Though I have always enjoyed writing, I have come to dislike writing essays from the moment I was obligated to doing it in school. I enjoy writing the most when I can free myself of any pretenses of order or structure. Just letting the ideas flow fully and freely for as long as I can sustain them. Ordering them and making sense of them is something that can wait for latter. In the case of the essays I am forced to write for school, it’s the opposite. The formal structure of grammar, content, and presentation, and adherence to said structure, preceded my own ideas and how I wanted to express them. Having to constrain the natural flow of my ideas into such a rigid framework stifled me to the degree that it made me doubt weather writing was the correct choice for me in the first place. However, after having read Toward a Collective Poetics of the Essay, I’ve realized that I’ve made a fundamental judgment error in my conception of the essay. Specifically, I don’t think I should consider most of what I’ve written in school essays at all.
My earliest memory of the rigidity of formal writing comes from middle school. The private school I attended had an annual project where each grade’s glass would host an event full of presentations each student would make based on a subject of their choosing. All the desks fanned out and stuck together, now topped with three-piece folding display boards. Each one customized by a student to pertain to their given subject, complete with information, visual aids, the occasional model, and of course, a written report. For my very first one, I was told that it would be necessary for me to use an external source I would reference extensively. Being quite young at the time, this gave me the impression there wasn’t any need for my creative input to begin with. I simply printed out the multi-page article I wanted to source, and then painstakingly copied down every word of it by hand into my written report. As I was around halfway finished with the process, someone noticed what I was doing and informed me that my hard work was both unnecessary and illegal. I had to rely on assistance from my parents to produce something suitable by the deadline. The misunderstanding I experienced back then became the foundation for my greater misunderstanding of the essay.
Reading Toward a Collective Poetics of the Essay made me realize how much I enjoy essays actually enjoy essays by changing my conception of them. The idea of the essay in and of itself exiting in opposition to the structure and form of traditional scholarly writing is something my previous experience would never lead me to consider. However, the historical context the essay provided makes such a compelling argument for that distinction that’s utterly swayed me. Particularly liberating was the implication that the kind of things we write in school, by the standards of actual essayists, wouldn’t be considered essays at all. This has given a strong sense of closure to the unaddressed grievances of my early schooling.
In terms of the grievances that stand out from my high school years, there’s one specific class I remember really infuriating me. I can’t recall it exactly, but it was a social studies class of some kind. For some additional context, the school was a private institution with a special focus on students with learning disabilities, including myself. It was also constantly understaffed and underbudgeted, which directly lead to this class’s particular teacher. He was a real schlub somewhere in his mid-thirties who looked like he wanted to be anywhere else but here. His class consisted entirely of writing bland formal essays in-between watching old MST3K clips off of YouTube. I just got to a point where I was so infuriated with it that I asked him what the actual purpose of our writing he was. He responded in the most detached deadpan voice that what we were doing was simply preparing us for the grind we were inevitable going to face in college. That explanation, combined with all my previous experience with essay writing, firmly solidified the essay as a necessary evil. An obligation I was duty bound to fulfill if I wanted academia to grant me permission to work on the kind of writing I truly enjoy. To know that this was always a misunderstanding has allowed me to make peace with the essay, and appreciate the way it’s become formative to me without me even realizing.
My learning disability makes reading a struggle (rather ironic for a prospective writer, I know), and as a result, the essays I’ve read and actually enjoyed are so few and far between that I struggle to recall them off the top off my head, There is however, actually a recently emerged form of media that’s a direct descendant of the essay that I now consume on a consistent basis, the video essay. With the knowledge gained from “Collective Poetics”, I can now take my experience with this newer from of essay descended media, and use it to validate the essay’s point on what makes a true essay separate from what you write for classes.
I took a class on TV analysis last semester at this very college. As excited as I was for the subject, I was soon immensely disappointed by the teacher utilizing the same tired mold of rigid formal essay-based analysis that I endeavored to escape from. As I got deeper into the class, I found this limitation applying to much of the scholarly literature relating to the subject as well. I felt it most strongly in the section of our textbook describing the show Lost. Though such scholarly work is essential, that the only writing we had access to was so bland and detached that it felt like a disservice to the content and the medium. The video essays I’ve seen on the show, however display the kind of free-association and “unmethodical methodical” approach that “Collective Poetics” presents as inherent to the essay as a medium.
Reading “Collective Poetics” has allowed me to bridge the gap between my negative experience and the true potential of the essay as a medium, and given me an opportunity to appreciate what the essay is really capable of outside of the restrictive formal framework.
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