The Wonder of a Great Essay

Wonder puts aside the known and accepted, along with sophistication, and instead serves up an intelligent naivete. – Charles Baxter, Burning Down the House

I spoke recently with a group of writers about surprising habits and emotional qualities that thriving, gratified authors cultivate.

One quality seemed to resonate the most – actually to my surprise. Jonathan Safran Foer, Charles Baxter, Nicholson Baker, Pablo Neruda, Stanley Kunitz, Haruki Murakami, and a slew of other authors openly acknowledge the trait both in the way they encounter the world and in how they write and create experiences for readers on the page.

It’s wonder. Wonder, Charlie Baxter writes, puts aside the known and sophistication and serves up “an intelligent naiveté.”

But most of the authors I cited are poets and fiction writers. What about essayists?

The essay, to me, is the genre of artful and of seemingly formless (but quite elegantly formed) wandering. The essay attempts and considers instead of asserts and demands. It’s often saunterly instead of speedy. It whispers to us to slow down our thinking and even to think about thinking.

The essay stops on a sidewalk, clears a spot on a bench,
and asks us to sit down for moment and look at what’s passing before us.

Maria Popova at BrainPickings takes up the conversation here and introduces one of my favorite annual anthologies – Robert Atwan’s Best American Essays.(Thanks, Maria, for inspiring this post.) 

I first discovered Robert Atwan in 1995 when in a Poets & Writers interview he talked about how his publisher at first tried to convince him to omit the word “essay” from the anthology title because they didn’t think it would sell.

“The essay is the whole point,” he said in essence and insisted the name stay. The annual series has since gone a long way in the essay form’s continuous revival as a viable and much-needed art form.  Atwan also said in that interview something that has stuck with me 18 years later:

In an essay, Atwan said, “we see a mind at work.”

And it is in seeing and hearing that narrator’s voice thinking out loud with us as she muses and weighs possibilities and imagines other angles that I find in great essays the wonder of thinking itself.

That’s my two cents. Yours?

What makes a great essay? Any favorites? Any writer’s voices that especially awaken in you a sense of wonder?

Thanks as always for running with me,

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