The Exquisite Art of the Essay
College is a traumatic experience. Like the original trauma of birth, college rips us from the warm, enclosing confines of our families and thrusts us out into the cold outer world of subjectivity, alienation, and separation. College is a time when people predisposed to mental illnesses are most likely to start showing symptoms, and when many people experience traumas like sexual assault. To add insult to injury, these and the host of other attacks on mental and physical health one experiences in college are often met with stark indifference by the administration that should be supporting its students through such experiences. In college you go through a lot of hardships, and you usually have to go through it without help.
My usual answers to the hypothetical essay prompt “what I learned in college” would be horrifying to some, but most would probably relate. Often the lessons we learn from college are depressing, like those that come from trying to educate racist teachers or date heterosexual men. Sometimes they’re the incorrect lessons of trauma, which lead us to avoid certain situations or turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms because we feel like it will keep us safe. Even the lessons about how to survive in a world that is depressingly like the uncaring environment of college are the kind of lessons you wish you didn’t have to learn. It’s amazing so many graduates make it out of college alive every year.
That said, there was one lesson I got from college that’s hard to spin as a bad thing: in college, I learned how to write an essay. There are certain moments in life where something with huge implications for your future happens so unobtrusively you don’t even look at it twice. These things happen a lot your freshman year of college. So many many things are happening to you at that time; you don’t realize that the girl who also can’t figure out how to get into a school building will become your best friend after you figure it out together, or that the liquor store an upperclassman shows you the first week of school will become…also your best friend.
The word nostalgia comes from the Greek meaning homesickness. (Defining terms is important in essays.) It’s commonly thought that it means the pain from an old wound, but that is untrue, though poetic. (Redefining terms, making your reader think differently about a word they already knew, is even more important) There’s a reason that misconception is so common: when I think of the worst periods of my life, the nostalgia I feel for them makes sense if I can understand them as a perverse reaction to pain. To think of those periods as home is less comforting. While periods like that have been more the place where I’ve lived than not, I don’t like the idea that me languishing in a dorm room with a glass of half vodka and half orange juice is more my home than my sunny studio in LA where I’ve been sober for almost two years.
Perhaps it's the intensity of that blend of extreme pleasure and extreme pain that makes us nostalgize about college. We felt so much back then, and whether it was good or bad it often feels less real than the more mundane realities of our lives today. But then again, maybe in a few years you and I will both look back on the present and feel that same nostalgia. After all, can any of us say life stopped being terrible when we graduated college?
Sometimes it seems to me like traumas are more a part of life than non-traumas. That may seem crushing, but then the things that help you through those traumas—like people, music, and yes, pursuits like essay-writing—become the best parts of life. The good couldn’t exist without the bad, and if the bad had existed without the good we probably wouldn’t have made it here. It’s not an accident that most of my essays revolve around how the piece of media I’m writing about helped me through some terrible experience—that’s kind of what I use those pieces of media, not to mention the pastime of writing essays, for.Most essayists write essays about issues that are significant or disturbing to them—otherwise, why take the trouble to write an essay?
It seems like basically every college has a freshman year writing course, so I probably don’t even need to go into the details of this one, but: entitled Writing the Essay, it was a two-semester course every freshman needed to take to graduate. At my particular university, it was divided up by school such that I ended up in class with all my fellow art students. Our version of Writing the Essay was geared toward how artists interact with the world (the class was subtitled, Art in the World). You would think art students would be excited to take a class where they get to think about how their work impacts the world around them, but you, like me, would be wrong.
One of the first claims made by my Writing the Essay teacher was that writing essays teaches you how to think. While many people write essays without thinking, in general I find this claim to be true. However, while you can certainly set up a class in a college to teach people to write essays and to think, that does not mean they will learn either thing. Or, as a sophomoric freshman me put it: “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it think!”
