The best stuff that Cicero wrote, in the first century in Rome, were the Philippics, a series of speeches that he delivered against Marc Antony, whom he thought was irreparably dismantling the Republic of Rome. Those speeches are powerful because they're not only really pointed but they're thrillingly beautiful - and that's precisely what made them dangerous: the fact that people wanted to read them.
I would ask the people who were generous toward my own work. After class one day a poetry professor said to me, "Hey, there's this guy Basho you would find interesting," and so I found Basho. A fiction teacher told me, "You ought to read Clarice Lispector if you're interested in that sort of in-between stuff," and then Lispector appeared. It's not magic. You just keep your eyes open.
The essay community should have hundreds of anthologies from hundreds of different perspectives that are constantly introducing us to new writers, new work, and new visions for our genre. The whole spirit of these anthologies is that there should never be a last word in how essays are interpreted or what they can be.
You move your life across the country and make a commitment to a place, and to a genre, and then you realize that neither the place nor the genre might be what you thought they were going to be, or that the world you thought you were going to find in school doesn't actually exist.
When you're a young writer and you look at people praising a big hefty anthology that has uncovered a long lost genre, it can be disorienting to look inside it and think, "But what it's uncovered still isn't me. What does this mean? Do I not belong in this genre, or is there more of the genre yet to find?"
People like to say that Plutarch's is a really "personal" voice, but in truth Plutarch tells us very little about his life. His voice is personable but never personal. It feels intimate because he's addressing the world as we experience it, at this level, a human level, rather than way up here where very few of us live.
As a student at the time, I kind of felt like my only options as a nonfiction writer were to either jump on the personal essay bus or linger back at the station, hoping that some other heretofore unknown mode of transportation was going to magically show up to take me where I wanted to go.
Even if it's a definition that feels oppressive to us, that oppression can be inspiring because it helps us push up against something while we're writing. Or if it's a definition that we want to defend and uphold, we are given a sense of the boundaries within which we can work.
Back in the day, a lot of our instructors in nonfiction were actually fiction scholars. So they would bring in stories as models for the essay. And in some ways that's a good idea, because we can all learn from other genres. But I think it also made me realize that I literally didn't have an essay model, and that if I wanted one I would have to find it.
Of course it's possible for political essays to be artful. I just want to call into question the dominance of content over form in the history of the essay. I want us to recognize that there's art involved in making this stuff, because we still don't approach the constructed nature of the essay with the same appreciation that we do poetry or fiction.
When I'm teaching, I'm not really doing my job if the student who's always comfortable doing wacko stuff all over the page keeps getting gold stars from me for doing wacko stuff all over the page. A riskier assignment for that student, who might be used to hiding behind a lot of formal armor, would be to try to do something straightforward, traditionally, in which they are much more directly laid bare for the reader.
Plutarch's peers were writing "rhetorics," which were these dry philosophical treatises that made really broad gestures about life and death and fate. Plutarch stepped out of the stream to create an essayistic form that relied on a digressive structure and down to earth anecdotes.
An essay is something that tracks the evolution of a human mind. It tracks the evolution of a single consciousness in order to give us an experience - an experience of looking for something and then finding ourselves in a different place by the time we've finished our journey.
I get emails from students at programs all over the country who want to transfer to Iowa, and in most cases their frustrations have absolutely nothing to do with the programs they're attending. They have to do with the growing pains that they're undergoing as writers and with the growing pains that our own genre is constantly undergoing.
And Lopate's anthology helped a lot too. It came out the same year I started grad school, and I remember the book's publication feeling eventful and celebratory. It got a ton of attention for giving voice to this form that had sort of slipped between the cracks. That was exciting to see.
You're often looking at writing from writers who, for the most part, are working in forms that traditionally fit into other genres. But sometimes, in the midst of their better-known stuff, there's this wayward thing, and because it's wayward it isn't considered representative of their work, so it falls through the cracks.