Sorboni Banerjee


Tommy Baxter


Theresa Edo


Erin Jang


Michelle Kearns


Madelyn Rosenberg Lazorchak


Jay Rubin


Sarah Williams

Introductory Essay

BU’s Lance Morrow on the form made famous by a 16th century Frenchman

Lance Morrow

By Michelle Kearns

Lance Morrow, who has made a career out of writing essays for Time magazine, started the Essay journalism class I took from him by saying an essay is a difficult thing to define. It is, he said, a thought thinking about itself. It is your mind reflecting upon whatever it is reflecting upon. The trip the words take on paper, he said, should be more interesting than the destination. And, he said, he liked this example by Kenko, a 14th century Japanese monk: “You should never put the new antlers of a deer to your nose and smell them. They have little insects that crawl into the nose and devour the brain.”

The essay was named after the French word for attempts, which was the title -- “Essais” -- of a collection by Michel de Montaigne, a 16th century lawyer who is described in book Morrow uses in class, The Art of the Personal Essay, as retiring at 38 before beginning to write his meandering pieces about his kidney stones, sex and reading. “As my fancies present themselves, I pile them up,” he wrote. “I want people to see my natural and ordinary pace, however off the track it is.”

To someone, such as myself, who has spent 12 years writing stories about other people for newspapers and magazines, this class was a wonder. I was supposed to write about me. For the first time I was shaping my experiences into stories. This, I thought, must be the border where fiction and nonfiction meet. I told other grad students this was cool, they should try it and some asked, why. What, they wanted to know, were the practical reasons for journalists to bother with essay writing?

From his Boston University office on the sixth and top floor of the school of theology building, Morrow replied. Essays are so elastic that they can help reporters experiment outside formal newspaper style to develop a distinctive way of writing that reads like no one else’s -- a “voice.” A voice print is what distinguishes newspaper stories that would be ordinary and less interesting otherwise, he said. “You develop your own distinctive style and sound and when you do that you are able to bring that style to virtually any subject,” said Morrow.

“The way ahead for journalists now is to work somewhat more in the essay form,” he said. “You don’t get to be a star by saying, ‘A three-alarm fire destroyed a factory in Watertown last night.’”

He got into essay writing at Time where got a job covering national affairs in 1965 after working as a reporter at the Washington Star. He graduated from Harvard in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree in English literature and has been teaching at Boston University since 1996. His essay students, some undergraduates, some graduates, come from the school’s programs in creative writing, journalism and liberal arts and must submit writing samples to get in.

The walls around him were a tribute to the essay. There was a portrait of the essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson and a framed 1981 National Magazine Award for a series of essays about America. Beneath it stood the small abstract Alexander Calder sculpture of an elephant – an “Ellie”-- which looks like a cluster of rusted metal arcs, that came with the prize.

An essay can be long or short and it can describe any subject so long as it has to do with a human being, he said: Law, justice, love, hate, abortion, capital punishment, constitutional amendments, people you have known, your grandfather.

In class Morrow described Herman Melville’s Moby Dick as a procession of essays held together by a dramatic fish story. I checked the first chapter to see what he was talking about and read Ishmael thinking about being tormented “by the everlasting itch of things remote” and it did seem like an essay.

Morrow handed out Hamlet’s to-be-or-not-to-be-that-is-the-question speech, an essay which asks, “Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles . . .” Later we read Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That,” the story of her life in her 20s in New York City before she left. “I began to cherish the loneliness of it, the sense that at any given time no one need know where I was or what I was doing,” she wrote.

James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son” described racism and how it made him and his father bitter. “A few hours after my father’s funeral, while he lay in state in the undertaker’s chapel, race riots broke out in Harlem,” he wrote. “On the morning of the third of August, we drove my father through a wilderness of smashed plate glass.” The play between Baldwin’s personal story and the more universal civil rights violence around him is part of what makes the essay interesting, said Morrow.

Baldwin, he said, turns his story – basically a family story – into a cosmic kind of essay. “This is a father-son struggle put into another dimension,” he said. To his students who must write six essays in a semester, Morrow suggested either the less personal kind of essay that he writes regularly for Time about news events and weighty issues, such as pedophile priests and capitol punishment, or the personal story. A story essay is a chance to use narrative techniques – giving a story dramatic structure with revealing details and an ending, as Morrow recommends, with some sort of surprise.

