28 July 2019
By my definition, an essayist is a species of storyteller who has a personal take on a subject, who wanders considerably as they unspool their story, but who always brings the story home at the end with a thunderclap. When you read Susan Orlean’s stories about orchids or libraries, or take in Austin Kleon writing about notebooks or pencils, or Malcolm Gladwell describing tipping points, you have the pleasure of having joined a master storyteller around the campfire. The stories can be short, journal-length with Kleon, or long rambles, like John McPhee writing about rocks for hundreds of pages. This American Life is the example in radio and Twenty Thousand Hertz in podcasting. Werner Herzog in movies.
The daily explosion of email newsletters in our inboxes is a chance to discover more essayists on a miniature scale. Some emails are a chatty brain dump of top-of-mind stuff. Others are giving you the outtakes of a story they are getting paid to write for a publication. Others are purists writing for pleasure, seemingly casual, but bringing an intense focus. The essayist’s bright light is present across all these forms, small as an email or big as a movie.
Essayists have this in common: Absolute confidence. They will work hard at their storytelling, and fail at times, but over the long arc they are certain their work will hold you. They aren’t worried about fancy phrasing, flashy locations, narrative cliffhangers, or life-or-death situations. You climb aboard the train of their narrative and go for a ride, glad for the journey, happy to be looking out the window, wondering what will pull into view.
Now, having an engineer mind, I search for patterns. I think, There has to be a catch to this. A trick. A way to craft a narrative that magically holds you with no overt narrative pressure. What is it that makes you go back to a book and pick it up first thing in the morning when you stayed up late last night to read it? Why binge-watch a show or binge-listen a podcast?
The answers come easily when you watch TV shows because every episode is built with multiple cliffhangers and tricky plot devices. The primary purpose of a television series is to make you want to watch the next installment of it, not necessarily to bring enlightenment or pleasure. Remember the sensation of sitting on a couch for five hours to finish out a season of something? That is not pleasure. It’s a leg cramp and a muzzy mind, a pile of dishes in the sink. It is the result of the creators of that media successfully pressing the binge button in your brain.
How do essayists work their magic? There is no button to push. They confound analysis. They rarely use cliffhangers. Their plot devices are perfectly made, so perfectly that you don’t recognize them when you first meet them. Their work can’t be picked apart in the way you might with less masterful storytellers.
Their magic comes from just one thing. It’s all about their voice. It’s the pull-up-a-chair-and-I’ll-tell-you-a-story nature of their work that holds you. I don’t think this can be learned. It’s just the way they do business.
Thanks for reading,
Coming up next week, I’m excited to post a conversation with Vikram Chandra, a master storyteller, novelist, and essayist. He wrote one of my favorite books, Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty, which is about the connections between coding, esthetics, and creativity. He’s the author of Sacred Games, Love and Longing in Bombay, Red Earth and Pouring Rain, and many other great books. He’s on next week’s episode of “On a Call With …” See you then.
(c) Lee Schneider 2021. Take care of each other. Subscribe.