which are necessarily predetermined. To define the essay as the statement and defense of a thesis is reductive and largely inaccurate. Every week I read essays in the New Yorker, in Harper’s, in the New York Times, in magazines and anthologies and textbooks and on the internet. The vast majority of the essays I read are not in fact thesis essays at all. In fact, the only places where thesis essays are the predominant form of writerly discourse are the high school and college classrooms where students are made to write them.

Throughout the years, I have often had colleagues recommend and share with me essays—student essays, professional essays, reflection papers by the hundreds—which they found entertaining or thought-provoking or inspiring. In all those years, I have never had anyone, even English teachers whose devotion to the thesis essay is the cornerstone of their educational edifice, come to me saying, “Here, read this. What a terrific thesis essay this is.” On the other hand, I have heard teachers complain week after week and month after month and year after year about the piles of (thesis) essays which they “have to” read. I sympathize, I really do. I spent many years as a teacher dreading the essays I was going to have to face; essays which I suspect the students were dreading having to write. What’s wrong with this picture? Three things.


First, the thesis essay is an artificial form, one which puts the writer in a predetermined role and demands that he stay there. Most students are not in fact authorities, and yet we demand that they pretend to be. Many of us compound the artificiality by telling students they must not use the pronoun “I.” The effect of this restriction is to encourage the students to indulge in a different kind of pretense—that they are being “objective” if they simply refuse to own up to what they are in saying. We make a rule that students cannot write in their own voices; the students conclude, predictably, that their own voices must be untrustworthy and unreliable, and they begin to work on developing an essay writing “voice” which is located in some imagined objective consciousness existing somewhere outside of themselves: in textbooks, perhaps.


Second, in the effort to arrive at this “objective” voice, forsaking their own more straightforward conversational diction and syntax, students often do the kind of horrendous violence to the language that makes these essays torture to read and agonizingly slow to correct.

Here for example, is the first paragraph of a student essay:


Land, once in abundance and cheap in price, is now one of the world’s most coveted resources. When America purchased the entire west through the Louisiana purchase, Jefferson was criticized for making such a “poor decision” and for not passing the idea through congress. But it was a once in a lifetime opportunity and Jefferson knew that it would better the nation. Although many American’s were upset, they realized that now they were able to expand from their meager east coast and now had the opportunity to own their own land. Most of the American’s had come over from Britain where owning land of your choice of location and size, was unheard of. Land in Britain was never owned by the citizens but rather by the government. When Americans’ got a chance to explore and conquer the land, it gave many ambitious men a chance to make a plot of land into a substantial business and life. American’s expanded into the west, taking their churches and homes with them. A natural inclination of being competitive soon developed between the American’s, creating a drive in our society that would forever remained embedded in America’s culture. During the post-revolutionary era, mass quantities of uncharted land and the quest to obtain it, molded Americans’ core values and ideologies of individualism, achievement, and progress.


This student is laboring mightily here to fulfill the teacher’s expectations. She has a thesis, stated in the last sentence. She has striven to mirror the language of the textbooks by avoiding the use of the pronoun “I.” She has tried to gather what facts she possesses together and come up with a credible analysis of how the existence of the western frontier helped to shape American values. And yet the writing is a disaster. One might overlook the minor mechanical errors. But the essay is also loaded with inaccuracies: overgeneralizations about what is being asserted: (“America purchased the entire west through the Louisiana purchase”); outright falsehoods: (“Land in Britain was never owned by the citizens but rather by the government.“); and unintentionally humorous misstatements (“American’s expanded into the west, taking their churches and homes with them”). Furthermore, the effort to work in an “objective” voice drives the student to create a syntax that may sound authoritative but makes no sense either grammatically or conceptually (“A natural inclination of being competitive soon developed between the American’s, creating a drive in our society that would forever remained embedded in America’s culture.”) No student writing in her own voice would ever assert that an inclination developed which created a drive that became embedded in a culture.  It is hardly surprising that a teacher faced with this essay would throw up her hands in despair. Where to begin? There are too many things wrong here to even hope to address without overwhelming the student, who after all, was only trying to do what she was asked to do, and is sitting there now, waiting to be praised, hoping that she has earned it.

By way of contrast, consider this passage:


I spent a lot of time trying to decipher what the narrator meant by "I have passed by the watchman on his beat and dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain." My question was, explain what? At first I thought he meant he was unwilling to explain to the watchman what he was doing walking around at that hour, since it is unusual behavior, but that still didn't answer why he was unwilling to explain it. I mean, if he wasn't doing anything wrong, then he shouldn't feel reluctant to tell anyone what he's doing. But upon further consideration, I realized there really is no explanation for taking a nighttime walk. How do you tell someone you just felt like wandering around in the dark? It might have been an impulse of the narrator; he was simply in the mood for it. I know that there have been times when I've been sitting in the middle of math class or something, and for no apparent reason I suddenly get an urge to practice piano. Even though I usually hate piano lessons. It's a hard thing to explain an impulse or whim to another person, especially if they find it upsetting. The narrator had probably foreseen that the watchman would question his reason for taking a night stroll, since night/darkness is generally considered an inappropriate time for doing so. The narrator just didn't want to try to make the watchman understand, so he avoided the watchman's eyes as he passed.


