Writing In Public is a website dedicated to the art of the essay. Chris Wood interviews its editor about the thought behind the word
“I look for writing that is well written, where the writer has a love of language and this love shows in the sentences and paragraphs and overall movement of the essay.”
James Polchin teaches writing at New York University and is the editor and driving force behind Writing In Public, a website dedicated to the art of the essay. It features a disparate variety of work, linked by the fact that each explores the essay form. “I’m looking for good writing, for new voices, for intriguing ideas. And I’m looking for a diversity of insights and experiences from places around the world. It is, I believe, the first such site to focus on independent publications in a global context. I also hope to promote the extraordinary work of editors and writers who make such publications possible in an age when big media companies dominate the conversation.”
It is certainly true that the large media corporations control discourse as far across the board as possible, having little interest in artistry or purity of form. Questions like, ‘How can the essay form help us to think?’ aren’t covered by News International. Polchin considers matters such as how the essay shapes the subject. I ask him how the style of writing can add to the basic information: “I just recently read the fascinating book How to Live; Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell. It’s partly a biography of Michel Montaigne and partly a reflection on the vast number of essays he composed in the 16th century, after having retired from public life in Bordeaux, France. Bakewell’s book will make you want to read all of Montaigne’s essays. Montaigne began writing his essays (“essayer” means “to try” in French), at a time of great war and social unrest in France. The Calvinists were attacking the Catholics, the Catholics were attacking the Calvinists, and the monarchy in Paris was trying to quell these unrests with harsh and bloody reprisals. I find it fascinating that it was within this historical context that the essay form was born, or at least the reflective, meditative, personal essay that Montaigne wrote and that anchors the genre.
“The essay holds in it an intriguing mix of personal voice, experience, and universal concerns. It is not simply solipsistic, nor is it an academic argument on the problems of the world, but rather, the more interesting essays explore experiences in the world through a reflective mind. The essay can engage with politics, with contemporary issues. I don’t think of it as only about personal experiences. Writers like James Baldwin or Joan Didion or Jamaica Kincaid or Edwidge Danticat have delved into social conflicts and concerns, but always with an emphasis on their individual, reflective thinking. And this is what the essay gives us that no other form can: the mind of a writer, that meanders in thought, that considers the complexities of experience and offers reflective thinking that is hard to find today. The essay, in my mind, counters an increasing focus simply on one’s opinions and arguments, constructed in short bits of information, presented in reductive ways. The essay holds in it an intriguing mix of personal voice, experience, and universal concerns. It is not simply solipsistic, nor is it an academic argument on the problems of the world, but rather, the more interesting essays explore experiences in the world through a reflective mind. The essay can engage with politics, with contemporary issues.”
In Polchin’s teaching, he maintains an approach to the form that encourages his students to apply themselves to a more organic and flexible approach to the form of the essay itself. “I find that most students come with a very limited notion of an essay. Often they think that an essay is only that horrible five-paragraph thing that they are taught and tested on in school. I’m not sure where the five-paragraph form came from, but as I tell my students, that kind of essay makes it quite easy for the instructor to grade but teaches you very little about the history and complexity of the genre.”
The application of his theories is evidently integral to his instruction in the craft he so clearly adores. “I want them to think like an essayist, which means to develop a mind that questions and considers and draws connections that others might not see. And seeing is a good metaphor for the essay for it often helps us see in new ways.” The question of perception brings us to truth and accuracy of content. Polchin maintains that fact and fiction meet in the form of the essay, and that the two mix well: “Essays will often tell a story, or use techniques we now label as fiction. Some literary journals I look at don’t actually make distinctions between essays and short stories. But I’m not a believer in the notion that the distinction between fiction and non-fiction doesn’t matter much. Fiction asks something different from readers, and from writers. The journalist and essayist Lawrence Weschler has written that he couldn’t imagine writing fiction for the task of the essayist is to explore all the ‘knots’ and interrelationships that intrigue the writer, whereas the fiction writer’s task is to craft an empty space in the world and fill it with characters and hopes, furniture and psychologies — to recreate the world. The essayist takes the world as it is and tries to reflect on it, through their lived experiences, shaping insights beyond the commonplace ways of thinking. Narrative is every writer’s tool from fiction to essay to journalistic reportage.”
Polchin’s meticulous selection of material is clearly evident from the content of his site. Human curation was an early feature of the internet, when sites carefully chose the best material. Polchin is adamant that sites like Writing In Public have many advantages over the indifference of an algorithm. “It is difficult for an algorithm to find quality writing. It would in all likelihood go searching for a pattern of sentences or topics without any concern for the writer’s sensitivity to language. The pleasures of curating Writing in Public each week is that I consider each essay for its own merits and within the larger goals and mission of the site. I strive to open up a space on the internet where personal, reflective, intelligent essays can thrive and find new readers. I wouldn’t want to go so far as to say that it is kind of an art, but there is something creative about the process of selecting and organizing each week’s selections. There is more than content that I’m after, and more than just one kind of essay”.
With the rise of easy access to a platform and the volume of opinion pieces spilling out of its pores, some would argue the internet has damaged public debate. “I’m not so convinced that the internet is destroying our writing or thinking. I think that’s an easy critique. Writing can still be rich and interesting online if we allow it. I took a class in graduate school many years ago with a poet who won the Pulitzer Prize a few years earlier. He was exacting and demanding. I remember he would often critique the proper formatting of our essays. He once said, “The computer is a tool, like a hammer. We can’t let it determine our writing.” I think that is true with the internet as well — we can’t let it determine our essays. There are places for good writing and thoughtful, long meditative essays if we just allow for it.”
Every writer is unique and the cadences of their thoughts, and codifying of these, are necessarily idiosyncratic. How does expression and content blend to create a greater meaning than either content or style would separately? “I recently heard the Chinese-American writer Maxine Hong Kingston read from her new book, I Love a Broad Margin to My Life, which is a memoir in poems. She’s been writing for three decades almost, and has moved between novels and essays and poetry. If you pick up something she has written you know immediately it is her voice, her approach to the writing. She could write about a dirty taxi cab and it would have a lyrical quality. This is what a writer can do. But then, this is not to say that content isn’t important. It is, but I actually don’t know how to talk of content in the abstract. Content is what the writer of an essay makes, and often for essays content could be those quite simply moments of experience, moments that most people would forget almost as soon as the experience ends. But this is why we come to an essay, to see how the mind of the writer has shaped something in the world into content for an essay. Good essays make content where you hadn’t thought there was content. So in this sense, I guess I can’t really speak to the distinction between content and style, for in an essay, insights emerge from what the essayist chooses as content worthy, and how the essayist turns this content into a moment of reflective thinking.”
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