Meandering Toward a Definition of an Essay

Composition XXII, Theo van Doesburg

There is nothing more exciting than to follow a live, candid mind thinking on the page, exploring uncharted waters.1
— Phillip Lopate


When released from my dreams in the morning, beginning to realize I am indeed awake, I pause before getting up to make the bed.  My wife and I have learned to peel ourselves off the mattress at precisely the same moment because neither of us relishes bed-making, but each of us likes to see it made. Working the covers and bedspread from opposite sides of the mattress may not qualify as a spiritual experience, but it is much more satisfying than making the bed alone.

Heading to the shower, I begin to sense the day taking shape. One shape, now behind me, is our bed, a rectangle, 60” X 80”—the bedspread neatly defining the mattress. Call it the German in me or the OCD, the Shaker or Quaker, or the impact of a mother who required me to make my bed, I know the organized simplicity of a bed well-made functions as a minor aesthetic triumph, yet this morning’s first creative act beckons me to produce more beauty and discover deeper joy in the hours between waking and bedtime.

Most mornings, I am inclined to shepherd into the world a little more beauty while also poised to seek the warm caress of wonder. That disposition has been lifelong. I suspect its origins lay in the ordeal I navigated during my first year. After maturing in my mother’s womb, I greeted the natural light in a Brooklyn hospital seventy-one years ago. Eleven weeks later, I returned to that institution, discharged two weeks before turning one.

Negotiating a thirty-nine-week trek across a thin line separating death from life perfected, I suspect, a personal infrastructure conducive to a later emergence of “spiritual antennae.” That unprovable hunch explains my proclivity to investigate and intuit both sides of being. Balancing on the thread separating death from life for nine months rendered that distinction hollow. Perhaps I apprehended that we humans are both death and life, and if true, then we are greater than the sum of those opposing dimensions. If neither death nor life, then we are mystery. When prompted to plumb that riddle, I sense something richer than I—something profound, sublime. For me, attending to the rediscovery of such wonder morphed into a pleasing preoccupation.

Quakers, who worship in silence, use a charming phrase—waiting expectantly—to describe how they investigate the mystery of being. For what do they wait? Their answer is a sense of wonder, to glean a taste of the profundity at the core of our being. Expectant waiting need not be confined to an appointed hour for worship or a small religious sect, it can become the lens through which anyone perceives the world full-time. A hopeful posture, it is the anticipative waiting among Quakers that wooed me to nurture that practice.

Five operations, including removal of a fist-size teratoma tumor, betray a precarious infancy, but those surgical successes also caused me to grow up mindful of my good fortune to be alive. Feeling blessed, I usually reflect a native optimism, its stimulus likely my encounter with death well before I developed the language to name this adversary. My parents told me that I was believed to be dead but then a nurse came racing down the hospital corridor to interrupt my doctor ambling toward them, undoubtedly preparing to report the demise of their son. Her update: “He’s still alive.”

Perhaps that early peek behind the veil enticed me to reach below mundane experience in search of awe. While not an object we can touch, awe sometimes presses into our hearts and minds softly. Often, I sense its delicate presence next to me or within me. Occasionally, I feel its more robust variant when, for example, I ascend Rattlesnake Mountain in New Hampshire and look across Squam Lake’s glistening shapes defined by rugged peninsulas and tiny islands. Or when I first read Anne Lamott’s affectionate reminiscence of a torturously slow Special Olympics race that reported the beauty embedded in sheer effort. Is my unrelenting quest to encounter awe the consequence of my early rendezvous with the puzzling mystery that binds life and death together?


Like awe, the experience of authentic community is alluring. Some communities are richer in texture and love than others, but their commonality rests in their power to unify. As a high school teacher, I observed the dynamism embedded in the structure of community, especially in the culture of the classroom; it facilitated a fellow-feeling of safety and pleasure rooted in togetherness. It also fostered learning. When students engage with their subject and feel linked to peers and teachers, the engine of learning fires with a bright flame. Seasoned educators know immediately upon entering a colleague’s classroom if learning occurs there. A corporate playfulness exists in such situations, a collective eagerness and shared labor, more like solving a riddle with friends than the tedium of practicing scales alone on a piano.

