ESSAYS are generally “short pieces of writing penned from an author’s personal point of view”. However, that definition is vague and not really satisfactory because it could apply to other forms, such as articles and short stories.
Sometimes it’s easier to describe something by what it is not rather than the other way around.
An essay is not a written sketch, a review, an article, a short story, a polemic, propaganda, sermon or an editorial. Neither is it an assignment written for a school or university.
The purpose of all the above forms is to use information to persuade the reader to a particular point of view. The purpose of an essay is to reveal and make us think for ourselves.
James Krohe, an American essayist sums it up when he says, “In an essay we want the process of thinking, not the result. The writer’s job is not to be right, but to be interesting, even while being wrong”.
In this sense an essay should reflect the personality of the author. An essayist is a spectator of life. An essayist must be broadminded and avoid being a moralist. Rather, he or she should be tolerant.
The essayist’s concern should be the general picture of life in connection with a particular setting and its people, not its aims and objectives.
The essayist should attempt to capture the simple sublimity of life and not so much its romance, that’s the job of the poets, short story writers and novelists.
Essayists are interpreters of life and their purview covers, among other things, history, philosophy, politics and literature.
In short, the essayist observes and analyses life and colours it with a personal fancy that celebrates the charm and quality of things.
The word ‘essay’ comes from the French infinitive essais, meaning ‘trial’ or ‘attempt’. The term was first coined by Michel de Montaigne (1533-92), pictured, a Frenchman who lived during the French Renaissance. He is still popular and well-read today.
Montaigne understood the word ‘essay’ as a verb describing the process in which the writing spirit mattered more than the finished composition.
In all of his famous essays he invariably asked himself, “What do I know?” It was never the answer that mattered but the manner of asking it.
In the Crocodile Prize competition we receive many entries that mistakenly purport to be essays. Some of them fill the criteria but many do not.
If you want to see what a good Papua New Guinean essay looks like you can do no better than read some of the seasoned and accomplished writers whose work regularly appears on PNG Attitude.
People like Gary Juffa, Sil Bolkin, Emma Wakpi, Francis Nii, Leonard Fong Roka, Martyn Namorong and Bernard Yegiora.
They know what it takes to write a real essay and they are experts in the trade.
And they would never dream of submitting a university assignment, sometimes called an ‘essay’.