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Six descriptions in search of an essay

By Paul O. Williams / January 5, 1981



I am taking a walk. Though it is near sunset, and I have many things to do, I think I can wedge apart enough time to climb a certain hill, a high, hidden, soybean field, now stubble, for a look around. Besides, I have something to muse about.

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One of my students has asked me, "What, really, is an essay, and how do you write one?" I have tried to explain that it isn't a simple matter. She frowned at me as though I had willfully withheld information. It didn't help when I told her that an essay was a way of walking around a favorite idea until it got dizzy and fell into one's lap. She continued to frown as I said that it was not going to your conclusion on a highway -- it was taking the scenic route, cruising through country lanes and unpaved byways. Because the point is not arriving, but perceiving your going.

No. That did not enlighten. Puzzled, unsure of the next step, I find myself looking at the ground. I am at that part of the farm equipment road that gullies in the rains and washes out flakes of white chert worked by Indians in some prehistoric time. I have never yet found a definite stone tool here, but many waste flakes, occasionally one retouched with a cutting edge. Someday this accumulation will reveal itself more fully.

What then is an essayist? Thoreau said the poet was the person motivated by pure love. Is not the essayist so motivated? Perhaps, in a more relaxed sense. He focuses less on those escaping nuances of sound, rhythm, pace. He looks less on the intense beauty or shape of his idea, less on its aura. He wants, rather, to examine a thought from many angles, to see what radiations it throws off.

Now I walk up to the crest of a broad hill. It is a good place to see deer and foxes. The bulk of the hill hides the broad field on top, so if you come over the ridge quietly, one time in twenty you can watch the animals for a while. The foxes are shyer than the deer. Seeing you, they lope rapidly to some depression or barrier, however slight, and when you get there, though you have watched all the way, they are gone. But today the rows of stubble stretch empty.

One problem students have with writing essays is that they are taught so well to write thesis papers, which generally shove through their subject like combines in wheat. The whole thing is orderly and inexorable. While the content may be difficult, and the result brilliant, the structure is formulaic, and designedly so. Imagery is minimal. Anecdote is impertinent. Humor is frivolous.

Trying to get the well-trained student to launched out onto the waters of an essay involves pushing his mental boat across a mud flat first. He thinks you are kidding. If not, you ought to be. He knows well how to do a paper. Now he is being asked to rock rudderless on a river of words. You shove him off and keep the oars, telling him to paddle with his hands before the current bears him away.Of course, after some splashing, he does it, whatever it is.

Here is the hill. Sunset shapes itself in reds and yellows. Does anyone see a sunset these days without those jet trails slashing across it like knives taken to a Rembrandt?

I remember sitting on this hill in pitch blackness one night. Below I could hear snorting and a drumming of hooves -- a deer disturbed by my presence. I stayed very still for about ten minutes. So did he. Then as soon as I started to walk home, he snorted again and again, moving off toward the woods. I found my way that night almost entirely by the feel of the farm road at my feet.

Maybe that is what an essay is -- finding your way by feel. Or is it a fruitful digression involving language, such as I am experiencing? I have stayed out here longer than I intended. In the dusk I can't even identify the bird flitting in the weeds. That is what an essay is -- scrutinizing dim birds in the bushes of thought, hoping they will give themselves away by color or chirp. But that is probably another wise-guy answer. As when looking at chert flakes or foxes, one learns something, but no t all. At least the question will promote another walk.