For the beginning writer who may be interested in writing fiction, the essay is an excellent method for learning the art of storytelling. This may not seem terribly obvious, but consider that technical writing is fairly cut and dried. Most technical writing is concerned with the transfer of information from the writer to the reader. It is done without recourse to emotional expression or regard for characterization. For those of us who cut out teeth on IBM manuals, one seldom tried to read them as if they were the great American novels. Technical writing has not progressed much over the decades, that much I can tell you. And lord knows, I wrote a few manuals, white papers, and even a couple of technical books. The spice of life was the last thing on my mind when considering the transfer of knowledge. But essays are a different breed and as such offer many opportunities to the beginning and advanced writer. You see, writing is like physical exercise, one does it to keep one’s mind in shape.
In modern literature, there are three main essay forms. The first being the personal or autobiographical. The second is the objective, a narrative of political, scientific, or literary themes. These are objective in outlook and tend to be concrete particular. One is stating an argument, proposing to convince others of the rightness of ones particular views. The third is is the abstract universal in which one may be less concerned with the particulars of the case as much as one is concerned with the general or specific tone or theme. It’s attention to abstractness means that it cannot be concerned with the concrete specifics of proof. Now one can go to Wikipedia and peruse all the various forms and styles, many of which I was suppose to learn in secondary school English classes. But the essential argument is very simply this: first one has an assertion; then there are the supporting arguments, the proofs or truths that support the correctness of the assertion. Then comes the conclusion showing that all has been proven. It is an extended form of the syllogism. Thus, all essays use logic to convince readers of the correctness of one’s essay position.
I am going to concentrate on the personal and autobiographical essay as the best potential for storytelling. The others may have some sense of storytelling but the personal emotional element is missing. True, one can certainly get on one’s high horse and show a great deal of animation for the subject at hand, but if the idea is one of serious argument, then any emotional content is toned way down. In order to be reflective in thought, one must approach the subject through a series of anecdotes and descriptions. If one is speaking of the beauty of a rose, then one is speaking of subjective judgements. There are no objective arguments or formulas that measure the beauty of a rose and opposed to that of a gardenia. The relative merits of the beauty of each flower are just that, relative, possessing no particular correctness of argumentation. You may believe that the rose possesses a superior beauty while I maintain that an orchid it the most superior blossom this side of perfection. There exists no formula that we can put in the numbers and arrive at the correct number. Subjectiveness is general, never specific in the acceptance of its judgments.
The telling of a story is not so much the conveyance of facts but the conveyance of emotion, of judgments, of possibilities. Stories are not equations in which we plug in the numbers and arrive automatically at some numerical answer. We tell stories about true events in a manner of our choosing. And what is our choosing? Do we attach some moral to the story as to show a sense of superiority? Or is it a cautionary tale, a warning to all presumptions young men and women who forget their station in life? Ah, does purpose ring a bell? Why else tell a story? Even fairy tales are morality plays, are they not? But even our personal experience by which we regale others have a point, else they are boring linear scripts with little meaning. And we want meaning in life, it provides for the reason for our existence. I exist because I am, I want to be, I have meaning in this life placed in the presence of others. I am significant. This is the art of storytelling, for whom we tell the tale, why such a tale is told, and the need to tell that tale. As children we loved hearing the tales told by others, whether told in person or through some media such as film or radio. But in telling the tale we fulfil our own need for approval, our own need of involvement. Conversations we have with others, members of family, groups of friends, even strangers, are based on storytelling because we convey emotion rather that strict fact. Emotionality is a great part of storytelling. It is a great part of our lives. This is the essence of storytelling. This is the essence of life.
So we become the stories we tell. That is the reality of our lives, our individual histories. Most of us fail to record these histories and thus our pasts are lost. This is the purpose of the personal essay, that expanded journal entry recording our thoughts, our impressions of the day, our need to inform posterity. Call it ego, call it consciousness of a need for immorality. Our history defines us, good or bad, it defines us. Often we confuse our stories with those of professional writers and storytellers, we confuse the needs with the deeds of those who are more capable of telling these stories. So we succumb to the illusion that our stories must be less than perfect, must be worth less in the telling. And yet, these stories are merely variations on a theme, they exist in real time and involve real people. This is the source a writer needs to tap into, draw from, expand on this theme of real experiences, real people. This is what authors such as Faulkner have done so successfully. they have created worlds and given them the tales, the stories or real people. This is the creative process in all its glory, in all its full potential. This is how we understand the world, through the intercession of the author and his stories. Does it matter that such stories never fit exactly? No, inexactness is a virtue for fiction. The writer suggests but the reader imagines. That is the order of things today. Reality becomes us.