Why I Am Not An Essayist

by Howard Gardner 

Recently, I picked up a book of 100 outstanding American essays, sensitively curated by Phillip Lopate. The collection includes predictable offerings by luminaries like Alexander Hamilton, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, William James as well as a smaller number of women (Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Joan Didion) and minorities (Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. DuBois, James Baldwin).

Perhaps I was guided by an unseen hand. As I read through these offerings, I came to a realization: one thing I cannot do, or at least do easily or do well, is write an essay. Not that I can’t write at all: Asked what kind of a teacher I am, or what I teach, I have often responded that I am a teach writing. To be clear, I was hired to teach cognitive psychology in a professional school (I am currently the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Research Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education), and I have sought to honor that title. But whether teaching undergraduates, masters, doctoral or post-doctoral students—I basically teach how to write re- write, edit, respond—or not respond—to critiques. And then I support these students as they navigate their way through rejections, “revise and resubmit” instructions, acceptances, and—at long, long last—final publication or posting.

Yet a moment’s reflection confirms that I am not in any sense a general writer. I don’t write poems, I don’t write short stories, I don’t write novels, I don’t tweet, and – sad to say—I don’t even write essays (more on that declaration later). Asked what do I write, I’d say: “I write books in the social sciences, very loosely defined. I have also written technical articles in developmental psychology, cognitive psychology, neuropsychology, and allied fields in education, and I can shepherd them through the peer review process.

How different from the polymathic John Updike—one of my literary heroes. Updike wrote short stories, novels, poetry (rather light) as well as book reviews so insightful and brilliant that they are likely to be read decades from now.  Also—for extra credit—he was a gifted visual artist—trained as a draughtsman and cartoonist—that is what he was known for at Harvard College in the early 1950s and what he studied afterwards at the Slade School in London.

I did begin to write when I was young. I launched a newspaper when I was in second grade—solely authored, type set, and cranked out—literally. I continued to write for catch-as-catch-can newspapers and newsletters throughout my childhood.  More significantly, at my secondary school Wyoming Seminary, I co-edited, a quite unusual weekly news and literary magazine. I’ve saved several dozen issues of The Opinator. I was astonished to discover how many topics that I wrote about as a teenager have reemerged, without a trace of memory, in later decades, in my writings. In interests, this child (then “Howie”) was certainly father to the man (now “Howard”).

In high school, I did try my hand at writing fiction—it was occasionally witty and often had a takeaway (a “moral”); but I clearly had no literary talents of that sort. After I finished college, I wrote a novel of 1200 pages by hand—which, as is so often the case with such juvenilia, lightly fictionalized my own life story. Therein I even managed to kill off my parents, both of whom (so far as I was consciously aware) I loved and cherished. The novel was terrible; I knew it was terrible; and I left the manuscript in Paris with my cousin Sabine, who, for all I know, still has that wretched scribbled work. No more ventures into fiction!

Of course, as an undergraduate, I wrote many papers and they were “good enough”. (On the basis of an essay required of all freshmen at Harvard College, I was permitted to skip the mandatory Freshman writing course). These papers were largely in the social sciences. As for content, they often drew on the readings that I had done throughout my childhood: largely biographies and histories, many magazines spanning many topics, as well as regular scanning of a local and a national newspaper. My family members were readers of non-fiction, but rarely read novels, poetry, or short stories, and while I enjoyed stories and novels, I largely followed my parents’ reading patterns.  Indeed, when I was in college, the authors whom I most admired—and presumably sought to emulate—were Edmund Wilson, a wide-ranging literary critic (who also took his hand at fiction, not very successfully) and Richard Hofstadter, an incisive American historian and biographer.[1]

Whatever “voice” I had developed in composing fiction and editorials for The Opinator, and in crafting papers for college courses, was quickly stifled as soon as I entered graduate school. There I learned a genre of technical writing—an article for a psychology journal—which for decades thereafter I taught my students. In so doing, I was becoming a craftsperson, and perhaps as well, a professional psychologist.

To maintain my literary sanity, while a graduate student, I did write three books. They were quite different from one another. Specifically: I “ghost wrote” a textbook in social psychology; I authored a “trade” introduction to the structuralist theories of developmental psychologist Jean Piaget and cultural anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss; and I prepared a theoretical account of how human development could be conceptualized if one considered “participation in the arts” as the end-state. Unusual for a budding academic in the social sciences, I found that the book rather than the journal article was my preferred genre.  And in the succeeding 50 years, I have written about thirty books, on a wide variety of topics.

