The Power of the Essay

By Susanne Carter

“A word after a word after a word is power.” –Margaret Atwood

In their grief and disbelief over the outcome of the American presidential election, many people have turned to reading to try to make sense of this bizarre new era. Donald Trump’s unprecedented rise to power has sparked a renewed interest in dystopian novels, especially George Orwell’s 1984, which depicts a totalitarian futuristic society where all facts are “alternative” and government propaganda dominates. Other dystopian novels, including Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, have also enjoyed a resurgence.

In my quest for post-election consolation and inspiration, however, I found myself turning not to dystopian novels or escapist fantasies or even engrossing mysteries, but to essays. These brief writings of thoughtful prose have given me the reassurance that thousands of others share my views and the inspiration to become more involved in the resistance movement as our most fundamental freedoms come under siege.

In this blog I discuss two essays written by women who are using writing as a mode of resistance as well as the genre itself. In the Writers’ Notes section, I offer insights into two qualities that make essays such as these great—depth and risk.

Everything Counts

In her post-election essay “Trump Changed Everything: Now Everything Counts,” Barbara Kingsolver (American novel and short story writer as well as essayist) writes of the strange feeling many of us share who went to bed as voters the night of November 8, 2016, but “woke up in another country” diminished as “outsiders” the next morning. “So many of us have stood up for the marginalized, but never expected to be here ourselves,” she writes. The polite opposition for which left-leaning citizens are known (writing letters to Congressmen, holding peaceful protest marches, etc.) won’t work in this new country where our most precious liberties and causes for which we have worked so hard are threatened, she writes. Whatever mode we choose (art, literature, music, casual conversation, etc.), we have to climb out of our comfort zones and become more assertive in our resistance. We have to refuse to disappear. Kingsolver explains our two choices:

It may feel rude, unprofessional and risky to break the habit of respecting our government; we never wanted to be enemies of the state. But when that animosity mounts against us, everything we do becomes political: speaking up or not speaking up. Either one will have difficult consequences. That’s the choice we get.

Endurance and Balance

The daughter of Hmong refugees who settled in the United States during the early 1980s, Mai Der Vang (American poet and essayist) writes of finding balance and endurance during times of uncertainty in her essay “Learning endurance and balance from my refugee parents.” Living in poverty as she was growing up, Der Vang explains how she and her family learned the art of surviving on very little—“to walk and keep walking.”

Beyond endurance, writes Der Vang, we, as a nation, need to find balance during the next four scarily unpredictable years. She writes:

When the weight of our government leans too heavy in one direction, it will be up to us to shove the weight back the other way. When that weight deepens its exclusion of some of the most silenced populations and communities in our country, we will need to double, triple our efforts and summon our collective strength in order to re-balance the scales.

As she was growing up, Der Vang learned that immigrants who are obliged to play multiple roles as they negotiate between cultural identifies must learn the art of “balancing multiple selves” as they assimilate into American culture. Those who are undocumented “have experienced firsthand what it means to endure during a time of great uncertainty,” writes Der Vang. These individuals “also know the challenges of attempting to regain balance in order to even have so much as a semblance or spark of stability.”

Now it is up to an entire nation to learn the art of resilience from the most marginalized among us, writes Der Vang, “to keep working on enduring harder, at balancing better,” lest our voices as well as theirs grow silent.

Perfect Companions

Essays are considered a minor genre most of us associate with the mandatory freshmen comp classes that we took and quickly forgot. But, writes Michael Depp in “On Essays: Literature’s Most Misunderstood Form,” essays are one of the most difficult genres in which to write. Amorphous in form, he writes, essays are “both intellectually taxing and more revelatory than fiction, as they lack the soft membrane of fiction’s artifice to buffer the impact of the writer’s thoughts on the reader. The carefully drawn curtain between writer and reader in fiction is stripped away in the essay, providing an intimate sharing between the two.”

In times of political and ideological angst, when we need the company of short but thoughtful bursts of insights and inspiration, when we need a shared intimacy with great writers who both challenge and validate our thoughts, essays are the perfect companion.

Writers’ Notes:

Outstanding essays such as those written by Barbara Kingsolver and Mai Der Vang have many attributes in common, among them depth and risk.

In her introduction to The Best American Essays of 2013, guest editor Cheryl Strayed writes: “Behind every good essay there’s an author with a savage desire to know more about what is already known.” Essayists don’t just report what happened. With relentless curiosity and probing for “a greater, grander truth” as they write, essayists “reach for the stuff beyond and beneath,” Strayed writes. “They try to make meaning of actual life, even if an awful lot has yet to be figured out.”

Guest editor of the Best American Essays 2016, Jonathan Franzen, emphasizes that writers of great essays demonstrate a willingness to take risks. In his introduction to this collection, Franzen explains:

Risk is implicit from the minute you decide to write an “essay” rather than something casual, fragmentary, impromptu. The sheer act of carefully crafting a story raises the stakes. And the rigors of the craft—the demands of form, the solitary sustained engagement with twenty-six letters and some punctuation marks—have the terrible power to reveal where you’ve been lying to yourself and what you haven’t properly thought through. The rigors of craft give you substance. And then, instead of sharing with a closed circle of friends or with a community safely known to be like-minded, you submit the finished written thing to an audience of readers who may or may not be sympathetic. But the reward, if you’re lucky enough to get it, is connection with a grateful stranger.

An essay writer who aspires to greatness must be willing to take risks, maintains Franzen. “He has to be like the firefighter, whose job, while everyone else is fleeing the flames, is to run straight into them.”

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