The essay is one of the most fluid forms of creative nonfiction. Most people will write an essay at some point in their life—even if it’s only in an introductory-level English class. But before you dismiss essays as something boring and compulsory, let’s dive a little deeper.
In Good Prose Todd writes that essays “are the natural medium of ideas.” (Did I scare you with that citation? Are you having flashbacks of dull peer-reviewed texts and endless searching for quotes that will support your haphazardly-chosen thesis? That’s not just a picture of me in university . . . is it?) Let’s examine what Todd’s saying. Of all the forms and genres of writing, ideas find their natural home in essays. Essays are exploratory and fluid. In other types of writing, the contradictions that we all face as writers must be decided on. We must choose a direction to write towards, even if we’re not sure that it’s the right one. But essays are naturally self-contradicting—they’re an examination of the many sides of an idea, a thought, an insight. They’re the ideal medium for those who aren’t sure what they’re saying. The perfect place to write into the woods and find your way back out again.
The beauty of the essay is that you don’t need to be an expert to write one. Many great essayists write on topics ranging from the inspired to the banal. As Todd explains, “What gives you license to write essays? Only the presence of an idea and the ability to make it your own.” I don’t know about you, but I can run with that.
Here are 3 other reasons you should consider writing an essay.
1. They’re less intimidating.
Have you ever thought, “I should write a book.”? Most of us who claim the title writer have had that thought (or made that declaration) at one point. The trouble is that writing a book is incredibly intimidating. It’s long. It needs developed characters, a defined story arc, an engaging plot. Most writers are overwhelmed before they even start. But essays? Essays can be short. They can examine or explore a single idea or experience. They can rely on personal observations and insights. They don’t require you to be an expert. You can find inspiration from reading a few examples in a single afternoon. I don’t know many (or any) people who can read a few novels in an afternoon.
2. They’re perfect for experimenting.
Not sure what your voice is as a writer? Interested in exploring writing in different voices? Do you have a bunch of topics or ideas you want to write on? The essay is the ideal medium for delving into the different sides of yourself as a writer. Write through your conflicting opinions on a topic or alternate perspectives on an experience. Put on a different writing voice to see how it works. Explore multiple aspects of a single theme with a series of essays. Use the essay as an excuse to play with words.
3. They’re easy to repurpose.
Now that you’ve experimented and eased your way into writing, you can use your essays to launch other projects. Post your essays on your blog, adjust for audience and pitch them to magazines, or expand on them to finally write your novel.
There are so many reasons for writers of any level to embrace the essay and countless inspiring examples of writers who have honoured the form. Memoirs and fiction may be the currently favoured children of the literary world, but the essay can be your writer’s secret weapon.
Want to learn more about the essay (and 4 other categories of creative nonfiction)? Check out our new free course The Creative Nonfiction Primer!