Rebecca Solnit, in her introduction to this year’s edition of Best American Essays, offers some wonderful, succinct definitions of essay. I know I will take this information to students when I teach creative nonfiction classes.
…essays deliver both and maintain the diplomatic relations between journalism and poetry, owning something from both territories, for functioning in both.
…writers who begin with the news but go on to contemplate or analyze it in ways that are proscribed in newspaper journalism’s idea of straight reporting.
An important topic doesn’t make an important essay, but addressing what matters can be part of what makes an essay significant.
To that I would add, a seemingly unimportant topic doesn’t make an unimportant essay. Look at essays out there about snails, or No. 2 pencils, or hummingbirds, etc.
And my favorite quote of the introduction — about reading, not writing:
Reading anything of length is still a solitary act, a settling into slowness and thoughtfulness, and to decide to read is to decide to pay attention to what someone else thought when they themselves were solitary, reflective.
Reading and writing — connecting two solitary figures through time and space. Love it.