The writer has to be like the firefighter, whose job, while everyone else is fleeing the flames, is to run straight into them. — Jonathan Franzen in The Best American Essays 2016
After reading Katherine Bomer’s book The Journey is Everything, meeting her virtually by hosting a Twitter chat, and meeting her face to face at NCTE16, I have a new understanding of the power of essay. Katherine’s passion for the resurgence of the real essay came through in the panel she hosted at NCTE with Corinne Arens, Allyson Smith, and Matthew Harper. These teachers experienced the transformative power of essay in a writing institute, and transferred that understanding to their classrooms.
Unpacking my notes, I rediscovered this way of thinking and writing. In real essay, we explore Hot Spots, Buried Truths, and Freedom. We write to think, leaving space for unknowing. Like a conversation with your best friend, real essay uses words like maybe and perhaps while circling around an idea, unwinding your thinking.
Essay is literature. Essay includes ideas, voice, and risk. It is the risk that stood out to me. Isn’t all writing risky? Yes, but adding the element of risk to essay has been funneled out by the Common Core testing. And when we remove risk, we remove what makes us human. Jonathan Franzen agrees as he writes in the introduction to the 2016 collection of The Best American Essays, “A true essay is ‘something hazarded, not definitive, not authoritative; something ventured on the basis of the author’s personal experience and subjectivity.'”
Writers are not born, they are made. In order to discover what we think, what we know, what we are passionate about, we need to be real in our essays, in our blog posts, with our students. When we trust this process of discovery, we allow our students an opportunity to express themselves beyond 5 paragraph essay structure.
The writer holds the paintbrush. Rather than painting an image with authority, paint with abandon to the rules. The image will be creative, expressive, and all yours.