The essay: exploration or argument? (Or, perhaps, both?)

Recently, I have been rethinking one of my basic positions regarding the essay. For years, I have been saying the essay is not a logical proof or legal brief: It does not have to persuade; what is important is to follow one’s thoughts, even if they lead to contradiction. In “The Art of the Personal Essay,”I quoted Professor William Zeiger, who cited Montaigne as the exemplary essayist: “He did not argue or try to persuade. He had no investment in winning over his audience to his opinion; accordingly, he had no fear of being refuted. On the contrary, he expected that some of the ideas he expressed would change, as they did in later essays.” The essay, I insisted, was an open-ended adventure, an invitation to doubt and self-surprise: It was precisely the unexpected turns that would lift the prose and make it sing. Conversely, I thought, if you already knew what all your points were going to be when you sat down to write, the piece would likely seem dry, dead on arrival.

I still don’t disagree with the above statements, but over the years, I have begun to see the matter in a slightly different light. I’ve noticed that when my students write essays which simply follow their thoughts without any spine of argument, the texts don’t cohere, don’t satisfy: I’m left feeling at the mercy of someone’s random stream of consciousness. For another, I’ve come to realize that my own essays always contain an implicit argument and always do try to persuade—or, at least, seduce, entertain, distract amusingly, which are other means of persuasion, ones that Montaigne himself was happy to use. Even when I set out with no end in sight, I am still aware, as I write, that an argument is building underneath, and I nudge the prose along in ways that will accentuate that architecture.

I feel hypocritical urging my students not to worry too much about the argumentative, logical, structural props by which I continue to steer my own “open-ended” explorations. In pedagogic self-defense, I would say it is more important for students, at least in the early stages of learning to write essays, to court uncensored thoughts and potentially enriching digressions—to generate masses of pages, in short—than to be uptight about organizing an argument. On a more confessional level, I admit that one reason I find it hard to teach the hard-won rhetorical techniques which govern my own essays is that I learned them intuitively and, consequently, don’t always know how to name or describe them, except in fumbling, mumbling ways.

Here, we come to one of the dirty secrets—or, let us say, one of the challenges—of teaching creative nonfiction: The creative writing teacher, whose authority extends from being a practitioner of the form, is not a trained rhetorician. Unlike the poet-teacher, who can draw on a traditional lexicon of metrical and formal terms, the nonfiction writer-teacher is left to grab at such ad hoc distinctions as are currently being worked out piecemeal, belatedly and absent a unifying theory: for example, Vivian Gornick’s “The Situation and the Story,” Carl Klaus’ “The Made-Up Self,” David Shields’ “Reality Hunger,” John D’Agata’s “The Lost Origins of the Essay”or my own humble efforts. We are flying by the seat of our pants, in almost complete ignorance of centuries of oratorical and rhetorical terminology that goes all the way back to classical Greece and Rome, and continues to inform the discourse of our composition colleagues in the English department.

To try to understand how this happened, let us go back to the 1970s and ’80s, when the split occurred between composition and the personal essay. Out of the 1960s’ emphasis on “relevance” came such programs as the Voice Project at Stanford University, led by John Hawkes and Albert J. Guerard, which sought to renovate the teaching of freshman composition by encouraging autobiographical writing (getting students to find their own “voices”). I was sympathetic to such efforts because in my own college education, I had been turned off to the essay: It had been taught in freshman composition mainly as a way to hone one’s argumentative skills and defend a position in an academic paper or debate. It took me years to discover the glories of the form, by reading Hazlitt, Lamb, Montaigne, Baldwin, Orwell, Woolf, et al., and coming to see the essay as a perfect vehicle for the display of belletristic sensibility and unique personality. As a result, when I myself began teaching the essay, I seized on the concept that it was not a legal brief, not an argument, but an exploration. I wanted to rescue the essay from freshman comp and restore it to its rightful place in the literary canon.

There may have been another reason, less attractive to admit, for undertaking such a rescue effort: the status differential between composition and creative writing. The freshman comp instructor is the dray-horse of the university, often working for adjunct wages, forced to teach many sections, obliged to deal with students whose majors may be far removed from writing and who have no interest in the subject. Certainly, at the more tenured ranks of composition and rhetoric, professors are engaged in refined questions of theory and history, but in the introductory-level courses, the curriculum is often rigidly prescribed for every instructor. Many MFA writing students begin their teaching careers as composition instructors, dreaming of the day when they will have published enough to be assigned creative writing workshops.

Tenured professors of creative writing are, for the most part, not obliged to teach composition. We teach in a looser, less methodical fashion, and we are more inclined to mystify our subject, to make like magi holding the secrets of literary art. In my case, the impressionistic delivery is partly a way to disguise my ignorance: I am ashamed of not knowing Latin or the precise terms for the rhetorical effects underpinning my intuitive prose practice. I envy professors of rhetoric their systematic knowledge. I also envy writers of the last generation, such as Mary McCarthy, for whom Latin was a requirement in secondary school and whose flexible, conversational styles are fortified by a starch that gives their sentences gravitas and sinuosity.

I once shared my introduction to “The Art of the Personal Essay” with a learned English department colleague who pronounced it “charming,” which I took to mean insufficiently theorized and dilettantish. From time to time, I tell myself I must take a course in Latin or, at least, memorize Quintilian’s 12 books of rhetoric and catch up on some modern rhetorical theory. But I don’t. Instead, I continue to pursue an untutored love of syntax, whose forms I try to imitate and get my students to imitate. Sentences like Just as X and Y, so Z or Not A, not B, not C, but D. I also tell my students it is a good idea to plant knots of suspense or tension in the body of the essay and to try to untie them along the way, in order to suggest a skeletal argument.

Maybe our modern mistrust of oratorical argument comes from Plato’s distaste for casuistry. In the “Gorgias,” he attacked the rhetoricians for wanting to win arguments more than uncover moral truths, and he compared their skills to those of pastry cooks. Still, who was more adept at maintaining an argument than Plato? It used to puzzle me that Georg Lukacs, in his meaty “On the Nature and Form of the Essay,” cited Plato’s dialogues next to Montaigne as “the writings of the greatest essayists.” How could a dialogue be an essay? I wondered, literal-mindedly. But I am coming to think all good essays are dialogues, which partake of both exploration and argumentation. It is time that we essayists trace our strategies back to their sources and steep ourselves in rhetorical knowledge as well as Montaignian insouciance.

About the Author

Phillip Lopate

Phillip Lopate's nonfiction books include essay collections (Bachelorhood, Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body); film criticism (Totally Tenderly Tragically); an urbanist meditation (Waterfront); and, most recently, Notes on Sontag.

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