A Review of The Art of the Essay
Because of Charity Singleton Craig, I now see adumbration everywhere. I didn’t even know what adumbration meant before I read her book The Art of the Essay. But now, when I see an author subtly weave a word, sense, or feeling into her work in order to build intensity and meaning, I can’t help but imagine Craig’s mind map example of “visual cues in ordinary life.” The hoot of an owl may mean more than the sound that initially hits the ear.
Before we dig our talons into mind mapping, however, let’s start with the basics: what is an essay? I love Craig’s definition in the first chapter, which concludes that an essay is “your words and your mind, lit up.” Even if we begin with the merest of moonlight, we nonetheless write; as Craig proclaims, “to try” is indeed the “very heart of what it means to write essays.”
Let’s circle back to mind maps. Mind mapping hits the sweet spot in between the “find’n’fill” approach of word dumping on a page, and the super structured “grade 9 notecard approach and inverted pyramid approach [that] ask us to come to the page almost as if we’d already written the essay in our heads.” Craig’s techniques aid the essayist to determine whether or not he is ready to fly.
The Art of the Essay feeds the reader practical advice and best practices. Craig explores when an essayist should show, when to tell, and when to explain. She offers key considerations for revision. I swooped into her insights regarding proper etiquette for recreating a memory, including using helpful words like “I imagine” or “perhaps” to acknowledge lacuna in our recollection of past events.
In addition to addressing the “what” of an essay, as well as how to write one, Craig also does a deep dive into the “why.” The Art of the Essay offers many reasons for the purpose of writing an essay: we write so that our memories become “more a part of who we are.” We write as an act of risk, to “’peel back the layers and see what has been previously hidden from view.’” We write so we can “go back to a place and become part of it again.” And perhaps most compellingly, we write essays for “greater healing or deeper relationship, or sometimes simply to better understand ourselves.”
I’ve addressed the what, how, and why of The Art of the Essay. The last point I’ll note in this review is the “who:” WHO is the essayist? Who has the authority to write something as audacious as an essay? Though writers represent one of the “last egalitarian and open associations,” the stakes are high. Craig concludes that the essayist must be willing to “bear witness” and to uphold not only one’s own words, but also the words of those who cannot speak for themselves. Yet as Craig makes clear throughout her oeuvre, the endeavor is worth it.
Charity Singleton Craig is exactly the companion that the essayist wants on this sacred journey “to try.” Wise as an owl, Craig leads the way through The Art of the Essay. Bonus points that she even uses, with aplomb, fancy words like adumbration.
I thank T.S. Poetry Press and author Charity Singleton Craig for sending me a complimentary copy of The Art of the Essay. My opinion, as well as the decision to review this book and to recommend it as a sage companion for writing essays, is my own.