I quickly noticed that many of my classmates were less thrilled with the coursework than I was. They apparently did not go into raptures over Roland Barthes, or experience the electric hum in your brain when it seems like every line on a page deserves hours of thought on its own. Before two weeks of the semester had passed it had already become a cliche subject of conversation to gripe about Writing the Essay homework. Later in college, the most common thing I would hear from people looking back at it was a blithely cheerful “I learned nothing from that class!” Meanwhile, despite my relationship with vodka taking up more of my schedule each week, Writing the Essay homework was one of the best non-drinking parts of my day.
Fast forward to me in the present day, two years out of college. If you know this me, you know that I love essays. I read them voraciously and write them vomitously. I love David Foster Wallace’s dissertations and all their footnotes; I love Zadie Smith’s wry, lucid academic bent; I love Joan Didion’s quiet depressive meditations, and Roxane Gay’s internet-age thinkpieces, with their distinctively 21st-century confessional social justice. I recently fell head over heels in love with Siri Hustvedt’s complex argumentation, which lets her points lurk in the depths of her rigorously scientific discourses without even requiring them to be stated explicitly. I could go on, but lists like this should be used sparingly in essays, since they inundate the reader with information while redundantly making the same point over and over. Lists like this are best used when you want to make a point of what a dizzying level of support you have for the argument you’re making, or when you have a lot of favorite authors and want to spend a paragraph self-indulgently talking about them while winkingly telling your audience that you probably shouldn’t be.
Anyway. The uniting factor of all the essayists above is that I don’t just like reading what they think, but also how they think it. Distilling any of these writers’ essays into one single bulletpoint, the “thesis statement” we were taught to write in high school, would destroy an essential part of its meaning. This is a sign that these writers write good essays. An essay isn’t a single equation, it’s a whole mathematical proof. That’s why what my Writing The Essay teacher said is true—to write a good essay, you have to put your thinking down on the page, not just your thoughts. It requires patience and intellectual rigor, perhaps at a level certain college freshmen aren’t willing to invest in their work.
But not so with me! Thinking has always been my favorite activity, and all my other favorite activities are my favorites because thinking is part or all of doing them. Writing, reading, even things like going for long walks or bike rides are enjoyable to me because they’re a good time to get some quality thinking done. When I was sitting in my dorm room freshman year doing my Writing the Essay homework, it felt like amid all the small talk and hashtags suffusing my college social circles I was finally getting down to something that mattered. I was getting the chance to talk about subject that many people I’ve read and admired have talked about, to join in on what Ada Palmer calls The Great Conversation.
Essays themselves are Conversations, since they involve unpacking a bunch of ideas and voices and, as I heard many times in Writing the Essay, “putting them in conversation with each other.” Often this doesn’t get you a set of fixed conclusions, because again—it’s not about the final product! It isn’t about finishing a whole chapter of a book, it’s about the thought tangent that makes you stare into space while holding the book for as long as you just spent reading, or longer. It’s about all the different flips and loop-de-loops you can do while circling around the same themes. Many of my favorite essays don’t actually come to any conclusions at all!
But essays aren’t just about letting your mind run around pell-mell with no direction. Writing an essay is an act of structure as much as of wild intellectual abandon. This dual nature of the essay form is the kind of oppositional tension that animates all the best essays. Essays are interesting because they bring up contradictions—they offer freedom, but they’re defined by their set format; they exist in staggering mutiplicity but can all be boiled down to the same basic parts. Lyrical or academic, personal or abstract, the anatomy of an essay is recognizable in David Foster Wallace just as much as in Chuck Klosterman (and yes, I know I used David Foster Wallace twice. He deserves it.).
In art school, you often hear people referring to the art they practice as their “craft.” Perhaps at the heart of every craft is an opposition like this: film feels most immediate and spontaneous out of all art forms but is in fact the most calculated and piecemeal; music too feels unrestrained and off-the-cuff while being governed by strict rules of theory; swordplay involves delicate maneuvers as much as stark deathblows. In Kill Bill Volume Two (Chapter Eight: The Cruel Tutelage of Pai Mei,to be exact), The Bride is asked what combat training she has; she replies: “I am proficient in Tiger Crane style, and I am more than proficient in the exquisite art of the samurai sword.” The combination of grace and brute force The Bride uses in the scene where she fights the gang known as the Crazy 88 all at once makes it clear how well she has honed her craft.
