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So, when I say the word “essay”, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? Probably, for a lot of you the word “essay” triggers a kind of Pavlovian twist in your gut, a reminder of how pointless and stressful it was to write five double-spaced pages for Mrs. Walsh on “The Motif Of Whiteness In Moby Dick”. I think, for this reason, when we don’t have to write any more essays, we hang up our topic sentences and supporting paragraphs and conclusions, and never think about Moby Dick or Jane Eyre or Anna Karenina ever again. But the English paper doesn’t represent what’s best about the essay, or what’s most exciting about it, from my point of view. As Paul Graham, the famous programmer and essayist, detailed in a wonderful essay about essays called “The Age of the Essay”, the English paper as we know today is sort of historical accident, a result of the way English departments formed, and how much medieval universities focused on law.

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When we think about that, that actually makes a lot of sense. Topic sentences, supporting paragraphs, conclusions – I’ve watched enough “Law & Order” to know how much this resembles opening statements, prosecuting the case with witnesses and evidence, and, of course, concluding remarks to the jury, which is just a forceful rephrasing of the opening statement. It’s actually kind of weird that English classes, the place where we ended up learning both English literature and composition, how to write, – you don’t really think about that, but because stuff like this totally fascinates me, I dug into Graham’s footnotes and found a fantastic article from 1967 called “Where Do English Departments Come From?” by William Parker. In it Parker traces the incredibly short history of teaching English in schools. Actually, the first chair of an English department anywhere in the country was Fancis March, who was appointed in 1857 to Lafayette College. And that was my favorite slide to me. (Laughter) English literature had a hard enough time overtaking Latin literature, eventually it did do that, but writing had always been under the province of another subject called rhetoric.

Basically what happened was this, as I understand it: as public speaking became less and less popular, and the number of colleges doubled at the end of the eighteen hundreds, because we were encouraging more and more people to go to school, academic departments rose to power, and they decided what was going to be in the curriculum. So, it was basically like an arms race. English got really greedy and gobbled up literature, linguistics, journalism, theater, and of course composition. So, if English departments had to teach both literature and writing, it’s no surprise that we had to write so much about literature. I admit that’s a bit of a digression, something that is totally frowned upon in English papers, but in the wider world of essays things really aren’t so strict. You don’t have to follow the model of a court case. You don’t have to rigorously defend your thesis point by point. We have other forms of writing for that. In an essay you are perfectly allowed to follow a train of thought. In fact, essays sort of are trains of thought. I want to get back to that point at the end, but for right now what you need to know is that essay should be short, interesting, and it should get to the truth. And that’s actually a good three-word definition for what essays are: short, interesting, truth. Michel de Montaigne, the father of the modern essay, wrote about everything from sadness to drunkenness, to friendship, to cannibals. He even has a great essay on thumbs. It’s a short essay, you really can’t write that much about thumbs. But it’s worth a read, if you are a thumb enthusiast, which I am, obviously. (Laughter) Ralph Waldo Emerson, my favorite essayist, wrote things that changed the course of my life. And it wasn’t so much what he wrote about, but how he wrote about those things, the way he phrased and positioned facts and insights, so that something that was needling you, that you couldn’t quite put into words, suddenly became as clear as glass. And that kind of writing… It opens up doors in your mind. It shows you that you are allowed to think a certain way.

It invites you in for investigations of your own. Of course, essays don’t have to be heady and abstract. David Foster Wallace writes wonderfully about tennis. Elif Batuman wrote a great essay last year about Istanbul’s construction and its archeology and their intersection. Kristin Dombek wrote a sprawling, beautiful essay about sex and addiction and love in 2012. And Jeffrey Downard wrote brilliantly about the motif of whiteness in Moby Dick! (Laughter)

See, I can’t shit on Moby Dick, because I love Moby Dick, actually, and literature. You don’t have to write about them, but you can obviously, if you want to. Essays are having a little bit of a cultural moment write now, actually. As Christy Wampole wrote in “The Essayification of Everything”: “It seems that, even in a proliferation of new forms of writing and communication [before us], the essay has become a talisman of our times.” And you can see that in the proliferation of blogs and think pieces, but you can also see it in things like medium.com, where anybody can write an essay on a topic of their choosing, where the public gets to decide what points of view to elevate, where media gatekeepers no longer have the power to marginalize radical or different points of view. But there is a whole another form of the essay I want to spend the rest of my time talking about. It’s what I do for living. It’s called the video essay.

These days you are most likely to see the work of American photographer Ansel Adams on a post card or on the wall of your boss’s office. These photographs are so ubiquitous now, that it’s easy to walk by them without noticing their technical and aesthetic mastery. Indeed, thanks to things like Instagram and Snapchat, photographs in general are so ever present in our lives, that standards about what we believe to be great work in this field are drowned out by the literally billions of photos, that are uploaded to these services every day. That’s a short clip from an essay I did on Ansel Adams, and at “The Nerdwriter” I produce a weekly show of video essays about art and culture, and science, politics – whatever I happen to find interesting that week. So, what is a video essay? Well, it’s about as hard to define as a written essay. It’s like written essays blend into articles, reportage, pamphlets and short stories,

 

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