Years ago, I served as the principal of a small middle school. Every night I composed a riddle. The following day I shared it over the intercom, asking each homeroom to solve my brainteaser, then to send a classroom representative to my office with its solution. The student who reached me first with a correct answer received a prize with which to return to a homeroom where classmates awaited their reward. Except for a few corridor collisions, the riddle turned out to be a huge success. It functioned as glue supporting a cohesive culture for learning, and it generated excitement among middle schoolers, everyone hungry to divine the solution. Solving the riddle was work, but it turned out to be a spirited, energizing labor. Hidden inside such fervor for collaboration dwells the linchpin of community, a shared sense of purpose, which arouses good will.

On the campus of my midwestern liberal arts college, students and professors routinely nodded and smiled as they passed one another on paths crisscrossing campus. It was not a prison in which to “do time” on the way to a degree; it was a community, a warm spring in which to loll, and that feature strengthened my desire to learn. Genuine community exudes warmth and camaraderie, it lubricates one’s appetite to study the world and kindles openness to inquiry. Many residential colleges work hard to cultivate a vibrant sense of community, knowing that an atmosphere of trust facilitates learning. An environment in which people feel appreciated and integral to its mission motivates active participation in serving that mission. Once a tradition of friendliness evolves, it perpetuates itself, especially when key tone-setters, perhaps the president of a college or seasoned faculty leaders in a high school, actively champion community through their speeches, publications, and conversations.

At my college, all professors and administrators were addressed by first name save one. Faculty worked in their offices with doors open, dinner invitations to professors’ homes not      uncommon. Such gestures blurred the distinction between student and professor or student and administrator. Hierarchy still existed, but the planted seeds of comity sprouted a respectful, egalitarian campus society. I remember walking into the college president’s office, his door ajar. He stood upright at his stand-up desk. I said, “Hi Landrum.” He replied, “Hi Paul.” He knew many students. Observing him on his feet, I asked about the desk. “I like working while standing.” He added, “Ernest Hemingway also did. He had a stand-up desk. That’s what prompted me to acquire this one.”

Many college catalogues and school principals tout the sense of community evident at their institutions, yet only some of them achieve it. I have been fortunate enough to experience authentic community in several places, impelling me to search for that warmth and congeniality in every institution and neighborhoods of which I am a part. Where I find it absent, I sometimes attempt to nurture such elements; community is addictive.

These stories and experiences reveal that community is no fluffy concept. Genuine communities demonstrate that a web of amiable interactions among people who share a common purpose exists as an achievable ideal. As with awe, we will never press our fingers into the flesh of community, but we can feel its intensity. A friend of mine, a storyteller who won two Grammys for Spoken Word Album for Children, has visited over 1500 schools to tell stories and sing. He reports that shortly after walking through the front door of a school, he knows if the school is a spirited community or a lifeless institution. Community may be difficult to define yet we all know, if lucky enough to find ourselves in one, that it exists. Although I have participated in a variety of strong communities, several educational ones proved formative for me. In them, I encountered outstanding teaching.

Extraordinary Teachers

Should I ever write a memoir, great teachers will be central characters in my story; they have had an immense and enduring impact on my life. Studying teachers, including myself, has been an incurable passion. Anyone who believes in a single style and technique that a teacher must follow to educate effectively misunderstands the vocation. My sister-in-law explained this as clearly as anyone with whom I have discussed the art of teaching:

When I was a new teacher, each of us was allowed, even expected to take the curriculum and teach it in whatever way we thought best. Now the curriculum comes with directives on how exactly to teach each and every skill and concept. The art of teaching has been replaced with lockstep adherence to a script.

