As I write this, spring sunlight streams through a high window and yellows my vision.
Yellow is not my color. As I look around my studio: amber pine cut by hand for window sills, book shelves and floor; faded brown or red leather bindings on old books flashing subtle gold lettering here and there; muddy black Vermont muck boots by the door; green leaves peaking from old terra cotta pots perched among the books. No yellow.
Yellow is Amanda Gorman’s color. Remember that yellow Prada dress she wore to sanctify Biden’s inauguration with her words?
I’m reading The Rise and Rise of Amanda Gorman in the latest issue of Vogue right now. It’s not a fashion piece. It’s a serious profile of a very serious young writer. And while there is (as always with Gorman) a plethora of pithy quotes to enjoy, the one that leapt at me from her conversation with the author of the piece, Doreen St. Felix, was this:
“They are like essays,” she told me of the work she writes for big audiences. “They have a thesis, an introduction, and a conclusion.”
Wait, essays??? Everyone hates essays!!! Well, everyone except the few obscurely erudite scholars who actually enjoy this problematic form. For most of us, essays are the torture of high school Language Arts or the agony of college applications. The sooner we can leave essays in the rear view mirror, the better. But Amanda Gorman thinks of her eloquent poems as ESSAYS? Why in Goddess’s name would she think that?
The truth is that a really well written essay sings, as does a really well written poem. It’s just that we don’t read many well written essays and we certainly don’t write them. But a short, engaging piece of personal writing with a well-sharpened point is a fine thing indeed.
As a modern reader, you’re more likely to have been moved by a blog, but blogs are just essays in disguise. We can even think of well written Twitter and Instagram posts as miniature essays. Because an essay is or should be a moving attempt to convey a strongly held or arrived at viewpoint on a topic of importance to you.
This piece is an essay whose thesis is that a lot of things are like essays and we’d do better if we appreciated that somewhat obscure little fact.
To present a thesis means to take a journey. Sometimes the journey happens off stage, but I prefer it when the essay takes the audience along. Gorman’s poems do that. By the time we reach the soaring final lines with her we’re all in. It’s our thesis too.
Young writers, like most of us, can fail to realize that you have to do the time and put in the work. Your thesis isn’t for sale on the Internet. Theses don’t recycle well either. A great essay is quirkily personal. Your voice may never soar like Amanda Gorman’s, but it should soar like you.
Most teachers, bless them, tend to emphasize the rules of essay writing, which is tackling the horse by the ass instead of the reins. Perhaps the most fundamental way in which all creative expression is like an essay was expressed by the writer who gave us the term in the first place, Michel de Montaigne (French, 1533-1592):
“Once conform, once do what others do because they do it, and a kind of lethargy steals over all the finer senses of the soul.”
Analyzing others’ writings can inspire, but it cannot dictate what to write how. Montaigne called his short works essays because the French infinitive verb essayer means TO ATTEMPT. An essay is an attempt to say something bold, something important, something new. And as befits anything bold, important and new, it should be clothed boldly too. If you love yellow, speak soaring yellow words that uplift your soul.
Maybe that’s getting a bit too metaphorical, but the idea is to crack the mold and let your essay spring out of it, not to stuff it inside.
There’s a risk to telling young authors about Gorman. Such radiant brilliance can be intimidating. Our small labors seem shadowed by comparison. But that’s not the point. The point is one can rise on wings of words. Words are uplifting and transformational, personally as well as publicly. For any who feel fearful that they won’t measure up to her shining example, I would ask them to ask this simple question:
What would Amanda Gorman do if she wanted to write as well as Amanda Gorman?
I think we know the answer already. She often talks in interviews about her writing process, which seems to involve a lot of reading. Stacks of books surround her. While you can’t find your voice in the voices of others, they can certainly help you uncover yours.
So it’s obvious what she would do, and I recommend it for us mere mortals too: She’d read the works of Amanda Gorman. Or better yet, stream her many poetic performances via youtube because she’s a poet who is not afraid to throw herself entirely into her words, as we should ours.
As for your essay, whatever form it may take, it should be about your discovery of you. If that’s not the overt topic, remember it’s still the underlying theme. Who are you? Your words will tell you and tell others too. You discover not only your thesis but yourself as you essay forth, whether you’re working in essay form or any other.
A life well lived is a lot like an essay too.
Alex Hiam is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and Silent Lee and the Oxford Adventure available at Amazon.