If You Craft It, They Will Read

Saturday, June 20, 2020

When I was younger, essays were different than they are now. I remember them as dry, lifeless things. Formulaic. Predictable. Boring. I don’t think it is just a case of me looking at today’s writing through rose-colored glasses. I think in the past many writers lacked imagination… when it came to the organization of the essay.

I also know teachers taught them in dull ways. Five paragraph essays were popular. Some educators still teach them that way.

But when you come across an essay that sings across the page… when you find an essay that’s crafted in such a clever way, you can’t help but study the organization in a scientific manner… well, you’ve found a jewel.

And that jewel can inspire your own writing.

image by Pixabay

Consider one of my favorite essays, “Joyas Voladoras” by Brian Doyle. Here’s the first two paragraphs:

“Consider the hummingbird for a long moment. A hummingbird’s heart beats ten times a second. A hummingbird’s heart is the size of a pencil eraser. A hummingbird’s heart is a lot of the hummingbird. Joyas voladoras, flying jewels, the first white explorers in the Americas called them, and the white men had never seen such creatures, for hummingbirds came into the world only in the Americas, nowhere else in the universe, more than three hundred species of them whirring and zooming and nectaring in hummer time zones nine times removed from ours, their hearts hammering faster than we could clearly hear if we pressed our elephantine ears to their infinitesimal chests.

Each one visits a thousand flowers a day. They can dive at sixty miles an hour. They can fly backwards. They can fly more than five hundred miles without pausing to rest. But when they rest they come close to death: on frigid nights, or when they are starving, they retreat into torpor, their metabolic rate slowing to a fifteenth of their normal sleep rate, their hearts sludging nearly to a halt, barely beating, and if they are not soon warmed, if they do not soon find that which is sweet, their hearts grow cold, and they cease to be. Consider for a moment those hummingbirds who did not open their eyes again today, this very day, in the Americas: bearded helmet-crests and booted racket-tails, violet-tailed sylphs and violet-capped woodnymphs, crimson topazes and purple-crowned fairies, red-tailed comets and amethyst woodstars, rainbow-bearded thornbills and glittering-bellied emeralds, velvet-purple coronets and golden-bellied star-frontlets, fiery-tailed awlbills and Andean hillstars, spatuletails and pufflegs, each the most amazing thing you have never seen, each thunderous wild heart the size of an infant’s fingernail, each mad heart silent, a brilliant music stilled.”

You might think this essay is about hummingbirds. It’s not. It meanders around in an ingenious way, until the reader is blown away by the conclusion. (The end invariably makes me weep. Really.)

Right now I’m grappling with drafting an essay. I’ve studied at the feet of Brian Doyle, trying my best to imitate his moves. When you’re passionate about the subject, when you’re trying to convey a message that is indeed life-or-death these days, you want the essay to stand just as firm as your convictions.

Here’s a site if you’d like to read some more inspiring essays. Consider how they’re crafted. Study the organization of each one.

And finally, what are you passionate about today? What success (or failure) have you experienced when writing an essay? What advice would you like to share? And did you know WOW is having an essay contest? It’s not too late to begin writing an entry...


Angela Mackintosh said...

So true! Essays have evolved from those dry five paragraphs we learned in high school. I think the essay form now is one that allows for the most exploration and expression.

Sioux ~ thank you for sharing Doyle's essay. I hadn't read it before. His writing in "Joyas Voladoras" reminds me a little of Lia Purpura's, who is one of my favorites. It's full of compassion, and a great example of telling it slant, using metaphor, excavating the personal by connecting it to the larger world. I also love the lists he inserts in his paragraphs for impact, and his sensory imagery. The way he juxtaposes scientific language with the use of "you" and "we" is what gives it power. I pay attention to shifts when I examine essays.

You linked to two of my favorite essays on that list. Jo Ann Beard's "The Fourth State of Matter" - have you read it? Talk about a shift! That one is a perfect example. And of course, Eula Biss' "Time and Distance Overcome."

I'm glad you're writing an essay, Sioux!

My favorite time to walk is at sunset when I can watch the hummingbirds sit still on a tree or a wire and rest their race-car hearts. :)

Sioux Roslawski said...

Angela--Abebooks.com thanks you. I'd never heard of Lia Purpura. Because of your recommendation, I just ordered 2 of her books of essays.

I had not read "The Fourth State of Matter" until I was writing this post. Yes. It's long, and turns corners, keeping the reader guessing. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Eula Bliss' essay has been at the top of my list for several years. I happened up it accidentally... and have been wowed by it ever since.

Also thanks to you, I entered the next essay contest... AND I paid for a critique. Thank you again for the earlier critique. It pushed me to write this piece.

You must have a great eye. I've only seen hummingbirds at feeders. They're so tiny. Seeing them resting (I didn't know they ever did that ;) must be delightful.

Linda O'Connell said...

I like a twist also, not necessarily a cliff hanger. Thanks for the link to
the essays. This was an informative post.

Sioux Roslawski said...

Linda--I would agree. Twists (for me) are better than cliff hangers. Thanks.

Pat Wahler said...

Yes, that essay made me weepy, but it was worth reading. Thanks!

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