The Drama of the Essay

A starting point, I suggest, for thinking differently about this strangely familiar genre of the essay–(the essay? somehow marginal yet everywhere we look)–which is to say, rethinking what you might have learned in school, is to focus in on the dramatic elements of the genre.  David Shields alludes to these in his reference to the essay as “theater of the brain”–the writer I steal my subtitle from. This drama reflects an earlier and important insight in the thought of the rhetorician Kenneth Burke, who describes the thinking of essays, and of thinking as such, as a drama–or what he calls, “dramatistic.” As Burke puts it: the essay is an “attenuated play.” Burke’s point is that all or any use of language is a form of what he calls “symbolic action.”  This makes the expression of thought, language specifically, communication generally, essentially rhetorical.  Here is Burke’s definition from A Rhetoric of Motives: “It is rooted in an essential function of language itself, a function that is wholly realistic, and is continually born anew; the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols” (43). The essay in this sense can be thought of as essentially rhetorical to the extent that language or rhetoric (or more broadly, thinking, as Burke suggests) is essentially essayistic.

In my approach to teaching the academic essay, I build upon this idea of the essay as thought’s theater by comparing the structure of an academic argument to the screenwriting structure of a film, something I name the three-act thesis. You might find this useful as a thought experiment.

Jeff Porter, in his introduction to Understanding the Essay (“A History and Poetics of the Essay”), begins to highlight a few of the dramatic elements of the essay we can continue to think about as crucial to the philosophy of the genre, as well as significant in its rhetoric and poetics. Here are some of the keywords and ideas that Porter addresses, and that we can continue to take up as we read more into the philosophy of the essay in the coming weeks (note: I have added these to our Keywords page for future reference):

crisis, persona, recognition, scene.

I would note, further, that these dramatic qualities of the essay provide a structure, and a kind of contradictory tension, with other qualities we have also begun to take up. I am thinking of the qualities of trial, experiment, wandering, nonlinearity, intimacy, singularity. These are there; indeed Porter emphasizes these characteristics as well. And yet these more personal and private and lyrical qualities of an essay’s thinking (or “thought thinking” as Porter writes it) would seem to contrast with the more public, epic, audience-oriented, structured elements we might associate with drama. Furthermore, we can connect the drama of “recognition” with the rhetorical character of an essay that Moore emphasizes in his notion of “resonance” and the fact that essays, no matter how personal or autobiographical, are written for readers. To call an essay “reader-friendly” is another way to say that it is rhetorical.

Can you describe other dramatic elements of essay writing you have encountered? Does this recognition of the essay as dramatic differ from the understanding you have had of the genre from past experience? If so, how?

As a test-case for rethinking the essay as something more dramatic in the various philosophical, rhetorical, and poetic senses that Porter and Moore have suggested in our initial reading, consider this short essay by a famous American essayist of the 20th century, Joan Didion, “On Keeping a Notebook,” from her 1969 essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

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Creative Nonfiction: imaginative truth

I have noticed that many students in my classes, whenever we read a book of nonfiction (examples: The Gutenberg Elegies; Thoreau’s Walden–with students often referring to the character of ‘Walden’), refer to the book as a novel. As if “novel” is a synonym for book. I suspect that this is because mostly, whenever you have read prose in a book form, it was most often a novel. So perhaps the place for us to start, before diving in to Wolff’s nonfiction book (call it memoir or autobiography), is to define some of our terms.

Traditionally viewed, there are four categories of literary genres (types or classes of literature): poetry, drama, fiction, nonfiction.

Poetry: Homer to Beowulf to Wordsworth to Ke$ha. Think verse (which means ‘turning’ of lines) and meter and rhythm and rhyme. We also think of poetic as writing where language is the primary focus, rather than narrative. Thus at times we might describe certain texts in other genres (including nonfiction) as poetic.

Drama: Shakespeare to Law and Order. Think poetry or prose, turned into dialogue and scene and then staged. Think tragedy and comedy.

Fiction: much more recent (since the 18th century), beginning around Robinson Crusoe to Jane Austen, Dickens, Melville to Harry Potter. Think story and novel, whether fantastic or realistic, generally focused on a social context. Imagining a world in narrative.

Nonfiction: autobiography, memoir, essay (personal, academic), travel writing, science writing. Traditionally, nonfiction was defined as factual, the opposite of the imagined that we associate with poetry or fiction; it has also been called the ‘fourth genre.’ A related term would be prose (straightforward, the opposite of poetry’s turning lines; basically, anything that isn’t poetry). But more recently, there has emerged a label for the kinds of nonfiction writing we are focusing on–by writers who are interested in writing about the real world and its truths, but also interested in the creative ways of doing so. The label is “creative nonfiction.” Writers who use the creative tools of the poet and novelist–but toward the end of telling the truth.

Tobias Wolff alerts us of his interest in this hybrid of nonfiction and storytelling (call it imagining or inventing the truth) in his opening acknowledgement. To my mind, this is where his book, his memoir, really begins: on the subject of what memory means to him as a writer, and what he is trying to do with it. He says: “this is a books of memory, and memory has its own story to tell. But I have done my best to make it a truthful story.”

Another way to say this is that in the world of creative and autobiographical nonfiction that we are exploring, nonfiction stories about the complex truths of memory and identity and childhood, truth is not merely factual. The truth of his memory, as he remembers it, needs to be told and recovered imaginatively as a story is told. Consider this conundrum we see early on: how best to tell the truth about telling a lie? Or, as you might well need to explore in your own autobiographical writing this term: even if you set out to be completely factual, what do you do, as a writer, with gaps in your memory? what do you do with the truth of a scene that you weren’t part of? As Wolff also notes in the last line of his acknowledgment: what you don’t know could fill a book.

So, it makes good sense to think about Wolff’s book (memoir or autobiography, either works) as novelistic, having qualities of fiction and the novel (also, in places, of poetry and drama). But in terms of genre, the book is nonfiction.

A less familiar rhetorical figure we will be exploring further (in addition to metaphor), one that is particularly relevant to autobiographical nonfiction: metonymy and metonymic detail. This type of language use (images and figures of speech that describe/refer to something by way of something connected to it, part of it: the ‘pen’ or a letter as a figure for writing or the writer) is often associated with realistic description and real-world context. As such, though it can show up in a novel (something like a realist novel), it is particularly prominent in nonfiction. Metaphor (images and figures of speech that describe/refer to something by way of something unconnected to it though similar in other ways: eagle as figure for freedom) can also show up in autobiography and other nonfiction-though it is more often associated with poetry. However–and this is my point–metonymy and metonymic details are no less figurative or ‘symbolic’ or meaningful than metaphor and metaphorical images. They are just not metaphorical. But the autobiographers task is to find significance in such metonymic details and put them to work.

Wolff does this throughout his narrative. Starting with the road (and the car) going west where he places us in the opening words. Other examples of highly significant, metonymic details that he uses and re-uses: the rifle (guns); letter writing; the confession. Think of the ‘theme’ or idea–might even call it the thesis–of the book that Wolff asserts in the opening: the ‘dream of transformation’ that he and his mother have. Transformation is a key subject in an autobiography. A metaphorical presentation of that subject might appeal to images of metamorphosis–think butterfly: representative of change, but not directly connected to Toby’s life.  A metonymic representation is more connected to the subject (Toby’s life): the road they take to drive west, the car in which they drive, the bus they take to Seattle.

We will get back to this in an upcoming workshop.