Essaying on Essays

I am reading E. B. White and thinking a lot about essays. Last week I read Essays By E. B. White. Today I am reading One Man’s Meat. White has rapidly become one of my favorite essayists, along with Andy Rooney, Al Martinez, John McPhee, and Isaac Asimov. One Man’s Meat is a collection of essays White wrote for Harpers in the early 1940s. Reading the book makes me wish I was an essayist, too. I suppose, to some extent, I am.

As a recent commenter pointed out on an earlier post, “semantic shift” is a fancy way of describing how the meaning of words change over time. “Post” has, in my mind, evolved into a kind of synonym for “essay” and since I’ve written more than 6,000 posts on this blog, I suppose I could make a legitimate claim at being an essayist.

I like the word essay better than post. One seems more formal than the other. Posts can often be little more than incoherent ramblings, where essays have structure and purpose. Someone like E. B. White is a master of the form, and though I’ve written thousands of essays, I feel like I am as far from being a master as when I started writing on the blog 13 years ago.

What strikes me as interesting is that the essays that I read by White, Rooney, Asimov, and others, don’t seem to follow the form of essay that I was taught to write in school. Back then, the Five Paragraph Essay was king. In the first paragraph you would state your thesis. In paragraphs two, three, and four, you would defend your thesis with argument. Paragraph four was to contain a counter-argument, which you could then rebut, e.g., “Some might argue that… however, when one considers…” The fifth and final paragraph was to restate your thesis. Except when a grade depended on adhering to the form, I’m not sure I ever deliberately wrote an essay like that. The five-paragraph form is to an essay what color-by-numbers is to art.

E. B. White occasionally described his struggles writing essays. So did Andy Rooney. Draft after draft would come through the typewriter until the result was satisfactory. Never great in the author’s mind, merely satisfactory. When I write fiction, I always write at least two, and often three drafts. However, when I write essays, it is almost always the first draft that goes out the door. I’ve often thought this is a bad habit to be in, but it’s a difficult habit to break. I often want to write more than one draft of an essay, but on those rare occasions when I do, they seem to lose some of their liveliness. I’ve learned to leave them alone. Maybe that’s why I wish I was an essayist, instead of feeling like I am one.

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