Friday, September 16, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "Let's talk about the essay form.  What makes for a good essay?  Where have the ideas for your essays come from?  Do people (magazines/newspapers) request them?  Have you been moved to write an essay because of something that you've read or an event in your life?  What is the relationship between the essay form and black intellectual thought?  Who do you admire or respect when it comes to the essay writer? What is a good length for an essay?  What role might philosophy play in shaping the content of an essay?

Let me start my answer for this question by repeating something a reviewer said of my essays in Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing. He said I was superior essayist, but not a great one. I think that judgment is fair. The essay as a literary form comes easily to me. About 50% of my body of published work is non-fiction (or the essay) and the rest is fiction. Remember: when I was a freshmen in college, I'd write the essay assignments (or term papers) for people in my dormitory (who wanted to party over the weekend) for $5. an essay, money-back guaranteed if they didn't get an "A." I never had to refund anyone's money. (Today I always tell students that this unethical exercise during my wayward youth led to my becoming a writer while the people who paid me to write essays for them never learned how to write.) These brief essays for E-Channel also come easily for me, because once I start thinking about a subject it's natural for me to write down my ideas. And one idea always leads to another, like a tree branching out. For me, the experience is very much like dhārana or the one-pointed concentration that is the first stage of formal meditation.
 But I'm not a great essayist, nor have I worked at being one. A truly great American essayist is someone like James Baldwin, who gave us perhaps a dozen essays that will forever define a certain dimension of the American experience. (Like many critics, I feel his essays are superior to his fiction, though his first novel Go Tell It on the Mountain is worth discussing for historical reasons.) Baldwin's essays, in addition to being beautiful performances of language, pack a rare emotional power. I work to get emotion into my fiction, but in my essays and articles I'm not emotional. Just professorial in my effort to clarify a subject, first for myself, then hopefully for a reader. At best, my work in the essay form might just be called meditational.

This work came about probably as an extension of my background in journalism when (briefly) I was a newspaper reporter, columnist, and features writer in Illinois in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Philosophy is also a contributing factor to the essays I've written insofar as in the early 1980s I made a strong effort to teach myself how to write philosophically for popular magazines, in other words, finding ways to express often esoteric concepts without using the tribal languages employed in philosophy seminars and academic publications for specialists. I believe the first work where I  managed to successfully do that was "Philosophy and Black Fiction," published in Obsidian in 1980. And, of course, in the essays I've written for popular Buddhist magazines what I attempt to do is present with accuracy and clarity  philosophical concepts and experiences in a way that is reader-friendly. What Edgar Allen Poe said of the short story probably applies to the essay: namely, it most likely works most effectively as an experience if it can be read in a single sitting. And for me, what I value in the essays I read (and hope occurs in the ones I write) is the fact that the writer has offered me the opportunity to carefully and methodically think or reason along with him or her about a particular subject.

It is accurate to say that most of my articles and essays have been works requested by a publication's editor, for example, "A Sangha by Another Name" was a piece Tricycle's founder and publisher Helen Tworkov asked me to do. But other essays were originally written as public addresses (like some of the works by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Frederick Douglass) or key-note speeches. "The End of the Black American Narrative" was written that way and delivered for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday at Washington and Lee University.

 What pleases me about writing in the essay form is that some of these assignments, like the recent introduction I wrote for The Photographs of Gordon Parks, or earlier introductions, prefaces or forewords such as "A Capsule History of Blacks in Comics" in Roland Laird's Still I Rise: A Cartoon History of African Americans, and the introduction for John Gardner's On Writers and Writing, can become stand-alone pieces that are collected and reprinted in books like Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing (2003); I Call Myself an Artist: Writings by and about Charles Johnson (1999); and the brand-spanking new book just published by Authorspress in India, Charles Johnson: Embracing the World (2011).

One of the most famous quotes we have from Karl Marx is "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it."
When I first read that as a young philosophy student I enjoyed its activist thrust, but somewhere in the back of my mind I kept thinking, "Just how well have we interpreted this world?" That, in essence, is what I try to do daily as an artist---the effort to interpret and better understand the world around me, to bring it some clarity. Sometimes the interpretation is best rendered as a short story. Sometimes as a novel or drawing. Or in essay or screenplay form. I've never privileged or prioritized one form of expression over another. And, as a footnote to Marx, I think we can say that artistic (and philosophical) interpretations have down through history changed lives through the liberation of perception.

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