If teaching were merely a transfer of information, then a program could be written to enable a robot to teach efficaciously. But teaching deals with more than information transfers. It responds to subtle needs, whole-class emotions, and human unpredictability. It requires the nimbleness of a skillful executive in a large company, but typically without secretarial support, much less a team of assistants. Teaching, then, becomes a form of humility training—focused, demanding work, performed day in, day out, often while isolated from other educators. Teachers orchestrate, think, counsel, innovate, plan, critique, learn, create, negotiate, individualize, and inspire to meet student needs, relying on a species of faith that allows them to believe their work will have a salutary impact.

While extraordinary teachers are rare, many of us, nonetheless, have encountered at least one. As someone who has both hired teachers and scrutinized great ones, I find it difficult to describe adequately their virtuosity. Because extraordinary teaching is an artistic endeavor, it eludes simple description. A great teacher’s countenance, approachability, insight, passion, knowledge, vocabulary, and inventiveness participate in the drama of educating others. In 2003, I vetted and recommended two young seventh-grade English teachers for positions in a small school district. Quickly, they exhibited talent that foreshadowed future teaching success. After a few years, each had developed a personal style markedly different from the other; both, however, developed into extraordinary teachers.

The classroom of one of these seventh-grade superstars, Julia, revealed a minimalist, understated decor. Bare space and breathing room between posters gave her room’s atmosphere the feeling of a meditation studio. Julia’s practice mirrored her classroom’s character: serene, uncomplicated, transparent. Her counterpart’s classroom featured stimulating costumes, gadgets, and novelties. When I entered Rita’s room, the denseness of the space struck me, but her purposeful organization still suggested a welcoming environment, irrespective of its jam-packed character. Rita’s room reflected her style of teaching—clamorous, exciting, rich. I dubbed Julia my Shaker teacher and Rita my Victorian, the nomenclature based solely on the quantity and arrangement of things populating each room.

Well beyond those superficial classifications, I understood that these young women, stylistically different from each other, knew their subject. Both creative artists, they respected their students and their students loved them. Julia and Rita both challenged their seventh graders. Both engaged their students in profound learning. Kids in their rooms displayed inquisitiveness and felt safe; they found a home that provoked thinking, a home that led to the development of skills essential to advance their learning. The demonstration of sustained student satisfaction and curiosity served as proof of these teachers’ prowess, yet no textbook could adequately describe the reasons for their success. Like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, unable to define pornography, famously said, “But I know it when I see it,” I confess to an inability to define precisely how teachers achieve success, but I know great teaching when I see it; it is the product of a genuine dexterity that sometimes requires reaching students through roundabout means.

Back in the 1970s, one of my high school students began to face his own homosexuality. Sensing his difficulty and discomfort, I devised a sneaky, indirect plan to address his assumed isolation. I decided to read aloud in class Eldridge Cleaver’s scathing indictment of homosexuals in his then popular book, Soul on Ice. In the ensuing discussion, I argued against Cleaver’s attitude toward homosexuality, believing it insensitive and wrong. I assumed that any gay student in my class would see me as a “safe” adult with whom to talk about the subject.  Subsequently, Tony shared with me his agony in confronting his gay feelings. The kind of circuity that characterized my work with Tony also drew me to the essay and to embrace its form, a literary genre that frequently twists, bends, and travels down unbridled tangents.


Essayist, Anne Fadiman, said an essay, like a poem, “has permission to be nonlinear.” Paraphrasing Emily Fox Gordon, she added, “you’re on back roads when you’re writing an essay, and you can take detours, and get on and off the subject.”2 While that quality may complicate fully harnessing the genre, making it tricky to describe, many have indeed sought to understand its uniqueness. Robert Atwan, who popularized this literary form through his The Best American Essays series, understands the sometimes nomadic, barely containable nature of the essay, arguing that “[a]nyone who has attempted to write about the essay knows how difficult the genre is to define.”3 And while he admits to the foolishness of undertaking to clarify the genre in a single sentence, he nonetheless accepted this self-imposed challenge, offering these thirty words: “The essay, whether long or short, narrative, expository, or polemical, is a literary genre that enacts the processes and possibilities of thought and self-disclosure in a distinctive prose style.”4 Okay, but what about the informality and conversational nature of many essays, their sideshows, circuity, objectives, and personal ingredients? Recalling the lyric that singer Peggy Lee made famous, I ask of Atwan, “Is that all there is?”

