“What essays give you is a mind at work.”
I used to bandy about this quotation as a writer of essays, and as a teacher of them, because for a time I thought it was useful. I thought it pointed to what was most glorious about the essay: its ability to show off some first-rate creative thinking. Then I moved to San Francisco, and in the bar of the hotel we stayed in while looking for a home, I saw hung above the shelves of underlit bottles a multi-bulbed sign that read Be Amazing. Why, I wondered, was this the imperative of our time? Magicians are amazing. To amaze someone is to dazzle her, or to leave her stunned by you. And it seemed to me that if our goal is stunning other people with ourselves, we’re not hearing other people or even really talking to them. I write essays to communicate, and I read them to engage in someone else’s new ideas. And that, I realized, was key: engagement. There’s an absorptive, maybe even interactive quality to the essay, which Atwan’s bit doesn’t address.
Then I found another quotation: “The rhetorical function of essaying is not merely to transmit the essayist’s thoughts but to convey the feeling of their movement and thereby to induce an experience of thought in the reader.” Who wrote it was a guy named R. Lane Kauffmann, a professor in what was then called the Hispanic studies department at Rice. Not the sort of person you’d tend to find in the craft books, but look at what he’s pointing to: inducing the experience of thought in the reader. Here’s where the absorption lies. It’s not enough to show your mind at work. We essayists need to get our readers’ minds working on their own.
Two obvious questions:
1. What does a mind at work even look like?
2. How can we, après Kauffmann, convey the feeling of thoughts’ movement?
To answer these questions I went looking for books on the brain’s structures and biological functions, and I read the work of cognitive scientists who studied human perception and theories of learning—how the mind works. I learned some things I think can help us write essays that engage our readers more fully, but, first, I need to sell you on an argument you may not want to buy. Essayist : reader :: teacher : student may be the sort of analogy only a professor of creative writing would come up with, but even at their most personal, essays feel didactic. We’re often teaching our readers how we want to be understood. One way, then, to identify “good writing” is by how well it gets readers to think and feel alongside the essayist. Again, it comes back to absorption. I want my readers to fall into the induced experience of thought the way I fall, when reading, into the worlds of my favorite novels so fully I forget I’m just looking at words on a page. Absorption in fiction—ditto narrative nonfiction—is created through sensory detail. But how is it created in an essay, like this one, that doesn’t have a story to tell?
More than 160 billion cells make up the brain. (The heart, by comparison, has a measly 2 billion). The cells worth our time here are called neurons, and they look like those spiked iron balls certain foreboding videogame bosses swing menacingly over their heads at you. The ball of the flail contains the cell nucleus, and its spikes are called dendrites; they receive electrochemical signals from other neurons. Neurons send their signals from the nucleus down a chain called the axon, but there’s not going to be a test, here, so ignore the vocab for the process. Stimuli—sounds, smells, etc.—fire our neurons, and when two neurons fire together, the connections between them strengthen. “Neurons that fire together wire together” goes the neuroscientific maxim, and it’s the biological basis for learning. (And not just human learning: Ivan Pavlov fired “I hear a buzzer” neurons the same time he fired “I smell food” neurons to the point where the “I smell food” neurons didn’t need to fire anymore for the “Let’s drool now” neurons to do so.)
What I mean by “fire” involves the swapping of potassium and sodium ions (among others) in a physiological process we don’t have time to explore in full here, but one thing it will help to shine a light on is that this firing/swapping occurs at the synapse: a microscopic bit of space between the axon and dendrite. Which is to say: signals leap. Such leaps—as you read this, as you take in passing audio information, as you breathe, blink, fart, and daydream—are continually happening across all the brain’s parts.
So, what does a mind at work look like? It’s all quickness and light.
If I give you a list of people to remember and a woman named Baker is on the list, you’re less likely to remember her later than you would a woman who is a baker. The reason behind this is harsh: language barely signifies. Baker, the name, fires neurons associated with naming and language. That’s it. But baker, the occupation, fires not only language neurons but those associated with smell, food, memories set in bakeries, and so on. Anything encoded semantically—i.e., in terms of its significance and meaning—will have a better chance of making it to long-term memory storage than things encoded only visually or acoustically.
It’s called the Baker-baker paradox and it shows us a way to write better: encode your stuff semantically. Generate layers of associative meaning. My favorite example of this comes from the Findings column in Harper’s—the magazine’s back-of-the-book assemblage of the month’s findings from the scientific community. In essence, it’s a prose poem built out of facts, but these facts are always re-engineered to convey both information and emotion. Once, I sat down to talk with its author, Rafil Kroll-Zaidi, about his process. He pointed me to a certain finding from years before we met:
A cat gave birth to a dog in Brazil.
“First problem with that,” he told me, “is what’s interesting is that a cat gave birth to a dog. “In Brazil” is just dead language sitting at the end of the sentence. You don’t care about it by the time it happens.” He suggested a revision:
In Brazil, a cat gave birth to a dog.
