Monday, April 5, 2010

The Art of the Essay

Over the weekend, I finished Virginia Woolf's essay A Room of One's Own, where Woolf concludes that for a woman to be an artist (or, really, if a woman's to pursue her own dreams and ambitions) she needs to have money and a room of her own. Basically, women need the same kinds of resources and respect that have traditionally been given to men. Only then can they have the opportunities to write, create, invent, etc. that the feminist movement has sought to instill.

But what struck me the most about A Room of One's Own was that it was an essay that was actually fun to read. Woolf ties in personal anecdotes, and she uses these with a dash of wit, humor, and research to flesh out her argument. And in writing the essay, she builds several small stories into her larger argument. She recalls when women received the vote, a time at which she just inherited from an aunt a large sum on money; she recalls at the time being more excited about the money than the vote, because it was money that would enable her to pursue her artistic ventures.

And then there's Woolf's hypothetical situation--what if Shakespeare had a sister, Judith, who was as talented as Shakespeare? Woolf tells us the story about Judith's life, about how she gets disparaged for reading books and never receives the education that her brother did, about how her attempts to follow in his footsteps get her ridiculed.

So yeah, A Room of One's Own reads like a piece of modernist prose, but it's engaging. Part of the problem that we find with essays is this thing that gets drilled into our brains in middle and high school, and it really screws our ability to write well: the five paragraph essay, "In this essay I will...." But Woolf tells us stories, she tells us jokes, and peppers anecdotes throughout to spice up her language and make the entire argument personal.

A good essay should do these things; a good essay should be engaging and fun and informative. In reading it, we should get an idea of exactly why this means so much to the author and why, therefore, it's important that we hear about it. Having personality isn't just for the personal essay.

And seriously, read A Room of One's Own.

(Star Trek review on Friday! Poetry on Wednesday!)


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