No! While I respect Atwan’s erudition, applaud his essay-writing, and remain indebted to him for bringing to my attention first-rate essays culled from a broad-spectrum of publications, his thirty words give little hint of the friendly, light-spirited insight I discover in biologist Lewis Thomas’ “Seven Wonders”; no appreciation for the faith Phillip Lopate underscores in “How I Became an Emersonian,” a faith “that you can start off writing about anything, however insignificant, and eventually all thoughts and digressions are somehow connected to each other by an invisible web”;5 no  suggestion of the power of thoughtful meandering and tangential parentheticals as so effectively used in “The Strenuous Life,” Sarah Vowell’s montage about Teddy Roosevelt’s character; never a clue as to the bundle of wisdom that can be crammed into a short piece like Mary Rose O’Reilley’s “Taking the Moi Out of Memoir”; nor a recognition of the sense of wonder that “Eating Dirt” (Brian Doyle) and “Stillness” (Scott Russell Sanders) evoke. Atwan’s definition carefully invites us to realize that an essay exhibits how we think and who we are. It also acknowledges the variety of stylistic packages—from expository to narrative—in which essays are written. But the aim of the essay, its conversational tone, and emphasis on teaching, as if attending a seminar of two—the Oxford don and the student—make no appearance, yet those are among the special features of the genre. Consequently, I appoint myself to clamber up to an elevation where I can espy a more suitable definition of the essay.


First stop on the way up: What is it I like about good essays? The answer materialized without much coaxing. I appreciate their compactness, allowing for a quick adjustment of my perspective. Second, I value the excitement they generate, the sense of wonder they evince, and the feeling of connection to a new community of ideas. Third, I am grateful for authors who serve as my tutors in leading me to these experiences.

Community is a term I use advisedly in this list of effects that a good essay elicits. The warmth of feeling that the essayist’s words evoke by introducing me to a set of ideas that facilitate insight matches the glow of satisfaction I associate with membership in authentic communities. I have come to believe that those twin reactions are elicited by a key feature embedded in community—connectedness. Whether we are connected to live people in a group to which we belong or connected to a set of ideas that harmonize and facilitate insight, in both cases we feel flush, more integrated, and better embedded in the world in which we live, less alienated from our surroundings.

The second stop on my ascent to an elevation from which I may boldly define the essay demands that I review my acquaintance with the genre. To accomplish this objective, I rely on my past exposure to meritorious essays, believing the key to identifying an operational definition requires sifting through specific examples, eventually distilling a definition of the whole category. From this vantage point, I realize that essays repeatedly exhibit a loose, wandering quality, a form more like a briar patch than a formal English garden. But from above the briars, we see the patch for what it is—an integrated, meandering mix of thorny-stemmed plants twisting and bending in a thicket. I dub myself a “Meanderthal,” meaning one who embraces the roaming, unkempt nature of many essays, because they resemble how I think, how most of us think, connecting one idea to the next, eventually creating a briar patch of meaning.

A Meanderthal accepts such messiness, a feature making some essays hard to understand unless we go outside the density of their thickets. Instead of attempting to lock down a pithy description of the thicket, I advocate a focus on the impact of the writer’s clump of briars, asking, what does a fine essayist do? 

Conversational prose designed to probe in depth, an essay engenders a feeling of community, its author and the reader are investigating together. An essay also instructs, albeit sometimes in a roving manner, through a story well told. When reading an essay, at least a very good one, the enjoyment one experiences bears a rich similarity to the delight one discovers when in the company of a great teacher, and exceptional teachers are typically master storytellers or become themselves the admired subjects of stories their students tell.

Essays reveal their authors’ humanity and creativity. The essayist often stumbles into free association in a manner that reflects how our minds naturally operate, traveling from one story to another, a tendency referred to by meditators as “butterfly mind.” While essays, as with our consciousness, often exhibit a circuitous train of thought, the good ones skillfully integrate their sometimes wildly divergent threads into a prose tapestry, leaving the reader astonished and wiser.

