Today was without a doubt, and beyond compare, one of the most productive days off I’ve had in a while. Exciting apartment maintenance stuff was handled bright and early. I mowed the lawn for the first time this year, which was taxing and horrible but necessary. There was a strong aroma of wild onions all around my yard, however, and it proved to be surprisingly enjoyable. By extension, the lawn mowing became that much more pleasant. After that, and without showering first (not a point of pride for me), I deposited my tax return and used a small portion of it to treat myself. The rest, of course, is planned out for responsible, adult things, but I wanted to have a little fun with some of it. A copy of Majora’s Mask for the 3DS, an Ultron bobblehead, and a copy of Lumberjanes later, I achieved that much.
Funny enough, all of those things are relevant to today’s topic.
Once upon a time, way back in middle school, I had to write essays. Five paragraphs worth of trying to make a point, arguing something but making sure it wasn’t personalized. There’s no I in team, and there are certainly none of them in essay-writing during my school years. As such, the word essay became synonymous with writing for the purpose of convincing by way of limited, flimsy argument. It was dreadfully boring, and the word essay continued to leave a bad taste in my mouth all the way to college. Point Park University helped that along a little bit, but not in some earth-shattering way. They evolved into multi-page creatures of a slightly more curious variety, but they were still topic-based.
Dr. Roger Solberg, an English professor at Edinboro University, opened my eyes to the wonders that essays could really hold by way of his Essay Workshop class. I had no idea personal essays were even a thing, much less a potential vehicle for information by way of personal experience. That semester, with guidance and criticism from classmates and Dr. Solberg, I wrote three essays. One about Aqua Teen Hunger Force and the curious direction late night entertainment is taking, one about my getting over my fear of roller coasters in one amazing Cedar Point adventure, and one about the brain-eating amoeba Naegleria fowleri (thanks to watching House, M.D. and becoming fascinated by parasitic diseases). These essays didn’t all include me directly, but my voice is there.
Narrative voice is one of the most fascinating tools a writer has at their disposal. It influences the type of fiction a writer creates, yes, but it also shapes the kinds of non-fiction they produce. My essays generally have an edge of snappy, snarky humor to them. Personal essays have self-deprecating humor sprinkled in as needed. Some essayists convey informational tales with a hint of personal experience. Narrative voices are as varied and unique as the writers who possess them, and this is why there are so many really fantastic memoirs and historical pieces that recount events without making them feel boring. It’s like giving twenty people their own giant block of ice and telling them to craft it into something with a tool of their own choice. Some people will go with a hammer and chisel. Some will choose a chainsaw. Some others might even choose something like a hairdryer. The end-results for a few of those people may be the same, or very close to the same, but the approach to that conclusion–and those very processes involved–is what helps to craft a unique piece of writing.
Admittedly, I need to get back into writing non-fiction. I still, in some small way, feel proud of knowing my extended non-fiction piece on modern sword owners and swordsmen is being used as reading material for Dr. Solberg’s Advanced Non-Fiction course as an example of a well-handled essay (I think the exact phrase was “an example of what to do when writing your extended non-fiction piece”, but I’m trying to pretend I’m humble for this moment).
Personal essays, when handled right (and I see this in quite a number of blogs), are a great way to convey life experience with an informational twist…or just convey personal experiences in a way that engage readers, making them want to come back for more. If nothing else, they’re a huge step forward from their grade school counterparts, which generally made me think of the word “essay” as a foul expletive.