DO WRITERS AND JOURNALISTS NEED ESSAYS?
Morrow on the form made famous by a 16th century Frenchman
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
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.
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?
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 elses --
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
way ahead for journalists now is to work somewhat more
in the essay form, he said. You dont
get to be a star by saying, A three-alarm fire
destroyed a factory in Watertown last night.
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 bachelors degree in English literature
and has been teaching at Boston University since 1996.
His essay students, some undergraduates, some graduates,
come from the schools programs in creative writing,
journalism and liberal arts and must submit writing
samples to get in.
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.
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
class Morrow described Herman Melvilles 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.
handed out Hamlets 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 Didions
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.
Baldwins Notes of a Native Son described
racism and how it made him and his father bitter. A
few hours after my fathers funeral, while he lay
in state in the undertakers 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
Baldwins personal story and the more universal
civil rights violence around him is part of what makes
the essay interesting, said Morrow.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
get frustrated in their writing, he said, when they
cant 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,
can make an essay do almost anything, any shape, any
length, any mood, any thought, he said. It
is an almost infinitely adaptable instrument.
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.
its best, essays are a kind of art, Morrow said. Its
a nice fusion of practical journalistic work with aspirations
that go towards more literary possibilities, he
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 didnt like the ending, There is a world
of consoling to do. A vaporous line, he said.
There should be some anger.
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, lets 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...
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
relentlessnessand to relearn why human nature
has equipped us all with a weapon (abhorred in decent
peacetime societies) called hatred.
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
cant tolerate this and then asked
everyone to write about September 11th. Please avoid
lack of emotion, he said. Let us hear your voice.
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.
a former newspaper reporter and Boston University creative
writing masters candidate, said studying essay
writing was a reminder of the basics she already knew:
adverbs arent necessary. Succinct is better. Avoid
clichés and rhetoric.
Im better able to identify rhetoric and cut it
the hell out of my work. Im not sure I ever had
the tendency to wrap things up all neatly in a bow,
but Morrows hatred for that is pretty contagious,
she said. As she taught a creative writing class this
semester, she found herself using Morrows words
and saying, Too pat! Too pat!
essay, said Morrow, has a range that goes from the most
intimate to the most public and universal. I would
say, its not only helpful to a journalist, its
absolutely indispensable, he said. I think
a journalist who doesnt know about essays is basically
limiting himself or herself in a foolish way to a somewhat
narrow and mechanical form of journalism.