Beneath an essay’s frequently quirky juxtaposition of ideas exists the artist’s ability to court wonder—invite a subtle sublimity, awe with a lower-case “a,”—birthed through drilling deep. In any academic discipline, if we plumb its depths far enough, we realize the artificiality of academic compartmentalization, for often the discoveries in one arena, say biology, begin to overlap with findings in another, perhaps anthropology, philosophy, physics, or history. This idea struck me powerfully when reading Jill Bolte Taylor’s book, My Stroke of Insight. When her stroke effectively shut down much of her left brain’s activity, her right brain perceived the world more holistically: “Everything in my visual world blended together, and with every pixel radiating energy we all flowed en masse, together as one. It was impossible for me to distinguish the physical boundaries between objects because everything radiated with a similar energy.”6

Taylor, by virtue of her left-brain stroke and resultant, albeit temporary, right-brain dominance, experienced the world as one, a commingling of objects. Through language, essayists, by intention, create a meaningful mix of disparate ideas and facts. Effective essayists appear to possess a class of antennae that enable them to connect the multiple constituent dots of a topic, often playfully pulling in material from a variety of far-flung sources. Such work invites the joy, even bliss, derived from detecting the connectedness of things.

Great essayists dismiss any worldview that recognizes the natural existence of isolated islands of knowledge. They emphasize the ocean that washes up against every island. Implied is their indictment of the compartmentalization of knowledge. Instead, they forage for meaning, exploring isles, atolls, continents, and their seas, collecting ideas and insights and weighing them inwardly in a manner reminiscent of two people sitting in a café investigating things that matter.

Plunging deep, the skillful essayist dredges up a submerged community of concepts. Many leagues down in this underwater theater, these concepts naturally interact and this compatibility of what otherwise appears as disparate material, this unity, is always the source of epiphany. Most often such sudden understanding culminates in a gentle “Aha!” inside the surprised reader, and like the experience of community described earlier, the apprehension of interrelated truths—a community of ideas—is muscular, life-giving, and sacrosanct.

Essayists, it appears, seek to solve perennial problems, ponder unfathomable themes, consider unanswerable questions. With such material, they engage the reader’s mind in interior dialogue. In many of the finest essays we hear echoes of a robust café culture, as if sitting alone among a cluster of patrons from whom we are privy to the cacophony of questions, comments, and assertions discussed at adjacent tables.

As short nonfiction, often idiosyncratic, essays teach like the best educators—engaging imagination through deep exploration of the riddles of existence, interrogating topics that trigger wonderment about the community of ideas, the connectedness of things. Sometimes, like the mind it reflects, an essay snakes its way through a theme without a map. Like a horse poking, nose-down around a well-grazed field in search of tufts of alfalfa previously overlooked, the essayist rambles in the pasture of ideas passing through the mind, plucking the occasional insight on which to chew, kernels that empower the writer to fill a page. My grandson, Oscar, employs a similar process when painting.

In Kindergarten, every morning Oscar headed for the corner of the room where the paint was kept. He then began to paint a picture. One day, after weeks of watching Oscar’s morning ritual at the easel, his teacher asked, “Oscar, how do you decide what you are going to paint?” Philosophical, Oscar stopped to think about his response, then said, “Well, I stand in front of the paper and put some paint on it and then I look at it, and then I see something and then I get an idea of what I want to paint.” He let his initial brush strokes lead him toward the finished production. Many essayists appear to engage in similar improvisational meandering, and as with most conversations in which we participate, we can observe in essays the improvised flow of ideas germinating, then wending their way into a story that informs and instructs.

The best essayists eschew strict fidelity to a literary formula, much like great teachers forswear a pedagogical playbook. Throughout my life, serendipity has visited me in the form of extraordinary teaching. I have studied under more than a handful of great teachers. Some occupied the largest desk in a classroom. Several popped into my life in meetings, on walks, in my living room, on airplanes, or at work. An inveterate café-goer, some shared with me a tiny table in a coffee shop. Extraordinary teachers, it turns out, compose a sizable portion of humanity. These are people who possess a gift, the ability to engage others in learning. When we find ourselves in their presence, the experience is profound. I am comfortable to assign the adjective weighty to their industry for great teachers, like genuine communities, elicit awe.