In my best moments, thinking feels like a lethal art that will aid me in my life’s epic spaghetti-Western and kung-fu-movie inspired quest. But the thing about thinking is that it's as much the mechanism of my traumas as it has been my escape from them. Mental illness is thinking, after all. Because of thinking, I was reduced to something slightly firmer than jelly for most of the summer between my junior and senior years of college. Thinking about one thing to the exclusion of all else has led me through rings of hell I cannot describe. Alcohol can become a seductive pastime because it can quiet certain strata of thoughts.
Often fear is described as an absence of thought, since theoretically the fight or flight response is meant to get you running away from the charging predator rather than mulling over whether or not to run, but this isn’t exactly true. When it’s the drawn-out slow-motion fear that most often plagues the average citizen of our fast-paced modern world, fear is thinking, and thinking is fear. I say this as someone who has watched the shadows on my wall go from night to day while my thoughts went around in the same loops for eight hours straight; as someone who loses track of conversations because of dread that draws me out of the present moment; as someone whose exercise routine is as intense as a bodybuilder’s not to get me in shape, but to tire my brain out enough to give me some peace.
When I picture my anxiety, I picture myself as one of the background characters in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds; one of the ones who gets attacked by the birds. My thoughts are the birds. Here, the focus is still on the process—my anxious thought loops literally never get my anywhere; they never come to any kind of satisfying conclusion. They exist to propagate themselves. Not only do they have the same freedom of expression as my essay writing, but they have certain structural elements they all share as well. Perhaps I’ve honed anxiety into a craft, too.
Like the samurai sword, while you can defeat your enemies with your thoughts, you can just as easily turn your thoughts on yourself, violently plunging them inward and twisting them around to inflict a time-honored ritual of damage. Time and again, I have committed this mental hara-kiri in an attempt to survive the random misfortunes the world throws my way. It certainly hurts, but like people who commit hara-kiri in reality, I often feel I have no choice. If you live by the sword, you die by the sword.
Speaking of swords: aside from essays, another medium I use to think about things is reading tarot cards. The tarot is a set of 72 cards that serve as symbolic, archetypical images you can use to think through any given question. Just like a regular deck of cards, it has four suits: Swords, Pentacles, Cups, and Wands. Each suit represents an element, which governs a different realm of human experience. Thinking, and the realm of abstract ideas in general, is represented by the suit of Swords.
All the Tarot suits tell a story. The suit of Swords tells a sad story. The Ace represents unlimited potential for ideas and intellect, and is usually drawn as a single sword being held aloft like its owner is about to go on a quest for knowledge. The optimism of the Ace of Swords makes you think that the suit’s story is going to be about using swords to attain some kind of wisdom through thoughts or ideals. Unfortunately, as you go through the cards in the suit of Swords, you begin to notice a theme—people getting stabbed with swords.
The Three of Swords represents heartbreak, and is aptly drawn as a heart with three swords stuck through it. The Seven of Swords represents betrayal, and is drawn as a person having to carry seven swords by their blades. By the time you get to the Ten of Swords, which represents defeat and is drawn as a person being impaled on—you guessed it—ten fucking swords, you’re rethinking your quest for knowledge.
Thinking is—wait for it—a double edged sword. With thinking you can fall on your sword, or a thought can be a sword of Damocles. As I mentioned before, if you live by your sword, you run the risk of dying by it. It’s enough to make you want to hang up your sword, or beat it into a ploughshare and focus on Pentacles instead. Like life, thinking has a best and worst to itself.
Circling back to college trauma here, I find when I think back that I wouldn’t change the good or the bad—they’re too inextricable, like the form and content of a good essay. It’s also worth noting that I can’t change either the good or the bad—not in the past, present, or future. And of course, writing an essay about a thing doesn’t actually change it; essays can really only help us change the way we think. This is the key to weathering most of life’s hardships. Things may be horrible, but you can think them through. You can talk about them, whether with people or on a page. Sometimes you come to conclusions, and sometimes you don’t—that’s the hardest part of both life and writing essays.