Ahead of her one-day workshop, Adventures in Essays, we spoke to Anwen Crawford about essays: how to make your essay stand out, deciding on the scope of an essay, and the esssayists she’s inspired by.
With the rise of blogging platforms, essays, especially personal essays, are ubiquitous. What makes a good essay stand out?
I think all essays are ‘personal’ to the extent that an essay is, among other things, a reflection of the writer’s mode of thinking and an enquiry into their interests. So a good essay is (to me) an essay that feels unique, as if it could have only come from that mind, and that writer, with their particular confluence of interests. But it need not sit within the genre of ‘personal essay’, which I tend to think of as a first-person narrative that draws upon one’s own life experiences as material. A good essay can be an attempt to move away from the limitations of a self, as much as it may draw a writer into closer examination of themselves.
Research will always yield new angles and new information. How do you settle on the scope of an essay?
A question with no easy answer! I mostly find that I don’t know what I say, or even what I really think, until I begin to write the essay. An argument tends to arrive for me simultaneously with the words, and the pieces I find most rewarding to write are often the ones where I surprise myself by articulating something that I wasn’t quite in focus for me until I wrote it down. I think that surprising yourself on the page will be interesting for a reader, too. So I rarely plan much in advance. On the flipside, I am also very familiar with the habit of what I call ‘procrasti-research’, that is, putting off committing myself to paper until I have exhausted myself with research materials. Which is unsatisfying. So I would say: research until you have enough support material beneath you to be able to build a path to the edge of the cliff. And then take a leap of faith.
Which essayists, contemporary or otherwise, do you look to as a source of inspiration?
I will avidly read any new essays by Teju Cole, Zadie Smith, Eula Biss or Wayne Kostenbaum. And some of the most interesting work in Australia at the moment is being produced by writers who visit (even if they don’t make a permanent home in) the essay form: Ellen van Neerven, Oscar Schwartz, Ellena Savage, Vanessa Berry.