A Definition

Now, we can see that an essay is less a literary form following precise structural rules than it is a mischievous method to activate a process of engagement conducing the mind to examine reality more thoroughly. It is a teacher. And while some conditions must be met before a string of paragraphs qualifies as an essay, form is the minor element to interrogate in attempting to understand the essay. The central dimension of the essay to consider in formulating its defining characteristics dwells in its objectives.

Lest we forget, however, I did acknowledge that an essay must be short. Although its page range is arbitrarily established, an essay can generally be read in one sitting, ranging from, say, 1-125 pages, but essays are usually much shorter than the upper limit. While an essay might be as long as 125 pages, most books of this length devoted to this genre will contain eight to twelve essays. And the reader of such brief nonfiction is both participant and observer. Perhaps the best way to understand the form is to think of an essay as a thought-provoking conversation on paper, and conversations are typically not book-length.

Returning to the objective of an essay, an essay’s design stimulates reflection and causes readers to rub shoulders with the contents of a world that can never be adequately penetrated, even though essayists pretend to end an essay conclusively. Like a Platonic dialogue in which Socrates unflaggingly begs for more clarity, an essay always summons the reader to drill a little deeper, to exercise more fully the life of the mind. No effective essay is ordinary. Like a medium or oracle, it channels the mystical beyond the veil of everyday life. A fine essay, even when its subject is ostensibly quotidian, escorts its reader into a world of amazement. A well-crafted essay lures the reader to sink into its nucleus, enabling the prospect of discovery. At its best, an essay generates questions and begets more thought, behaving like a conversation cut short.

A friend of mine used to say she preferred novels to short stories because the latter are too short. Although I can become absorbed in lengthy fiction or a substantial nonfiction work, such as the weighty histories of Doris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough, and Candice Millard, I prefer good essays. It is an essay’s compactness that triggers ruminating; what is left unsaid becomes the fuel for further pondering.

In his exemplary attempt in 2012 to define the essay, everything Atwan advances about the genre is accurate, but he overlooks its ability to amaze; magnify links in the chain of ideas, divulging the unity implicit in the multiplicity encountered in our universe; and spark curiosity, each impact reflective of an essay’s pedagogical purpose. The interplay among length, tone, didactics, and impact is key. Well-executed essays produce these effects by prompting within the rectangle of each page an interior dialogue rivaling any arresting café conversation or classroom colloquy.

Although an essay traces the reflective tendencies of a busy mind, darting hither and yon, this happens inside the perimeter of a brief piece of prose.  If this morning’s handsomely-made bed nudges me to begin my day intending to create more beauty or discover a deeper contentment, then the concision of the artful essay—evocative of the tucked-in corners of a well-made bed—bids me ever so much more to glimpse the presence of holiness in my life, before returning to bed at night. Arriving at the proper place to define the familiar essay, I proffer the following twenty-six words: Tonally conversational nonfiction, sometimes meandering, an essay is short, invites a sense of wonder, elucidates the community of things, and like an extraordinary teacher provokes thought.

  1. Phillip Lopate, “Reflection and Retrospection: A Pedagogic Mystery Story” in To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction (New York: Free Press, 2013), p. 43.
  2., May 30, 2021, in “The Familiar Anne Fadiman,” an interview by Jill Owens, July 9, 2007 3:30 PM
  3. “Notes toward a Definition of an Essay,” River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative, Volume 14, Number 1, Fall. 2012, p. 164.
  4. Ibid., p. 171.
  5. Phillip Lopate, “How I Became an Emersonian” in To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction (New York: Free Press, 2013), p. 165.
  6. Jill Bolte Taylor, My Stoke of Insight (New York: Plume, 2009), p. 72.