“So you’ve got the kicker at the end,” he said. Then he gave me a funny look. “Or…? Better…? Can you guess?”
I couldn’t guess. I waited for him to tell me.
A Brazilian cat gave birth to a dog.
Brazil shifts from adverbial information to an adjective, he explained, and when that happens, something goes queer about the sentence. The sentence is already confusing: A cat shouldn’t have given birth to a dog. Kroll-Zaidi delivers the finding in such a way to amplify that confusion, thus making it far more memorable and affecting than, say, “According to a 2006 Reuters report, a woman claimed ‘her cat Mimi had given birth to … three puppies as well as three kittens.’” (Whether you’re OK with overlooking the additional two dogs is another essay for another time.)
Here, on the page, was the quickness and light I saw going on in the brain, those rapid associations engineered through language. Kroll-Zaidi is looking to build layers of affect: information and mood, punful disturbances. It’s a lot like what makes Julie Smith, David Foster Wallace’s protagonist in the short story “Little Expressionless Animals,” so good at Jeopardy! Smith spends much of her childhood reading and consolidating to her long-term memory “an obscure and limited-edition Canadian encyclopedia called LaPlace’s Guide to Total Data,” which we’re meant to believe is one reason she becomes the first-ever Jeopardy! contestant to stay on as champion for more than the regulated five-day run. (The story is from the ’80s, long before the rule changed, allowing for serial winner Ken Jennings et al.) She wins 740 games in a row. One other reason for her success is more occult. “This girl not only kicks facts in the ass,” is how one character puts it. “This girl informs trivia with import. She makes it human, something with the power to emote, evoke, induce, cathart.”
There it is again: induce. Semantic encoding gives us the power to induce an experience in the reader.
About ten years ago—to give you a sense of how new these findings are—Robert Bjork, a cognitive scientist at UCLA, ran an experiment on learning. He set up two classes of students, all of whom had to learn about the work of twelve artists. The students in Class A “block sorted” the work, studying six different paintings by one artist before moving onto the next. In Class B, they “interleaved” the work, studying one painting by one artist at a time and cycling through the twelve artists in six rounds. All students saw the same seventy-two paintings. Then Bjork tested both classes by asking them to identify which of the twelve artists created a painting they hadn’t seen before.
Guess which class did a better job on the test.
Class B, with the interleaved study, did a better job. Findings like this led Bjork to coin the term “desirable difficulties”: conditions that appear to impede performance during training but which actually lead to better long-term retention and retrieval of the material. Researchers found all sorts of other such “difficulties.” My favorite example is the study in which one class studied materials on a fictional animal printed in good old, boring Arial font and the other class studied the same materials printed in Comic Sans MS at 60 percent grayscale. Again, class B did better on tests.
Does this mean essayists should submit our manuscripts printed in Comic Sans? You’re welcome to try. I won’t, but as a writer I’m interested in this notion of creating desirable difficulties, and more specifically in interleaving. Interleaving looks a lot like what we in the nonfiction community call a “braided essay,” in which two or more topics are woven together to form an essay’s throughline. (John McPhee’s “The Search for Marvin Gardens” and Jo Ann Beard’s “Coyotes” are good examples.) Bjork’s findings suggest the braided essay might be more than just a nice way to shape a piece; the structure might actually help a reader engage more deeply with an essay and retain more information from it.
And it’s nice to think of difficulty as being desirable. So often, in my first drafts I worry over what readers will understand or how much they’ll follow me on a line of thought. Or I’ll get a wild idea to leap from beer cans, say, to the shoes of Imelda Marcos, and I’ll worry that readers won’t follow me there.
But readers will follow you there, and they’ll be happier for making the jump. More than “show don’t tell,” the phrase I repeat ad nauseam in my classrooms is “leap don’t creep.” Make wild associations and connections without worrying about spelling everything out. Joy Castro, one of the finest memoirists I know, told me recently always to assume my reader is smarter than I am. “Leap don’t creep” is not only a reminder to write up to such readers, giving them desirable difficulties to engage with, but it also makes me write in a way that mirrors the working of their active, brilliant minds.
The brain is a masterclass on how to write nonfiction. The better we understand its processes and its landscape, the more artful our writing can be. It’s like sending fiction students out in the world to capture the way light falls on a tree or to eavesdrop on conversations so as to understand dialogue. When you write to build a world, go out into the world. But when you write to induce a mind to think, why not go, Poseidon Adventure-like, into the mind?
This may be an unpopular idea in a magazine dedicated to rooting nonfiction in narrative, in using the stuff of sensory detail to replicate the experience of moving through the world (or, often, through our memories of an older world). But not all nonfiction comes in story form. And non-narrative nonfiction can be creative, too.
* Illustration by Chris Mucci