The Essay as a Room with Taffy Walls: Or Why at Age Sixteen I Finally Finished a Book
March 21, 2016 § 8 Comments
By Heather Kirn Lanier
At sixteen, while other high school juniors were learning to drive, I was learning to read and write essays. That wasn’t what I expected when I signed up for Mr. Gearty’s Advanced Placement English course. I was not what you’d call “a reader.” I did not tend to finish books. But Advanced Placement courses required summer homework, so the July I turned sixteen, I found myself hunched over a desk with my task: read and take notes on a hardbound book. It looked like a hymnal, with its maroon cover and embossed title, which name escapes me today.
What I remember is my surprise. For the first time in my self-absorbed sixteen years, I was engrossed in reading a book. And not because I wanted to know what happened next and next and next. There were no fictional characters; there was no thick unfolding plot. There were only voices, embarking on whatever willy-nilly topics so moved them. Helen Keller wondered what she would do if she had three days to see. Ralph Waldo Emerson proclaimed (in a didactic tone I couldn’t help but heed) the awesomeness of one’s quirky individual truth.
Who else was in that hardbound book? I don’t remember today, but I recall a host of pieces titled “Of this” and “On that,” so most likely I read some Montaigne and Francis Bacon and William Hazlitt. I studied syntax as convoluted as a fun house. I, the usually resistant reader, was determined to get into and out of maze-like sentences because the end-result was worth it. Juicy as a story, each essay’s intrigue was made, not by plot, but by the switchbacks of the author’s mind, like a convertible hugging the rocky California coast. I didn’t know where the road would take me: toward a hailstorm, a snake, a hitchhiker, hell, maybe a prophetic burning bush. I kept turning the page.
What were these things? They weren’t stories. They weren’t the essays I had learned to write thus far in school—five paragraph things that had their three points. They were, I now know, real essays.
Come fall, once the AP English students of Warminster, Pennsylvania actually landed in a classroom, we wrote essays. Fast and furious, sometimes three a week, always in forty-five-minute limits during class. Once assigned our prompt, we scattered around the room or we went into the hallway, lay belly-down on the blue industrial carpet, and we wrote. We wrote conformities. We wrote clichés. We wrote things our teachers had always told us to say. We wrote things we believed we ought to say. We wrote bad essays. We wrote them so hard our hands hurt.
Eventually we wrote so many essays that we started writing tangents. We started writing analogies. We started writing connections and curiosities and contradictions. We started writing things that nobody had told us to write.
We started writing real essays.
And we learned this, or at least I did: an essay is a room with taffy walls. The more I punched it, poked it, stretched it, the more interesting the thing it could house.
It’s been twenty-two years since Mr. Gearty’s AP English class. The longer I write essays, the more I see that my high school hunch is true: essays are rooms with taffy walls. They are nearly limitless in their possibility, though they must eventually contain. They can be amorphous a while, although they will eventually morph. A good essayist, a real essayist punches at those taffy walls, makes new shapes to house things never before housed, and in so doing, reinvents what it means to essay. Stephen Dunn prefers equine metaphors over taffy ones: “We build the corral as we reinvent the horse,” he says in “Little Essay on Form.” His is the littlest essay about essays, the teensiest corral for a bucking, millimeter-sized horse.
I have just finished a second book of nonfiction. I find myself bracing for the impending creative lull. What will come next? Gradually, I’ve found myself returning to the lessons from 1994. Each morning, like my sixteen-year-old self on the blue industrial carpet, I get myself a pen and a notebook, and I write by hand. I write myself into curiosities. I write myself into confusions. I write myself into intrigue and questions and discovery. I let myself create the taffy I might someday shape into another essay.
Heather Kirn Lanier is the author of the nonfiction book, Teaching in the Terrordome: Two Years in West Baltimore with Teach for America, as well as two award-winning poetry chapbooks, The Story You Tell Yourself, and Heart-Shaped Bed in Hiroshima. She teaches at Southern Vermont College and blogs about parenting a child with disabilities at starinhereye.wordpress.com.