On Reading and Writing in School
Essays have always made sense to me. I am able to convey my thoughts and processes in a concise manner, where any other method feels unorganized and lacking in direct communication between my thoughts and the material at hand. I feel that they serve a broader purpose than just achieving a grade or showing what you know, it is a true reflection of your personal understanding of a subject, one unique to your own voice. It allows for you to truly grasp an understanding of a subject, to flesh it out and see it in a twelve point font.
There is a certain fluidity to an essay, and it is the job of the writer is to conduct the words into a style that suits the subject matter. Sometimes that looks like a personal narrative essay full of first person-centered language, and sometimes it is a strictly academic essay devoid of “I” and “me”. The ecosystem of an essay depends on the climate, and it took time for me to understand how each form demands its own style. While each form shares the same initial structure; an initial topic, an intro, body, and a conclusion, there remains a stark difference between what is considered an academic essay and what is a personal essay. My days in high school were spent learning these differences, studying each ecosystem as if they were their own universes and never considering that the sun could shine during a rainstorm, or that the forms could intersect.
I was very good at churning out academic papers for my classes. I knew the structure, I learned the forms and it became very routine to me after writing multiple essays every week. I felt I was good at it, I always received an “A” and that became my primary goal as I was writing them. I would stare at the rubric until my eyes burned and made sure I ticked each of the boxes. There was no spark, no thrill in what I was talking about because I had forgotten how to have passion in my work. I was clear and concise and mechanical, but there was no excitement. I didn’t know that essays could be anything other than a mechanism for an “A”.
My writing courses at college changed that for me. I was enrolled in a nonfiction creative writing class, and before it even began I cast the judgment that it would be both an easy A and incredibly tedious. I had preconceived notions about the word “nonfiction.” It felt like more lifeless essays with work cited pages and I prepared myself to fall into the same routine as before.
The first thing my professor told us was that you cannot write unless you read. This is something I had said to me over and over again, but I never actually applied the advice to my work. I was always reading, but I didn’t understand how to use it as a tool to improve my own pieces. I was reading for pleasure, casually and with ease, and my professor seemed as though she was adamant in destroying that activity for me. Just as my teachers in high school drilled essay writing into our skulls over and over again, I was convinced she would do the same for reading. Instead, what I found was a whole database of information available to me in any format. I found essays that read like a work of fiction, that were riveting and swollen with passion. It hadn’t dawned on me that I could be lyrical in my essays, that it didn’t have to be burdened by the weight of stern professionalism. I could have my voice shine through, it didn’t have to be overcast during a rainstorm. I discovered a different way of reading, one that looked meticulously beyond the initial structure and saw ways in which creative and nonfiction could coalesce. I read countless short stories in that class and created some pieces I am really proud of.
A week or so into the course, we were instructed to write a profile on someone. This piece felt like an angry bull resisting each attempt to corral it. I hated it and I hated writing. That first draft felt like I had given up, my process notes were full of self-deprecation and anger and the worst part was that my professor agreed with me. Thankfully, I am more stubborn than that bull and I kept writing it. It went through every draft phase one can think of before I was ready to turn it in for the final. I reworked it, dulled the horns and sculpted its hooves so it could not rear its ugly head at me as I tried to tame it. I remember the moment I found my voice in the piece; a peer told me to stop taking myself out of it, that the lack of human connection made it sound too monotonous. I rewrote the whole thing and put myself into the scenes, I recalled every profile I had ever read and used that as the building blocks for my piece. It took me the entire semester to finally have an essay I was proud of. I revised until I felt fully present in the piece and my audience could connect to that. I thought constantly of the, “so what,” or the reason for the piece, and that drove me much further than just thinking of its conclusion.
I never really thought of why one would write an essay before. It was always just to get the end result, which was the grade or to show what you know. Though now I know to think deeper than that, to ask myself, “why should people care what I know?” That has developed my writing far more than any promise of a grade ever has. An “A” has never challenged me, it’s never asked me to look at my piece and take it apart just to put it back together again. That class completely eroded my understanding of a “good essay,” and I was left with a million pieces to pick up and put back together again. It has changed my understanding of what it means to be a good writer. How essays are creative and have the ability to captivate someone and change perspectives. They aren’t just a tool of academia used to pass a class.
In high school, I would have said a good writer is interesting and adheres to the structure of the form they are writing in. I would say now that is not enough to be interesting, there must be intent behind your words. Each one must be integral to the story because they are what creates a reason for your piece. I would also say that a good writer is a good reader, they inhabit the role of the audience and take away everything their arms can carry from the story. A good writer doesn’t look at the forms of writing as separate planets in a solar system, but as a unique ecosystem capable of overlap, coexisting beneath the same atmosphere. There is room for creativity in academia, and I believe that a good writer should always be capable of seeing this.
Today when I write essays, instead of staring at rubrics until my head grows numb, first I read. I read articles and short stories and essays that hover around the same form I am writing in and I absorb each method until I have a grasp of what it should look like. I then take whatever topic I’ve researched and type until I have no more thoughts left. It doesn’t matter if it’s missing something from the rubric, I allow space for myself to shout within the margins of the essay and talk until I have nothing left to say. Then I go back and revise, I think diligently about each word and what place has in my essay. What I’m left with is something that feels like a finely crafted metal, dipped in flames and forged to a fine point, still a little hot to the touch and smells of smoke from how hard my brain had been working. It’s worth it though because the process doesn’t feel tedious, it feels important like I’m writing something that counts and isn’t just churned out in an hour or so to hand in without care.
I don’t feel like I’m a good writer yet, I have a lot to learn and I’m still honing my skills. It’s worth it to me though, because I have always loved writing essays. I want to honor the thought that goes into them, to produce something that reflects my own thoughts and that I can see bits and pieces of myself reflected in. For me, the motives that lie beneath the foundation of an essay is the ability to communicate in ways other methods don’t allow. I can’t talk in metaphors during a speech, or rethink an idea so many times during a presentation it feels like a polished stone. There is magic in being able to develop your voice in a way that feels more careful and controlled. Essays allow others to see what I know and exactly how I understand it, and that in itself is a wonderful thing.