For those of us in the field, we understand the complicated nature of the word essay. It can be such a beautiful art form, yet it is the bane of existence for many a student. It's not their fault - the students or the essays - but the nature of standardizing and institutionalizing practically anything. I've been thinking recently about the negative connotation of that thing I love because I've had to concede to my students in AP English Language the contrived nature of the composition class I teach and the formulaic manner in which I too often ask them to write.
But that's not the point of this post. The art of writing actually is.
Writer Rebecca Renner tweeted this morning a simple request: "If you had to pick one book that has shaped your writing the most, what would it be (This essay is worth 50% of your grade)." It is a great question, especially with the tongue-in-cheek jab at the teaching of rhetoric and composition. And the thread is intriguing for all the diverse influences. Some obvious writing texts like Lamotte's Bird by Bird are contrasted by some epic pieces of fiction such as Catch-22. Obviously those types of books "influence" in distinct and different ways. My response was two-fold, as you can probably expect I'd respond. The op-ed is definitely my genre of choice and specialty, a situation I did not fully realize or pursue until my peer group during the Colorado Writing Project pointed it out to me. To that point, the primary text that has influenced me is actually the columns of three writers: Mike Royko of the Chicago Sun Times & Tribune; George Will of the Washington Post; and David Brooks of the New York Times.
However, if I had to choose one book that influenced, it is a quirky little collection of essays that took the publishing and reading world by storm in 1988. It's All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum. The book, which he subtitled "Uncommon Thoughts on Common Things," captivated and engaged and entertained me in every way. But more importantly, it taught me to look at "the essay" in an entirely different and positive way. I came to appreciate the art of storytelling as a way of engaging an audience with topics and issues, and I experienced the beauty of narrative in non-fiction. For many years now, I've used Fulghum's book, and his others like it, in my class to great benefit. They are bell starters and writing prompts and digressions and more. I know his book influenced me most because I'm on my second copy, and it too is falling apart from usage. Additionally, I know a piece of writing is special when I wish I had written it. And, I have long thought I want to be Robert Fulghum when I grow up.