By now, if not since the opening sentences of this article, you are undoubtedly asking, “Well, what is an essay? And haven’t you in fact written an essay which I am now reading? What’s the problem?” Back to the topic. There are numerous definitions of an essay, starting with Montaigne, often considered the father of the essay, and sprinkled through the introduction to the Lopate collection. And indeed, several of the essays in that volume attempt to define an essay, and do so in terms of length, tone, whether the piece is written in the first person, whether it presents an argument, whether it includes personal reflections etc. If you’d ask me about the piece that you’re reading before I had drafted it, I would have said, “I’m writing a blog post.” And indeed, since 2015, I’ve posted several hundred blog posts—and on some definitions, I could equally have said “in the last few years, I’ve written several hundred essays.” But please bear with me. There’s a method to this madness.

Since I’m concerned here with writing of all sorts, I should acknowledge that, as befits those of my generation, I wrote and received countless letters. These were sometimes well-crafted—and perhaps the closest that I came earlier in life to the genre of the essay. In the best of these letters, I rather seamlessly mixed the personal and professional, the profane and (on rare occasion!) the profound. For decades I saved all this correspondence. But when my wife and I recently moved from a house to an apartment, I easily chucked my personal correspondence. I did not think that it had literary merit. I saved my professional correspondence along with letters from three individuals: one sometime girlfriend, (Sandra Sherman), one older friend (biologist George Klein), and one mentor (psychologist of art Rudolf Arnheim). These correspondents were reliable and artful writers; they had things to say that were worth saying, at least as long as I am around. Indeed, in different ways, all three were essayists!

A few more things about the kind of writing that I have and have not done. During my early and middle careers years (1975-2000), I became pretty well known as a scholar and commentator in psychology and related fields. I was often asked by newspapers (such as The New York Times) or magazines (such as The New Republic) to write short articles or book reviews on topics within my expertise. I enjoyed these literary “flings” and became reasonably skilled. For two years, I wrote a monthly column for Psychology Today—and many of those columns were reprinted in Art, Mind, and Brain—the title captures neatly the topics covered in those occasional pieces.

In writing such “lighter works” I realized that I might have become a journalist—particularly if I had joined The Harvard Crimson during my undergraduate years and spent as much college time at The (Harvard) Crimson as I did high school hours on The (Wyoming Seminary) Opinator. But I am glad—relieved—that I did not become a journalist. I can write quickly but I prefer to write on my own deadlines and not to meet another’s time constraints. And I like to focus on what interests me (not necessarily the readers of a particular publication); to collect my own data—which can take years!; and to pore over findings for long periods of time. Such immersion can take places in “long form” journalism—but nowadays very few journalists have that luxury. And even then, the deadline is typically set by others, not by the author. In our time, Robert Caro (biographer of Robert Moses and of Lyndon Johnson) stands out as a journalist who has nonetheless succeeded in maintaining his preferred pace and writing his own ticket.

As for the blogs, they range from the personal and the professional to the political; they are written in the style of a newspaper column. They are important—even necessary!—for me to write: therein I “bear witness” to what’s on my mind. (Exhibit A: The piece that you are reading) But in most cases I have no idea of whether anyone has read them. I believe that, as long as the neurons are firing in some fashion, I will continue to blog periodically even if I am assured that they remain largely or even entirely unread.  We might say that they are “essays to and for myself.” So much for the ambit of my writing—past, present, perhaps future. Thanks for your patience!

Now, I want to become analytic, in the way that I usually am, and essayists rarely are. In the process, I may paradoxically discover that I have actually composed an essay—or perhaps a meta-essay, an essay on essays.

  • What I write about: Trained as a psychologist, within the broader social sciences, most of my writing comes predictably from that training and reflects that set of interests. Little pure science. And though never purely literary, my writings do occasionally talk about the arts, and sometimes literature.
  • What I draw on: A researcher, I typically draw on our research findings, or findings of interest that come to my attention); less frequently, books or articles that I’ve read and, very occasionally, works of literature or art.
  • My roles:  Reporter, historian, biographer, “soft” social scientist.
  • My “hoped-for” audience:  students, colleagues, the “educated public,” “fans” in education from various corners of the world.
  • Purpose:  I do so in the service of explaining, not in the process of thinking aloud or sharing my own thoughts, experiences, dreams.
  • (Parenthesis:   It’s hard for me to put myself into the mind of a character whom I invented or dreamt about.) I have the real world and empirical data and other books and articles to build upon.
  • A new genre: Recently, I made a sharp turn—I wrote a memoir titled A Synthesizing Mind. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is an intellectual memoir, rather than a personal one. It’s mostly about the development of my ideas.  When I wax personal, it’s in the service of explaining how my ideas developed, or, as the title intimates, how my mind works.


Still, a memoir—unless you are Henry Adams—is written in the first person; and so for over 200 pages, I had to express what was on my mind as if I were having a conversation with the reader. And that is one of the chief characteristics of the essay. The essayist is communicating to the reader what’s on his or her mind. (Remember Howie, the youthful letter writer).

