Essays are about being desperate. An essayist must either be desperate for information and answers, or desperate to find peace within a topic. The key to writing a good, desperate essay is pain and struggle. Experiencing these emotions within the writing is essential. Great writers find the struggle, identify it, and then present it in their work.
These works, or acts of desperation, are relentless. Often, they are reflections of the writer suffering. The agony in the suffering takes place to the extent that a person must simply attempt to rid himself of it. As if the pen is an extension of the body, an organ designed to exercise the pain from within the soul onto paper. The pain may subside in this act, even if questions go unanswered, even if the writing is poor, because essaying claims nothing.
In Once More to the Lake, E.B. White examines the pain of growing old. It is a cruel suffering that all people go through. His reflection on the issue connects him to an audience. White does this ever so intimately. He exposes himself, leading the reader along the timeline. At first, White is ignorant to the ending point of his own essay. It is subtle. The process begins as a confused sort of suffering where he describes watching his son fishing, just as he used to as a boy. “I looked at the boy, who was silently watching his fly, and it was my hands that held his rod, my eyes watching. I felt dizzy and didn’t know which rod I was at the end of.” There is pain in this scene. White is exuding feelings of nostalgia for his youth. The reader can feel him longing for the innocence and freshness of his childhood that has been stolen from him, and given to his son.
What pain, what suffering, how depressing it is to grow old. These are the emotions that make White’s essay a success as they attach readers to his experience. His honesty is frightening. Again he watches his son jump into the lake as rain pours down, just as he used to, “As he buckled the swollen belt suddenly my groin felt the chill of death.” We all know that every word is true. We will grow old, we will die, and there is no escaping these realities. It is difficult to talk about our lives coming to an end. We can’t comprehend what this truly means. White discusses this pain for us. He knows that we are afraid of it, but that it is important to examine.
Annie Dillard is a person who suffers for her writing. “How many of you, I asked the people in my class, which of you want to give your lives and be writers?” This question comes out as an accusation. It is aimed towards her students and readers, in The Death of a Moth. The tone of the statement almost answers itself with a “no” because she is basically saying that most people will not. Dillard thinks that writing means giving up your life for the craft. This is the most extreme sacrifice. It is utterly painful to give everything up for writing.
Right now, as I write this, I feel hopelessly hypocritical. As I attempt to become a competent writer, I am not suffering. I do suffer, but in this moment, I am comfortable. I am around the people who I enjoy the most, and I cannot tap into Dillard’s pain. I am well fed and well rested. I am useless. Dillard’s voice, so unique, does not cut me right now as it I know it has before.
I might be wrong, but I think that Dillard suffers for her writing less than she does in her life. She suffers to write, inflicting pain upon herself. White is suffering as a part of his life, not necessarily for his writing. His writing is a comment on the pain that he feels organically, through his existence.