In addition to teaching me (almost) everything I know about science, Isaac Asimov taught me that essay collections are poison at the box office. He then went on to become the exception that proved the rule by publishing scores of essays collections. Prior to reading Asimov’s essays, my general perception of the form was that it was something dull. I distinctly remember wondering why anyone would commit an essay on purpose.
This began to change for me in 10th grade. Prior to that, essays were things written for standardized tests. Or they were book reports. They were formulaic, the formula being one part introduction, two parts argument, one part rebuttal, and one part conclusion. This was how one made an argument in writing. Rhetoric, it was sometimes called. In older times, it was referred to as a “theme.” Good letters to the editor would often be comprised of the five paragraph essays in the measures listed above. Really good letters would also have five sentences to ensure publication.
In high school, this all changed. I went to a humanities magnet high school in which I was surrounded by a lot of really smart kids–although I didn’t know it at the time. Instead of the usual curriculum of English and History, we rotated through a core of four interdisciplinary subjects that wove through one another: Philosophy, Literature, Social Institutions, and Art History. A key component of the program was that we never had a test that was not an essay test.
A typically essay test for, say, 12th grade philosophy, might go something like this: “Prove you don’t exist. If there isn’t blood on the page before you finish, you can’t get an A.” That latter part, while actually stated aloud to us by our philosophy instructor, Ray Linn, was understood to be hyperbole. But the first part was legit. We had to write an essay to prove that we didn’t exist.
Studying for these essay tests meant reviewing everything we’d read, and trying out arguments. There was no way a five paragraph essay would work here. These essays had to be factual and creative. They were also intensely competitive. Upon completing an essay test (we typically had 2 hours to write our essays) we would meet in the hall and commiserate with one another. Instead of the usual, “What did you get for number 12?” we would hear things like, “I managed to write eleven pages. How many did you get?”
Keep in mind, this was the late 1980s. There were no iPhones or iPads. There were no laptops. We had paper and pen and our grades depending partly on our knowledge of the subject, partly on how well we communicated that knowledge, and partly on pure stamina: the literal blood on the page from blisters after two nonstop hours of writing. Still, we were encouraged to be creative and it was the pressure of the essays and the encouragement to be creative that began to change things for me.
In college, I never worried about essays that I had to turn in. Cleveland had prepared me for them. I often waited until the last minute to write them, but Cleveland Humanities Magnet (now Cleveland Charter School) had prepared me well. Typing a 5-page essay 2 hours before it was do was nothing compared to trying to write a cohesive essay by hand in 2 hours while trying to one-up your classmates by seeing how wordy you could make it. Much as a newspaper journalist learns how to write on deadline, I learned how to write essays on command. And my essays stood out. Many of the essays I saw fellow students write for a political science class in college began with a typical, “Machiavelli’s The Prince is an instruction manual for autocratic leadership in…” Mine started with verse that I made up on the spot, on a whim. I worried about that one a little, until I discovered the professor had posted it on a bulletin board as an example of a unique and creative way to write a paper. (In college, essays were always called “papers” for some reason.)
Being able to write on command like that has served me well ever since. But when I began to write with the idea of selling what I wrote, the essay never entered my mind. It was poison at the box office. I wanted to write stories, and stories are much harder to write than an essay.
By then I’d read hundreds (if not thousands) of Isaac Asimov’s essays. They were colloquial, often humorous, and entertaining. I learned new things from them. I could see how he made his arguments in convention ways and unconventional ways using the essay form. I started to branch out. I read a lot of Harlan Ellison’s essays. I read Stephen Jay Gould. I read Martin Gardner. I got to the point where I enjoyed essays as much as short stories, when they were interesting and well-written. From there I moved onto John McPhee, who introduced me to long-form nonfiction essays. And of course, E. B. White, who is the single best essayist that I have read.
At some point in 2005, I began to want to write essays like the ones I was reading, but who would I write them for? Who would read them? It was the desire to write essays that inspired me to start writing a blog. I wrote my very first essay for public consumption on October 10, 2005. In the more than 16 years since, I’ve committed more than 7,000 additional essays for this blog. You’d think I’d be sick and tired of it (or at the very least, my audience would) but the more I write these pieces, and the more I read other’s posts and essays, the more I want to do it.
Those early posts are often embarrassing in retrospect. Not just the subject matter, but the writing. I leave them up for historical purposes. It shows me (and others) where I began, and how far I have come. I think my essays are better today than they were five years ago. I think the ones I wrote five years ago are better than the ones from five years before that. And I am hopeful that the ones I write five years from now will be better than the ones I am writing today.
I’ve said before that I was incredibly fortunate to get to attend Cleveland Humanities Magnet high school. There, I learned critical thinking, but I also learned how to write. Real, practical writing, not the kind of writing that allows you to pass a test. I’ve said that if it wasn’t for Cleveland, it is likely I never would have published any of the fiction or nonfiction pieces that I’ve sold over the years. Even more, I owe a debt to my teachers who taught me the importance of an essay, and how it could be so much more than five parts boring. They taught me how to write a creative essay and without that, this blog simply would not exist.
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