Moreover, though this is perhaps subtler, the essayist is conveying how his or her mind works. I have no idea what it was like to be in the presence of the real-life Ralph Waldo Emerson—though he gave at least 1500 public lectures. But his essays are a fair sample of how his mind worked— the thoughts tumbling out at breakneck speed. The essays of fellow Concord resident Henry David Thoreau, or of Emersonian contemporaries Margaret Fuller, or Frederick Douglass, or Nathaniel Hawthorne, yield analogous insights into the working of the minds of their respective authors.

As I read through the 100 essays in the Lopate volume, I received insights into, and confirmation of, the limitations of my own writing ability which have prevented me from becoming a bona fide essayist:

  • I am not particular introspective, and especially not about emotionally-charged experiences. When I introspect, it’s invariable about cognition, and not about feelings.
  • I don’t have good visual imagery and I have difficulty remembering what scenes and persons look like (in fact I am severely prosopagnosic, I can’t remember faces).
  • I am NOT particularly imaginative; I don’t remember most of my dreams; and when I do they are quite prosaic;  (probably a major reason why my high school and college forays into fiction lacked merit).
  • I seek to write clearly but I don’t pore over sentences in an effort to arrive at the very best formulation. I want to get onto the next sentence, paragraph, page… indeed, article, or blog (indeed, I am currently drafting others).
  • In sum (a phrase that most essayists would rightly spurn): I am not a reporter on myself for its own sake, nor on my own thoughts for their own sake.
  • And even when I wrote about myself, as in my memoir I did so as a clinical analyst and not in an effort to capture or share pain or pleasure or process.
  • So, at last (and thanks for your patience!) that’s why I am not an essayist.

Why am I this way and not that way? That’s a psychological, or even a psychoanalytic question. I can speculate. Though I had no major personal traumas, as a child I felt vulnerable, anxious and retreated into my own mind—reading books, writing about them, playing games. While I found it fascinating to read about psychoanalysis and treasured my tutorials with eminent psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, I was never tempted to get psychoanalyzed—in fact, one could say I avoided it. Moreover, I find myself unable to watch movies or look at pictures of pain. I have never watched movies about the Holocaust or the recent video clips of the strangulation of George Floyd. I even deliberately avoided reading the lengthy memoir by an aunt who was in Auschwitz, experimented on by Josef Mengele, and who somehow-miraculously—survived.

I’ve avoided using a mirror for myself, let alone an x-ray. I prefer to look outward, to tell others what I have read or seen or thought—and to the extent that it is a snapshot of me, it is only incidentally so. So, in a shade under 3000 words, I have tried as best I can to explain why, on my account, I do not consider myself an essayist. In the process, I’ve probably come about as close to an essay as I ever do—though, to coin a term, it’s more of a meta-essay than a traditional essay. In the end, I am a reflective psychologist. I wonder whether I might have become an essayist. And I can at least perform a thought experiment: If I had an identical twin (same genes, same brain until birth) raised in a very different household, could he have become a novelist or a poet?  Or at any rate a master of the essay?

References

Tracy Kidd and Richard Todd, Good Prose. New York Random House, 2013.

Philliip Lopate, The Glorious American Essay. New York Pantheon, 2020.

 


[1] Interestingly Edmund Wilson was the first public figure to propose the “Library of America;” half a century later, three volumes of Richard Hofstadter’s writing are now appearing in the prestigious series.

 

© Howard Gardner

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4 Comments on “Why I Am Not An Essayist”

  1. connieweber February 3, 2021 at 10:24 pm #

    Just hoping that among the luminaries you are reading is E. B. White, whom I consider to be the master of masters of the essay. John Updike knew him from work at The New Yorker, by the way, and held White in high esteem. The two favorite writers of my lifetime are E.B. White and Howard Gardner—different sorts of writers indeed, but both, through their work, the kind of rare teachers I’ll hold in eternal gratitude.
    Connie Weber

    • Howard Gardner February 4, 2021 at 4:58 pm #

      Thanks, Connie, glad to see your note and hope that you are well–it’s been a long time since we have been in touch. E B White is in a class by himself– a few years ago I read both his Collected Letters and his Collected Essays– and probably, in my unconscious, I realized that I could never do what he did, apparently without effort but undoubtedly with decades of practice. And of course, any American writer of essays is likely to have been influenced by White, whether or not the writer is aware of it. All best Howard

  2. Sukanta Das February 4, 2021 at 6:21 am #

    Howard Gardner – The living legend, mankind will see Your vision even after the centuries!

  3. Howard Gardner February 4, 2021 at 5:00 pm #

    Thanks, I dont know about being a legend, but I am happy to be living– and will be happier if I receive the COVID19 vaccine, on schedule, this weekend. Best wishes Howard

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