Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Can you define, for me, the essay?

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I have, more than once dreamt, of the chance to reach out to as many students and teachers of writing as possible, be that in journalism or literature. I feel every writer of some experience must hold fast to this responsibility of sharing what they know. As such, we at the Philippines Graphic have decided to include a new section: The Workshop. Each week, our writers will share their excursions into the writing life, their chosen genre, and the challenges they faced, and the ideas and principles on which their writing stands. We hope these pieces serve as a point of inspiration and knowledge to our readers. Allow me, therefore, to begin.

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You’d probably think that a practitioner of the essay of a little over three decades would know what an essay is all about.

I have to admit, though that I could barely scratch its surface, let alone dig deep into its extremely unstable core.

Yes, unstable.

Unlike fiction or poetry where rules give them shape and form, no centrifugal force defines the essay, not in the least a barbed wall. No anchor holds it in its place as it seemingly floats along the rough ocean of human thought.

It is, by far, the freest of all the genres of writing, the most independent in its expositions of its restless soul, which belongs and will forever belong to the anarchist—the writer.

We have all been told that writing—be that poetry or fiction—is an exercise in being invisible. No writer dares rear his or her face without risking some form of critical backlash.

Charles Baudelaire made references to this truism in the writing art: To be like the gods—imperceptible, unnoticeable, concealed—yet nevertheless not unheard. It is the voice that must expose, expound, even extrapolate, should the need arise, what the writer feels ought to be revealed.

Essay is revelation. Where revelation is poised to unveil secrets no more perilous to one’s reputation than the writer of the essay himself, expect internal hostility to happen.

It is here that tension, struggle, the labor for which each line finds its life and distinction, every internal conflict complete with its contradictions, one’s sense of paradoxes and ironies, at once confusing, if not blinding, plus dealing with long-drawn aversions to cliché and the commonplace: All this must spring from the essayist whose gifts and strength of will are all rooted not in the imagination, but memory.

Memory. Infamous for its brittleness and the fragile ground on which it stands, it remains as the essay’s DNA, its blueprint for life. It is the scaffold by which each essay finds its first and final expression.

It doesn’t possess a solid core much like what metaphor is to poetry, or world-building and character development are to fiction. Rather, it perches itself upon the vast sea of the author’s experience—his lives, loves, losses and laurels.

In short, the writer’s life. And how the author perceives his or her life to be.

In fact, the essay serves as the window to a writer’s secrets, the door into his or her veiled vulnerability. This includes his ideas, accepted or discarded ideologies, the differing faiths he embraces, to say little of that grain of history he calls his life experiences. They all constitute material for writing.

Ergo, the essay exposes the author first and foremost. It renders the writer naked, stripped of the protection of metaphors, similes, the unorthodox-ness of imagery, allusions, even illusions—the madness born of the imagination.

Instead, candor and honesty haunt the essayist. Fidelity to facts perturbs his each and every waking moment. By his or her literary admissions, authors of the essay are made painfully aware of who they are, and worse, who they truly are in their own eyes.

Wrestling with these facts stands as the essayist’s first hurdle, facts which are all too close to home. These memories often queue up cheek and jowl in the subconscious, with nary a care for affirmations and verification.

Owing to its delicate nature, each act of recalling names and faces, near-forgotten streets, homes and the varying scents of childhood, books one had read and lines committed to memory, the taste and textures of dishes, the ideas one chose to believe only to be later cast aside, friends and family lost to time and mortality, becomes a labor of love, and if not love, then struggle.

It’s no different than putting back together shattered glass without the wounds of breakage peering through its translucent skin. These lesions remain, and, nonetheless, remind the essayist that however much he strains to make sense of what he perceives as his own reality, these memories can nevermore boast perfection.

The essay, therefore, will remain at all times imperfect, subject to the fragile nature of the human condition.

Does the curse of imperfection make the essay a lesser genre than, say, fiction or poetry? Hardly the case. As I have said earlier, the essay is revelation. As with all revelations, the essay is not only necessary, it is a paramount requirement for humanity’s survival, the author’s foremost.

In much the same token as Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of his face on a canvas, the essay bridges its readers through that space and time between simply recalling to actually seeing the man himself, the artist.

His eyes, lips, the slither of lines above his brow, thinning cheeks, his clothes: They all welcome the viewer into another world, and not just another world, but a world rarely seen today, and even more rarely touched and understood.

All so suddenly we are ushered into that world’s hallways, its cold streets, the derelict rooms which once housed the artist, almost breathing the same air da Vinci once breathed. With each profile, we enter a doorway through which time stands still and all revelation is handed down to us with little or no qualms as to what we will do with the information.

The artist lies vulnerable, therefore, but thankful in the thought that your visitation resurrects him all at once.

I may be writing and viewing this all too melodramatically. Yet I cannot help but peer into the essay’s miscellaneous dimensions, and by dint of a child nosing around for its sights and sounds, offer conclusions as to what I’ve heard and seen.

Having now faced the terrifying prospect of ultimately saying little of importance, still I offer no apologies. It’s a risk I am willing to take for an expedition fast becoming exhausting after 30 years, but satisfying—inevitably.

What then, to me, is the essay? Who better to quote than the father of the essay, the French virtuoso of the essay Michel de Montaigne.

“I do not care so much what I am to others as I care what I am to myself.”

The essay, therefore, is the one chance authors are given, those lost within the maze of fiction and poetry’s imagination, to find their way back home. G

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