Everything You Need to Know About Essay and Essay Writing

In the electric, pulsating world around us, the essay lives a life of abandon, posing questions, speaking truths, fulfilling a need humans have to know what other humans think and wonder so we can feel less alone.

Essay lights up the Internet daily, allowing us to reach across the globe to touch the minds and hearts of our fellow human beings in ways unheard of before cyber technology. Essay explores topics about everything in the galaxy, the living and the inanimate.

This very moment, as I attempt to live peaceably with my new rescue puppy and teach him manners for his safety and our household’s sanity, I reach out to Patricia McConnell’s (2009) funny, touching, and thought-provoking essays about canines, to follow her journeys of
thinking, and to know that even on the topic of how to build relationships with dogs, there are gray areas and places of uncertainty.

Essay also finds a home in print and digital magazines and journals pertaining to literature, history, music, art, pop culture, nature, medicine, psychology, sociology, and science. Essay fuels photography and film, stand-up comedy, televised current events, and political punditry.

And essay appears on the cups and brown paper bags at Chipotle Mexican Grill, inviting us to pause while ingesting the fresh, organic ingredients in their burritos (I don’t work for or own stock in Chipotle; I’m just a fan of the food and the company’s policies!), like the one I just read by Sheri Fink, where she asks, “Whom would you chose? When, in the event of an unimaginable catastrophe, we had to ration medical care, whom should we save first?” (2014).

This profoundly deep question and Fink’s lovely answer to it then cause us to drive home or walk back to our offices to search for more essays like this one at the website called Cultivating Thought Author Series, curated by novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. This website recently ran a contest for high school students to write essays, and the winning pieces were to be printed on cups and bags and included online, right along with work by Neil Gaiman, Toni Morrison, Amy Tan, and other famous writers.

Wow. We can look to our burrito restaurants to cultivate thought these days. As Christy Wampole (2013) argued in a much-shared essay on the New York Times Opinionator blog, lately, it seems, we face the “essayification of everything”!

These are essays in the wild, unbounded by rules and regulations, and we know that creatures are happier and more fiercely beautiful in the wilderness than confined in a zoo, like Rilke’s poor panther, who loses his vision of the world, grown weary from constantly passing by the “thousand bars” of his cage. Rather than conforming to the cage bars of any formula or template, these essays are driven by curiosity, passion, and the intricacies of thought.

In schools, however, the essay suffers. I am aware of the arguments for the efficacy of teaching what is called academic and argument writing. I’ve been hearing them for decades, ever since I first invited teachers to help their students write what Randy Bomer calls “journey of thought” essays (1995, 178). Over the years, I’ve led workshops and weeklong writing institutes where I’ve plied participants with some of the most moving, humorous, thoughtful pieces of literature ever published.

We read essays, and we giggle, we weep, we find ourselves needing to talk about their content. We write our own short essays and laugh and cry all over again. And then people move back out into the world, eager to say yes! to essay writing with their students, only to send an email later, telling me their school administrations or their department chairs or their state testing formats won’t allow them to stray from the
five-paragraph formula.

In this era of high-stakes accountability, academic writing, which is indeed a rich and viable mode of writing, absolutely worth teaching students to do well, gets funneled down into the five-paragraph formula because it is easy to check for its requisite parts and assign a score.

Tom Newkirk calls this “mechanized literacy,” when to satisfy the human or computer scorers, “writing has to be bent out of recognition to be tested” (2009, 4). Peter Elbow argues that the five-paragraph formula is an “anti-perplexity machine” because there is no room for the untidiness of inquiry or complexity and therefore no energy in the writing (2012, 309).

The preponderance of formulaic writing, traditionally reserved for high school students, now finds its way down to kindergarten, where I’ve seen tiny children dutifully filling in worksheets with sentence starters such as “My favorite ice cream flavor is _____. One reason I love ice cream is that ____.”

Practicing this algorithm over and over, from kindergarten on, so the logic goes, will ensure that students’ writing can achieve high scores on state tests, which require little more than a sterile standardization of human thought and composition. The rationale sounds at times like some geometrical shape that bends back on itself forever and ever, always ending up at the same point, at what Alfie Kohn calls (hysterically) “BGUTI,” or “better get used to it,” because kids need it for the next grade, for high school, for college, for career (2015, 42).

English professor Bruce Ballenger burned up the Internet in a lively blog entry titled “Let’s End Thesis Tyranny” in The Chronicle of Higher Education (2013), where he calls the thesis a “thug and a bully” that stops his first-year college students’ thinking dead in its tracks. He suggests that perhaps asking deep questions and writing to discover what they think might be a better way for his students to arrive at an essay.

Dozens of responses to Ballenger’s blog entry argued defensively for the need to maintain proper thesis-driven essays because, in essence, (1) no one wants (or has the time) to read what students wonder and think, (2) young people need to know this for their other academic work in middle school, high school, and college, and (3) this is the way we’ve always done it; it’s how we all learned to write when we were in school.

To me, the arguments fail to convince that teaching kids, sometimes as early as kindergarten, to produce a one-sentence, conclusive thesis statement in answer to a question they aren’t even asking and then to invent sufficient proof of that statement before they’ve had the opportunity to think and to question, to change their minds,
to discover and surprise themselves, will ever help them learn to write well or find their own unique way of looking at the world or turning a phrase.

When writing is taught as a formula, students fail to discover that their writing can truly engage readers. And they have little chance to fall in love with writing, to feel how fun it can be, and to see how writing can help them solve problems and figure things out.

Teaching writing to a formula loses more writers than it wins. But that’s just my opinion.