Don’t Fear The Essay: A Simple Guide to a Complex Form

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.

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Some recommendations:

– 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.

 

Works consulted:

Bill Roorbach, ‘Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: The Art of Truth’, Oxford University Press, 2001.

 


Image from Thought Catalog (https://thoughtcatalog.com/)

Words by Lisandra Linde

lizLisandra 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

Lisandra Linde: Managing Editor

meet the team.-11

lizHow did you get involved with Tulpa Magazine?

Tulpa Magazine really started as this idea Liam McNally and I were tossing up back when we worked in student media. We both wanted to create a platform for writers that had a strong focus on ethical media and writer development- something that we felt was sorely lacking in student media. We didn’t want to go for anything corporate or marketing-focused but rather something really content based, something that lifted up both writer and publication.

So I’ve been a part of Tulpa since before Tulpa even existed. Liam and I got a lot of support from the arts community here in Adelaide and that really helped us to develop our magazine, get the website up and then really see what came next. We were extremely fortunate to have Kayla Gaskell join us as a third managing editor in March 2018.

We’ve been flying semi-blind, still figuring things out as we go but I feel like that’s what makes the whole experience so rewarding. The writers, the editors, the readers- everyone has really been a part of shaping Tulpa and I think that makes us a little different, a bit more down to earth than a lot of other arts and literary magazines in Australia.

What do you do?

I manage all fiction submissions at Tulpa Magazine. I allocate pieces to our editing team, talk to our contributors and put the final pieces together online. I also run most of our social media, design additional images and advertisements and make sure the website runs smoothly. I’ve conducted a few interviews and I do reviews from time to time, which has been a really rewarding experience. I love meeting authors and artists in Adelaide and I think that’s one of the biggest perks of the job.

What’s your life like outside of Tulpa Magazine?

I’m an honours student at Flinders University so a lot of my time outside of Tulpa is spent working on my thesis. I’m also a fantasy writer so, in true writer spirit, I have several unfinished and unedited manuscripts floating around. I’m something of a spoken-word fanatic and you can usually find me at local gigs in Adelaide like Speakeasy, Quart Short Literary Readings, The Hearth and anything else that pops up on the local radar. I’ve performed quite a bit and I’m the 2018 Vice President for Speakeasy. I also do a bit of work for Quart Short Literary Readings.

 

What has been the most rewarding part of working for Tulpa Magazine?

For me it has to be working with our contributors. A lot of our fiction comes from emerging writers who have never had their work published before. It’s rewarding to be able to work with them to edit and polish their work and then see it go up on the website. Being able to support writers as they start on their writing journey is incredibly rewarding. I love seeing them share their work and feel proud of themselves. I remember how isolating and emotionally draining it was to start out and struggling to find someone willing to read my work and actually tell me it had potential, that it was something worthwhile.

A lot of bigger publications simply don’t have the time or the resources to give new writers feedback and encouragement- and being able to do that at Tulpa is something that I really love. I hope that as we grow and expand that we don’t lose that writer-editor bond that we have right now. I’ve had a lot of ‘Dear-Submitter-First-Name’ style rejections in my life, the kind of faceless, unfeeling responses that really get you down. At least at Tulpa we can say with confidence that we have time for every contributor and are always happy to give feedback, even if we don’t publish a writer’s work this time round.

 

What do you see yourself doing in the future? Where are you headed after Tulpa?

That’s hard to say. I want to get my PhD and hopefully teach creative writing and English at a university but that’s still a few years away. I guess I would love to publish more, meet more writers and really engage with the writing community. To be honest, things look pretty grim for Arts workers in Australia right now but I’m hoping that we see some change soon. It would be a pity for us to lose such an incredible community of artists, writers and editors because of a government that devalues and defunds the Arts. Here’s to hoping all of us have a bright future ahead of us- one where we can push the boundaries of art and culture.

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You can find Lisandra on Twitter and Instagram

For more information about her publications and qualifications you can visit her website.