When I say I’m writing my thesis is on the Australian essay most people recoil in horror, usually muttering something along the lines of ‘why would you do that to yourself?’. No doubt when they hear ‘essay’ they get flashbacks to assignments, rubrics, grading percentages and – perhaps most terrifying – bibliographies. This dreaded form of essay – the kind we’ve all suffered through for the sake of our education, be it high school or university – is the academic essay. But when I say essay, that isn’t what I’m talking about.
There is another kind of essay, a far less bristly, terror-inducing essay. It belongs to the growing realm known as creative nonfiction and it has something of a cult following amongst nonfiction writers in Australia, and the world. So what is an essay? Who writes them and which ones are worth reading? And most importantly– should you try your hand at writing one?
What is an essay?
An essay is a piece of prose, relatively short in length, which seeks to discuss a subject. Unlike its brother, the dreaded academic essay, this sort of essay is less interested in concrete facts or answering a question and more on the act of contemplation or discovery.
Let’s unpack this a little. The basics of an essay are a subject and the author’s take on it. For example, in a personal essay the author uses their own experiences to discuss a subject. Essay writers can draw on anything to discuss a subject – from science to history to literature. As long as the essay looks at a subject in some way (usually without a definitive conclusion or ‘answer’) it is an essay.
In his book Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: The Art of Truth American novelist and critic Bill Roorbach put it perfectly when defining the personal essay in particular: ‘A personal essay is never only an idea, but an idea illustrated with experience, an idea juxtaposed to competing ideas, and exposed to emotion’.
Alongside the personal essay you have all kinds of essay – the lyric essay, essays as literary journalism, nature essays, political essays. What they all have in common is an interest in open discussion, contemplation and the author’s own unique voice.
By now you might feel a little overwhelmed, but don’t worry: it’s not as complicated as it sounds. Essays can be a lot of fun, both to read and to write. It’s a form that can take a little getting used to but which is open to interpretation and experimentation.
Where can I find essays?
Many literary magazines and websites publish essays, such as Overland, Kill Your Darlings and The Lifted Brow. Black Inc. published an anthology of essays annually from 1998. However, their 2018 collection of Best Australian Essays will be the final collection, as announced earlier this year. Single-author essay collections are far more common in America than in Australia, but there have been a few Australian collections in recent years. One of the most notable is Fiona Wright’s Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger (Giramondo, 2015). Like most Australian essayists Wright’s shorter pieces can be found in publications like Meanjin, Island, Overland and more.
Why write essays?
Essays are a unique form of prose that allows writers to explore their experiences and interests in new and interesting ways. There are no concrete rules for the essay and experimentation is encouraged amongst most creative nonfiction writers. Because of this, it is a versatile form which can be adapted to personal writing styles and can cover subjects as big as world politics or as small as the dynamics of a household.
The essay emerged courtesy of a renaissance Frenchman called Montaigne, and it has been considered a form of the elite for some time but it is definitely not as exclusive today. Many essay writers are primarily writers of fiction or poetry. The benefits of writing essays as well as your main form of writing – whatever it may be – is that it gives you the chance to develop a very different set of skills. The essay forces you to think about things from multiple different angles, using your own experiences alongside factual evidence in order to consider things outside the realm of absolutes.
Should I write an essay?
Definitely. The essay is something I would recommend to all emerging writers. It is a unique and interesting form worth trying your hand at. If nothing else, it will get you thinking differently about the world around you. You might find that trying your hand at this form will challenge you and help you develop some new skills that can enhance your everyday writing.
– Fiona Wright, ‘Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger’, Giramondo, 2015.
– Jessica Friedmann, ‘Things That Helped: Essays’, Scribe, 2017.
– Leslie Jamison, ‘The Empathy Exams’, Graywolf Press, 2014.
– Roxane Gay, ‘Bad Feminist’, Harper Perennial, 2014.
Bill Roorbach, ‘Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: The Art of Truth’, Oxford University Press, 2001.
Words by Lisandra Linde
Lisandra Linde is an Adelaide-based writer of fantasy and creative nonfiction. She is currently working on her honours thesis on women’s mental illness narratives and the personal essay at Flinders University. She tweets at @KrestianLullaby