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.


The Essay: Theater of the Brain


Noun: A short piece of writing on a particular subject.

Verb: Attempt or try: “essay a smile”.

Synonyms: noun.  attempt – try – trial – test – experiment – assay;

verb.  try – attempt – assay – test – sample – endeavor

I have as motto for this course, which studies the creative reading and critical writing of the nonfiction genre of the essay, David Shields’s succinct definition: “Essay: theater of the brain.” That’s a line from his book Reality Hunger, a contemporary version of a longstanding essayists tool, the commonplace notebook or journal. On that same page, Shields cites another definition of the essay from John D’Agata (another writer we will be reading):

“Essay” is a verb, not just a noun; “essaying” is a process.

D’Agata, as you will discover in the course, could have cited Emerson or Montaigne, or Didion and Dillard, as well as the dictionary. This understanding of the process of the essay–dramatic, dynamic, verb as well as noun–indicates what I assume for you might be very new and unfamiliar territory.  These are connotations not usually associated with the word: the essay as dynamic and dramatic form for thinking through and exploring and performing ideas and arguments in writing. It also indicates that some of the work we have in front of us, as both critics and creators of the form (what I mean by “creative reading,” borrowed from Emerson), will be to rethink our assumptions about what this “essay” is and does, assumptions largely shaped by past experience in schools. I assume that all of us have encountered, if not (alas) directly experienced the way essays are presented as punishment in the premise for the film The Breakfast Club [see clip]. The essay not as tool for the student’s (or the writer’s) thinking; rather, the essay as detention, as something in the way, something to be dreaded.

At some level, this will mean rethinking and further exploring, complicating–like any good essay will–our understanding of what it means to think. William James, the influential American psychologist and philosopher (a careful reader of Emerson and himself an essayist), describes consciousness and thinking in his Principles of Psychology not only as a “stream” but in these dramatic terms: “the mind is at every stage a theatre of simultaneous possibilities” (Principles 1: 277).

In my own effort, my own assay (attempt, trial, experiment) to grasp this fluid and dynamic form of nonfiction writing first hand, without being able or wanting to classify it fully, turn it forever into a noun, when the essay as verb is so much more engaging…toward this end without an end, I have organized our exploration around the following rubric: philosophy, rhetoric, poetics. The critic and rhetorician Kenneth Burke categorizes thinking into one of these three categories, modeled upon the classical curriculum (logic, rhetoric, grammar). He thinks of all thinking and language (and the writing and expression that follows from both, or with both) as symbolic action, where

Philosophy suggests symbolic action used for discussion of ideas, first principles;

Rhetoric suggests symbolic action used for persuasion and identification with an audience–moving, informing or entertaining another;

Poetics suggests symbolic action in an for itself, with an emphasis on form.

  • “Rhetoric, Poetics, and Philosophy.”  Rhetoric, Philosophy and Literature: an Exploration.  Ed. Don M. Burks.  West Lafayette: Purdue UP, 1978.  15-33.

Burke himself, like essayists before and after him, emphasizes that the symbolic nature of such thinking and writing is dramatic and dynamic. So, these are not separate categories; an essay that is philosophical will also entail elements of the rhetorical and poetic. However, as a way to get a better grasp as writers and critical readers of the genre of the essay, we will give more particular attention to each of these categories as we work our way through the readings of the course, moving from the philosophy of the essay, to the rhetoric, to the poetics of the essay. In the final project, you will take up the challenge of joining Burke and Emerson and Montaigne and Didion and Dillard and many others, writing and publishing an essay that effectively expresses all three in the symbolic action of your language and form and thinking.

You will walk upon the stage of this theater of the brain and see where the essay’s possibilities lead you.

To get started, read “The Essay, an Exercise in Doubt,” an essay on the essay by Phillip Lopate. It will get us started in rethinking some conventional views of the essay you have learned from school.

For a better sense of the essays–and the nonfiction–that is all around us (just probably didn’t think you were reading an essay), browse this listing of great essays, articles, and other works of nonfiction.