The American philosopher William James, in an essay titled “The Sentiment of Rationality,” argues that philosophical thinking or conceptions about the world (“M”) can’t be separated from the individual doing the thinking (“x”). The individual’s perception of the world (the topics and issues the person is thinking and writing about) inform the conceptions–and those conceptions, once thought and written, become part of a new perception. He referred to this relation as “M + x.”
It seems to me that this is very much the work of essaying. And James, influenced by Emerson, not only wrote essays as the primary form for his work, but pursued thinking in his essays. So, your essay project is about M–some sort of topic or location or issue or idea in the world. But M and its issues and information are given, even if not well known. What you need to do as an essayist is focus on your “x”: what your perception of M is, questions and complications that you bring to it. Here are some reminders and suggestions for ways to approach and clarify and explore what x is for you, and how x relates to M. Think of these as composting tools, strategies for invention: developing and shaping and organizing the matter of your essay.
- Gutkind’s 5Rs of Creative Nonfiction
- Real-life Immersion
- Particle/Wave/Field Heuristic
- Particle: First, take your topic X and view it as a static, unchanging entity (particle): note its distinguishing features, characteristics; consider how this entity differs from other similar things. Think of this as specific ideas and statements made; specific quotations; deliberate reading of the material of the matter.
- Wave: Second, view the same topic as a dynamic changing process (wave): note how it acts and changes through time, grows, develops, decays. Do we see the same vision in the end as at the beginning? What are some changes you observe? Think of this as places where you find echoes and contradictions and traces of the ideas or earlier statements.
- Field: Third, view the topic as a Field, as related to things around it and part of a system, network or ecological environment. What depends on X? What does X depend on? What would happen if X doesn’t exist? Who loves (hates) X? What communities (categories) does X belong to? Who would love this idea? Who would hate it? What is X’s function in a larger system.
- Other structures we have already explored:
- Course keywords
- Structural ideas (from Bascom’s “Picturing the Personal Essay”)”
- circling/spiraling around a subject
- framing a focus around discrete/segmented scenes (links to Gutkind); layering of images (lyric essay)
- descent into the well of meaning (place for research)
- coming full circle
- Reading/Writing Mentors: what can I learn from Dillard or D’Agata, borrow, in terms of philosophy, rhetoric, poetics for my essay? If I want to write my essay something like this writer, what does that essay do or look like?
- Publication venues: who publishes the sort of essay I am contemplating? what do essays in that publication do or look like? Here is a listing of journals that publish essays–see also the links to the right on this blog.
Homes for the Essay: Journals