WHY ESSAYS STAY WITH ME
by Barbara Beckwith
I’ve forgotten many films I’ve viewed and books I’ve read. But oddly, I remember essays – those spindly pieces that newspapers rarely pay for.
I remember Edward Abbey’s sly 1960s litany of desert hazards: his way of keeping people out of the Southwest places he loves. And Nancy Mairs’ denial of euphemisms in her 1980s “On Being a Cripple” about living with multiple sclerosis. And John Kenneth Galbraith’s protest at having to fight, at 85, the “Still Syndrome” -- “Still lecturing? Still writing? Still interested in politics?”
Even a friend’s slim peon to her Cambridge neighborhood has lingered in my consciousness since her early death in the 1990s.
Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 essay, listing white privileges that she struggled to tease out of her reluctant mind, has inspired me to racial self-reflection. And Sandra K. Miller’s “My Father’s Penis” has made clear that writing about body parts can be frank and funny, and not pornographic or polemic.
I wrote my mother back in college that I liked reading personal essays for their “familiarity between writer and reader,” yet when starting to write one, was confused by “trying to form an opinion out of my open-minded sympathy of all points…I waver like a squirrel in the headlights of an oncoming car and can’t see where to go.”
I can relate to what Ralph Ellison wrote Richard Wright in the 1940s: “It isn’t the prose, per se, that worries me; it’s the form, the learning how to organize my material in order to take the maximum advantage of those psychological and emotional currents within myself and in the reader which endow prose with meaning.”
Ellison’s challenge is mine, as well. But I’m comforted by essayist Michel de Montaigne, who mused five centuries ago: “If my mind could gain firm footing, I would not make essays. I would make decisions; but it is always in apprenticeship and on trial.”
Like Montaigne, I write essays to explore whatever confuses, intrigues, or bothers me, buoyed by insights I’ve gotten from fellow essayists, both those who are famous and those whose may not be -- but whose emotional currents stay with me.