The Ultimate Essai

A few years ago, I read an article in a home-school journal on writing as a subject. According to the author, who taught at the university level at the same time that she homeschooled her children, the only important writing skill to pass on to students was the ubiquitous five-paragraph essay. In this theory of hers, poetry was unimportant because “children could just learn it on their own.” Creative writing of any sort was relegated to the child hobbyist. Only the didactic, robotic five-paragraph essay would rescue a seaworthy child and carry her through the heaving waters of college.

The article infuriated me and, as I usually do, I wrote a rebuttal letter in my head that I never sent. In the last several days, I’ve pondered what it means to write memoir and, in so doing, I recalled that little piece of editorial oddness. I asked myself the typical ranting, blood-letting questions [in which my mind bleeds out from lecherous frustration]: did that home-school teacher/professor not study history? Did she not understand rhetoric? Did she not understand that poems, in their more traditional English usage, could be called essays? If Alexander Pope had time-traveled to the oughts through a Newtonian Time Telescope, he might have had a thing or two to explain to this so-called educator.

First of all, he might have explained that poetry has a long and beautiful history. Poetry takes many forms and involves the use of complex thought and movement, all wrapped up in smart rhetoric and carefully meted rhythm. Next, he might have whipped out a copy or two of his poetic essays: Essay on Man or Essay on Criticism. When the educator inevitably shook her head at him, she might have cried, “But the author asserts opinions! And these opinions aren’t in five paragraphs! I can’t even count how many stanzas there are. And what do you call that rhyme scheme?” After the expected faint of the modern woman, Pope might have thought her unworthy, but, still, he might have given her a rundown of heroic couplets, because, after all, the author of them must have been heroic, himself.

“But who are you–you hunchbacked toad?!” the professor might have spluttered.

And it really might have been been Pope who shot through the Newtonian Time Telescope, but what if–instead–an aged Montaigne had approached a young Galileo and said, “Say there, Sonny, would you transport me to the late 17th C with your totally awesome quantum kinematics?” And then, perhaps, it might have been Montaigne who flew through time and space via the Newtonian Time Telescope [once he’d landed in Newton’s cave and introduced himself].

I’m certain Montaigne would have immediately set pen to paper and ascribed his personal feelings, musings, and ideas on 21st C life. Then he would have pronounced them essays. And why do I think he would have done such a preposterous thing? Montaigne invented the term. Back in his day, the 16th C, he called his attempts to understand the world essays [which, in his language, meant exactly that–essai, attempt].

What is my point in all this, aside from discovering how many times I can use the brand name Newtonian Time Telescope™ in as short of space as possible? Isn’t that what it’s all about, anyway–compression? In our modern education system, we’ve compressed the definition of essay into a tight, five-paragraph box that doesn’t simply contain condensed language, but condensed or compressed ideas. The landscape of ideas should involve expansion, feeling, rhetoric, and maybe even rhyme. When we insist that our children stop writing their essays in heroic couplets, as they are wont to do, we are limiting their thinking powers [all right, I did this when I was in the 8th grade, but only once, and the teacher completely ignored my rhymed lines. Or maybe she didn’t notice–and so much for my hard work].

This was meant to be an article on the nature of memoir, which, to me, resembles the original essence of essai. How Alexander Pope worked his little hunchbacked frame into it, I’ve no idea, but probably it was through the Newtonian Time Telescope. The Galilean Quantum Kinetic machine was pretty much the opposite of de rigueur by Pope’s time [so sue me. I couldn’t think of a stylish antonym].

Good memoirs are connected thoughts–essays–of a unique person’s experiences. In a well-written memoir, the reader sees the world anew through the eyes of the memoirist, through a narrative that stirs the heart and awakens the mind. And for that, I love memoirs, am, in fact, addicted to them. I have no desire to write them for publication because this blog is already the chronicling of my mind. This is it. This is my memoir, world! I’m holding to the Montaignesque tradition with my little corner of the internet. I’ll leave the five paragraph jobs for yawning professors.

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