This student is violating almost all of the conventions of the thesis essay. She does not have point to argue; instead, she is using the writing to explain the thinking process she went through: the question that the text generated in her mind, and how she went about coming up with a plausible answer. She uses the pronoun “I.” She consciously makes connections between the “objective” material under discussion and the subjective experience of her life. And yet, which paper would you prefer to read? Which paper shows greater control, authority, clarity, logic, or plausibility? Which paper is more successful as an essai? Why do we assume that students will get more benefit if we teach them to write like that rather than like this?


Third, the very logic of the thesis essay encourages bad thinking. Students are not being asked to consider all the facts, positive and negative; they are being asked to select the facts which will bolster their arguments. Quite often, because of the time constraints surrounding most of the writing students are asked to attempt, they do not have time to do an adequate job of considering all the relevant data and all the points of view that might be pertinent to a thoughtful examination of the topic at hand. As a result, they often put together essays which make compelling sense only if the reader is willing to ignore all the information which the writer has chosen—or been forced—to ignore. Given the built-in handicaps we ask students to labor under, is it any wonder that they buckle under the strain?


There is of course a value to asking students to learn about and practice writing the thesis essay as one form among many others. However, it is not right to say or imply to students that this is the only or most important kind of writing they must learn to do. It’s like handing every student a pair of size ten combat boots and saying, “Here, this is called footwear. Whenever you want to go outside, wear these on your feet.” Such shoes would not fit everyone, and even if they did they would not suit the purpose of students wishing to dance or play tennis or walk on the beach or get married. The world of essay writing is infinitely more various and nuanced and seductive than what we generally choose to show to students, and the range of student capability in writing is much broader and more impressive than the thesis essay allows them to demonstrate.

Every year I have students who are reluctant to speak up in organized class discussions. But every once in a while I set aside a class period for what I like to call “Open Forum” discussions, in which I simply ask students to write down any topic they like on file cards, and then we just flip through the cards and toss out the topics. I am always amazed that some of the very same students who would never speak in a structured framework just come out of the woodwork in the open forums. They’re outgoing, they’re funny, they’re articulate, they have lots of things to say. The shift in the frame seems to give them “permission” to be themselves and speak in their own voices, voices which are rich and wonderful. Quite often, once they have “come out” in an open forum, they begin to take a more active part in the structured class discussions as well. I don’t mean to suggest that I have any plans to give up on structured discussions. But I do want to make sure that I provide other kinds of discussion experiences, not only for those whose strengths emerge in those settings, but also so that all students can see that there are many ways to shape and participate in a discussion.

The analogy to essay writing should be clear. Sometimes we do ask students to work within structural constraints or time constraints. This is as it should be. But if that is all we do, if we don’t allow students the opportunity to explore on their own the directions their thoughts take them in, we do them a real disservice. For the last fifteen years I have asked students to hand in one piece of writing each week for which I provide no direction and no constraints, other than that it should represent an hour’s worth of time on task. And I’ve got to say that the results are always interesting, and always instructive. I learn a great deal about my students, as people and as writers, by what they choose to write. When I sit down at the table with a stack of papers to read, I almost always find myself not dreading it, but looking forward to the experience. And no matter what they write, I can position myself not as someone waiting to be convinced, but as someone sincerely interested in trying to understand what it is the writer is trying to do, so I perhaps help her with it.

Even when framing directed assignments for students, there are many, many possibilities other than thesis essays: process essays, question-based essays, reflective essays, dialogues, letters, personal narratives, analogical essays, comparison/contrast essays... the list is potentially infinite. Each of these forms encourages the student to essai, to make a trial, an attempt, a weighing. Each form has its own dynamics, its own potential power, and its own limitations. Students need to play in these fields as well, to know that there is more to the writing life than the thesis essay.

The thesis essay is a structured frame, a formula. It is useful for some purposes in some situations. But like any other formulaic solution to any other real problem, its limitations are debilitating. As the old saying would have it, “If all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Students need to have more tools at their disposal, more ways of thinking about how to write well and think well than just this one primary tool. Furthermore, they have to be prepared to face, and have some experience in dealing with, situations in which none of the tools they have ever used is adequate to the demands of this new situation. In other words, they have to learn how to invent—as I have done here—an appropriate form when the need arises.


Annie Dillard begins A Writing Life with these words:


When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a wood-carver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year.

You make the path boldly and follow it fearfully. You go where the path leads. At the end of the path, you will find a box canyon. You hammer out reports, dispatch bulletins.

The writing has changed, in your hands, and in a twinkling, from an expression of your notions to an epistemological tool. The new place interests you because it is not clear. You attend.  In your humility, you lay down the words carefully, watching all the angles. . .


A student who has never gotten inside the process described here, who has never undergone the dilemma of having to face a blank page without a plan, who has never had to try to solve the problems any real writer must face—what to write about, how to get it started, how to shape it, how to listen to what the writing has to say back to the writer, how to use the writing as a catalyst for exploration and discovery rather than as a blunt instrument to beat the reader into submission—is a student who has never been given the chance to learn how to write. We have an obligation as teachers to show our students the greater possibilities, and allow them to experience the greater rewards, of learning how to use writing to teach themselves how to think, how to pay attention, how to use the act of writing to help them find out what they really think and who they really are.