How to write an essay (buyer beware, I don’t have the answer)

How does a person write an essay? I’ve been trying to figure out. The thing is, it’s a versatile form. So versatile, I can’t pin it down.

There are the essays they teach in grade school.

My eighth grade Language Arts teacher called the five paragraph essay a cheeseburger essay. I think she really liked Jimmy Buffett. This pop culture reference was not as hot in 1994 as you might imagine.

So there’s a basic format, cool cool cool. The cheeseburger essay is best for persuasive or argumentative writing, I think. In tenth grade, we had to write narrative essays. I wrote mine about the day I almost had to go on stage as Fern in a production of Charlotte’s Web where I had originally been cast as an Owl. I was really proud of this piece of writing. I included a ton of sensory detail. I probably have a copy of it in one of my juvenilia boxes. (Yes, of course I have juvenilia boxes, plural, for when I donate my papers somewhere. If you know me, you are not surprised by this at all. I am exactly the kind of person who would label the boxes full of her childhood writing “juvenilia” and move them from house to house rather than throwing them away.)

My tenth grade English teacher praised my essay but gave it something less than a perfect grade. When I asked her what was wrong with it, she said, “I just would have written it differently.”

I was incensed. She couldn’t have written it at all. She didn’t have the personal experience. This was, to my mind, extremely unhelpful feedback. How could I improve my writing if the problem was simply that I wrote it like myself?

In college, we wrote papers. These were mostly persuasive/argumentative or research-based. (Pssst, all great research-based writing has an argument. Wendy Laura Belcher’s book _Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks can help you figure out yours.)

I wrote about Furor and Pietas in the Aeneid. I wrote about the extended wine metaphor in Horace’s Ode 1.11, the source of the aphorism “Seize the day.” (The actual translation is “pluck the day.” Plucking the grapes is the first step in winemaking, but Horace uses it at the end of the poem. He begins the metaphor by saying we should strain the wine of life, arguably the end of the process, and works backward from there. I was really proud of this paper. It’s the result of my only all-nighter.) I wrote about the validity or lack thereof of AP testing. I wrote about the Takarazuka Revue.

Most of these papers got good grades but when I read them now, I cringe. Their arguments are weak. Their evidence is thin. But they were good enough for class.

But good enough for class isn’t the kind of essay I want to write anymore. I want to write essays that mean things. Preferably that connect pop culture with life in significant ways. Like my essay about the Star Trek episode “Peak Performance” and impostor syndrome.

The thing is, I really thrive with a model. So I’m looking at models for essays. And I’m reading excellent essays, by Sarah Ruhl, by Kelly J. Baker, by Jess Zimmerman. (Jess Zimmerman’s Women and Other Monsters is probably the closest to the kind of writing I want to do.) By tons of other authors on Literary Hub, Electric Literature, and Catapult.

They’re all different, which is fine. It means, though, that I have to build my own model by combining these, rather than just following one.

I need to Steal Like an Artist.

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Kimberly Hirsh, PhD @KimberlyHirsh
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