The Art of the Essay
September 20, 2010
I enjoyed the variety of essays Mary Oliver chose to label “The Best American Essays,” though that is quite hyperbolic. Has she actually read all of the essays in America? Doubtful. But, nonetheless, I appreciated most of her selection. One of my favorite essays was Jill McCorkle’s “Cuss Time.” The essay is essentially about free speech and the dangers of limiting vocabulary to only society’s choice of acceptable words. What I most admired about her essay was not the way she crafted an argument for the use of cuss time as a learning tool for free expression. Rather, the most impressive element in her essay was the way in which she introduced topic. She starts by telling a funny story about a poor five-year-old boy who cursed at the mail carrier. I laughed to myself while reading this part as well as the subsequent stories of her son cursing in his school paper and in his letter home from camp. She uses these highly entertaining and easily accessible anecdotes to delve into the deeper topic of free expression. Had the essay started directly with her thoughts on the constitution, I would have struggled to be engaged, much less stay awake. I hope to incorporate this into my writings by starting off with anecdotes. I also think this is an effective way to write speeches, as a live audience seems much more likely to respond to stories. I also liked the way McCorkle demonstrates her point by using examples. She writes about a high school that forbade the use of the word vagina. “Is this restriction because someone thinks vaginas are bad? I once had a story editor ask me not to use the word “placenta.” I wanted to say: ‘Now tell me again how you got here?’ Oh, right, an angel of God placed you into the bill of a stork.” Here, the author uses a hypothetical questions and sarcasm to ridicule those who try to limit the use of such politically incorrect words. I aspire to be as clever a wordsmith as McCorkie and maybe even take the liberty to use some of her words of expression (that is, only if the situation so calls for it!).
Finding My Intuition
I found Anne Lamott’s chapter “Broccoli”‘ both amusing and insightful. As she writes, “There’s an old Mel Brooks routine….where the psychiatrist tells his patient, ‘Listen to your broccoli, and your broccoli will tell you how to eat it.’ …when you don’t know what to do, when you don’t know whether your character would do this or that, you get quiet and try to heat that still small voice inside. It will tell you what to do. The problem is that so many of us lost access to our broccoli when we were children” (110). Broccoli is Lamott’s word for intuition. I might call this my heart’s compass that guides me in matters where my mind does not. I am the kind of writer who thinks things through very carefully as I write. I am a huge fan of outlines for essays and even for informal pieces, I almost always think before I write. I even take small notes sometimes about where I want the piece to go. What leads to what and how it will end. Lammot advises, “you need your broccoli in order to write well,” which I interpret to mean that I need to let go (111). I need to find a balance between my intuition and my rational mind. I know this, and yet, I have trouble achieving this balance. I hope to write more from the heart by practicing free writing during my daily writing exercises. Though I anticipated that writing would be one of my strengths for the SATs, I initially struggled. I could not finish an essay in the allotted time because my style of writing involved thinking things through thoroughly before putting pen to paper. While I by NO means strive toward the type of regimented writing the SAT promotes nor do I consider it a good test of writing capabilities, I learned a valuable lesson from it. One of my teachers advised me to write without putting my pencil down. Write and do not erase. Just let loose. As the Nike commercial demands, “Just do it!” I think that Lamott would agree with this method of writing, at least for first drafts. And, through this approach, I hope to find my inner broccoli.