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On Essays

Let us consider the humble essay.

The word essay seems overly academic, archaic even, invoking in some of us memories of grade-school scribbles about the Oregon Trail or honeybees. But it is a useful way of describing a broad spectrum of the best contemporary writing found in this and many other publications today.

When it comes down to it, an essay is simply an excursion across (and occasionally through) any number of interesting subjects. Author and essayist Aldous Huxley perhaps best described the form as “a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything.” But the form need not be limited to nonfiction prose: creative nonfiction, photography, even poetry make for compelling essay experiences.

Huxley also noted that the essay form is known for its relative brevity, which means that an essay needs to get its point across in a fairly short amount of time. Some essays use pointed arguments or grand rhetorical statements to do this, while others deploy raw humor or subtle satire to convey information and persuasion alike (for a fine example of the latter, read Jonathan Swift’s 1729 essay, “A Modest Proposal”).

Whether comprised of words or pictures, a good essay draws from one of three wells of experience: the personal, the objective, and the universal. A great essay draws from all three. However, this triptych is no easy feat. The word essay derives from the French infinitive essayer, which means “to try” or “to attempt,” indicating the challenge at hand.

But, as readers, we can feel when an essay successfully incorporates all three: the personal element gives us perspective, a lens through which to view the subject at hand; the objective builds reader trust and allows us to be led along the narrative path. And, perhaps most important, readers gain understanding and insight about some facet of the human condition through the universal—and learn something about themselves in the process.

Look for more—and more kinds of—essays in this and future issues of Wisconsin People & Ideas. Happy reading.

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Jason A. Smith is the associate director of the Wisconsin Academy and editor of the organization's quarterly magazine of Wisconsin thought and culture, Wisconsin People & Ideas.

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