Here are some sources that discuss what an Essay is, from its origins, and pulling it back from being a totally cookie cutter form used by uninterested students when given an assignment to choose a thesis and defend it. An essay, literally ‘an attempt’, is an exploration of a subject, to do with life, that brings in the personality and experience of the writer to some degree.
FROM A HISTORY AND POETICS OF THE ESSAY:
– 2013 by Jeff Porter
The essay occupies an odd place in the history of literature. One moment, the essay is a marginal form, barely alive on the fringes of poetry and fiction, the next, the trendiest thing in town. Recently, its fortunes have been on the rise. Wherever you look, the essay turns up: in graphic memoirs, in blogs, on the radio, in poetry. Its proponents range from Ira Glass and David Sedaris to Andrew Sullivan and Julie Powell, not to mention filmmakers such as Agnes Varda and Harun Farocki. No other genre is as infinitely adaptable as the essay.
In its directness and intimacy, the essay is the ideal literary form for the twenty-first century. Overwhelmed by an endless flux of information, we inwardly crave the momentary stay against confusion promised by the essay. We relish, as Scott Russell Sanders wrote, “the spectacle of a single consciousness” confronting the chaos of cultural overload to which we awake each day.1 The trademark of the essay is its intimacy, the human voice addressing an imagined audience. We also relish the opportunity to lose ourselves in the wandering thoughts of the writer. In his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), Samuel Johnson defined the essay as “a loose sully of the mind; an irregular indigested piece.” What Johnson saw as disorder we see as an experiment in form and sensibility. We eagerly embrace the essay’s nonlinear quality, losing ourselves in its unpredictable twists and turns and moody swings. Yet getting lost in an essay is not the same as getting lost in a novel. Novels have plots; the essay is famous for rambling, its paratactic structure favoring breaks and digressions over continuity—the kind of disjointedness criticized by Johnson. What Johnson didn’t like appeals to us now. It is the mindful-ness of the essayist, no matter how digressive, that offers us a refuge from the hullabaloo of the world, the discursive slippage from one thought to another.
Most readers know that the word “essay” comes from the French essai. The verb form, essayer, means to attempt, to experiment, to try out. The standard definition of the genre holds that an essay is essentially a way of trying on a thought or an idea like a hat. The fitting room in a French clothing store, by the way, is called a salon d’essayage. On an artsier note, the Club d’Essai was the name of an experimental sound studio directed by the inventor of musique concrète, Pierre Schaeffer, in Paris after the war.
In a way, all thought is experimental and remains so until it can be fixed in a sentence. We are all essayists for a brief moment. As O.B. Hardison, Jr. has noted, Roland Barthes suggests that the essay may have even preceded the concept of genre, owing to its ability to emulate the genesis of thinking.2 If there is something that is fundamental about the essay to the play of the human mind, as Montaigne insisted also, one wonders why it took so long for the form to evolve. Why wasn’t there a Bronze Age essay, for instance, something written by the hero in retirement (surely Nestor would have had something to say after the burning of Troy) or perhaps set down by the stay-at-home wife, the caretaker of the oikos, a meditation on crushing olives or weaving while waiting the warrior’s return? Given the wanderings of Odysseus, his irrepressible digressiveness and curiosity, not to mention his fondness for the personal anecdote, the Odyssey might have been that Ur-essay. It could at least have contained essay-like intervals—“On Cyclopes” or “Of Listening”—enlivened by shrewd reflections on the credulity of men and the cleverness of fish.