I find the essay a perfect vehicle for dealing with my bi-polar immigrant experience and with questions of identity that every immigrant and exile faces in a new environment. Thanks to the essay I can revisit myself as I was and look at myself as I am and give my life a shape and a coherence it otherwise wouldn’t have. I agree with Susan Sontag that “All writing is a species of remembering,” but retrospection and introspection are best served by the essay, which also lets me open all sorts of my interior drawers—the drawers that hide ambivalence, paradoxes, contradiction, lies.
When I ponder what draws me to the essay, the word that comes to mind and best describes my love of the form is largesse. The essay beckons with possibilities—the multiplicity of themes and shape shifting forms. Because of its capaciousness it can deal with serious subjects like philosophy, politics, literature, art; it can be a personal reminiscence full of soul-searching ruminations; it can talk about bow ties, buttons, or engage with the writer’s backyard. The essay is not a novel or a short story, but it can avail itself of the techniques of fiction. It isn’t a poem, either, though, as Cynthia Ozick argues, it can do everything a poem can do. We even have lyric essays now, which are so close to prose poems that some of them, perhaps to their authors’ dismay, end up in Best American Poetry. But the essay’s propensity toward cross-pollination is something to revel in, not to lament.
The essay gives its practitioners amazing freedom: I can digress to my heart’s content and no one will accuse me of not sticking to my topic or main idea; I can hesitate, change my mind between paragraphs, backtrack, doubt and question myself. I can be tentative and even fickle, sizing up different ideas only to dismiss them. Dr. Johnson got it right when he described the essay as “a loose sally of the mind.” Novelists, conversely, have to be more resolute, more sure of their vision, and they must convey that conviction to their readers.
The essay, too, may be discursive, and yet unapologetic about its discursiveness, whereas novelists—if they want essayistic ruminations in the context of the novel—have to invent characters, all those Settembrinis and Naphtas, who will voice opinions. I wish I remembered who said that ideas are to essays what characters are to novels, a statement that underscores the fact that essayists can speak their minds without resorting to the artifice of the invented character and plot.
Borges says in his essay “On Blindness” that since “people tend to prefer the personal to the general, the concrete to the abstract,” he will talk about himself. Thus he identifies another appealing characteristic of the essay: I can insert myself into whatever topic I choose to write on. I won’t be charged with submitting to narcissistic and egotistic impulses, even though my choice of the form may have had something to do with them. After all, the presence of the “I” is one of the essay’s salient and indispensable features. As a result, the essay can operate on the micro and macro scale, including the minutely personal as well as the political and the historical, a facet appealing to someone who like me comes from a country—Poland—that hasn’t been treated particularly well by history, and for whom the personal is political and historical.
And finally, since the essay probes the depths of the singular, individual mind, which can be quirky, annoying, full of contradictions, but never standardized or anonymous, it is ultimately a cry against tabloid habits and effusions. If the culture is to thrive, we need essays (as much as we need comfortable armchairs) to let us stop, slow down, sit down, and think. Today’s civilization with its unremitting tension and characteristic dispersal leaves little time and place for that. Essays, then, offer us companionable solitude, entice us to slowness, quiet deliberation, reflection, to all those things that used to be called vita contemplativa and which are so sorely absent from our fast-paced lives.
Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough is the author of the essay collection Objects of Affection (Braddock Avenue Books, 2018). Her essays have appeared in The New Yorker, AGNI, The Threepenny Review, The American Scholar, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. One of them was selected for inclusion in The Best American Essays 2012; two others were listed among the Notable Essays of 2011 and 2013. She is also a literary translator. (updated 10/2018)