That was how E.B. White finished his essay about taking his son to Maine and the way the trip of fishing and swimming in a lake reminded him of his own mortality: “Languidly, with no thought of going in, I watched him, his hard little body, skinny and bare, saw him wince slightly as he pulled up around his vitals the small, soggy, icy garment. As he buckled the swollen belt, suddenly my groin felt the chill of death.”

Sorboni Banerjee thought the essay-writing class saved her from the “ho hum drum of daily news writing.” The senior broadcast major wrote, “Arnold Fruct ate my fruit,” about a retired Sing-Sing psychiatrist she trained with as a tour guide at a mansion in Newport. She also wrote about anger of being stalked in the water when she tried to swim in India in a bathing suit, and not in her clothes as is the tradition for women.

“Essays allow the emotion and concentrated description and introspection of a poem, the scope and facts of a research paper, the themes of character development, setting and imagination of a novel,” she said. “I had no idea when I took this class how creative and free we would be encouraged to become.”

There are two ways to become a good writer, according to Morrow. Read and read and write and write. “The idea is to achieve style and fluency in writing and the essay is so flexible and fluent in form it teaches you to make your writing do exactly what you want it to do,” he said. “The instrument you use as a journalist is the language. Essays have to use the language in the most incisive and interesting and supple ways.”

People get frustrated in their writing, he said, when they can’t write what they imagine saying and essay writing is a way to practice. “It teaches you to make your writing do exactly what you want it to do,” Morrow said.

“You can make an essay do almost anything, any shape, any length, any mood, any thought,” he said. “It is an almost infinitely adaptable instrument.”

Other writing forms have more restrictions: In a play, there must be dialogue. News writing has a formula. Fail to insert a nut graph – the story summary recommended by paragraph number four – and an editor will put one in for you.

At its best, essays are a kind of art, Morrow said. “It’s a nice fusion of practical journalistic work with aspirations that go towards more literary possibilities,” he said.

“It is not just a pipe-smoking literary work,” he said. “It does real work in thinking about the world.” During class on September 12, Morrow handed out copies of a newspaper editorial that ran that morning. He said he didn’t like the ending, “There is a world of consoling to do.” A vaporous line, he said. There should be some anger.

In his own essay conversation about the day, Morrow, wrote for the special edition of Time that came out after the attacks. It had photos of people falling through the sky after they jumped from the World Trade Center towers, dust-covered, blood-splattered crying people. He began, “For once, let’s have no ‘grief counselors’ standing by with banal consolations, as if the purpose in all of this, were merely to make everyone feel better as quickly as possible...

"Let America explore the rich reciprocal possibilities of fatwa. A policy of focused brutality does not come easily to a self-conscious, self-indulgent, contradictory, diverse, humane nation with a short attention span. America needs to relearn a lost discipline, self-confident relentlessness—and to relearn why human nature has equipped us all with a weapon (abhorred in decent peacetime societies) called hatred.”

His ending: “Let the civilized toughen up, and let the uncivilized take their chances in the game they started.” To the class he explained – “You need to take steps to eliminate your enemy. You just can’t tolerate this” – and then asked everyone to write about September 11th. Please avoid lack of emotion, he said. Let us hear your voice.

Madelyn Rosenberg Lazorchak began her essay with her experience of the attacks from a distance – watching TV: “All I knew was what I saw through the glass where images unfolded as if they were on the screen of a movie whose special effects I would normally criticize.”

Lazorchak, a former newspaper reporter and Boston University creative writing master’s candidate, said studying essay writing was a reminder of the basics she already knew: adverbs aren’t necessary. Succinct is better. Avoid clichés and rhetoric.

“Overall I’m better able to identify rhetoric and cut it the hell out of my work. I’m not sure I ever had the tendency to wrap things up all neatly in a bow, but Morrow’s hatred for that is pretty contagious,” she said. As she taught a creative writing class this semester, she found herself using Morrow’s words and saying, “Too pat! Too pat!”

The essay, said Morrow, has a range that goes from the most intimate to the most public and universal. “I would say, it’s not only helpful to a journalist, it’s absolutely indispensable,” he said. “I think a journalist who doesn’t know about essays is basically limiting himself or herself in a foolish way to a somewhat narrow and mechanical form of journalism.”