My Journey with the Essay

I believe in coyotes and time as an abstract
Explain the change, the difference between
What you want and what you need, there’s the key

“I Believe,” R.E.M.

I am a writer.

I am a teacher—often and maybe essentially a teacher of writing.

Through no real singular decision, I have become mostly a writer of essays and a poet, and concurrently, when I teach writing, almost exclusively a teacher of essays.

In May of 2018, I submitted a manuscript of a book on teaching writing. Recently, I have been compulsively checking the publisher’s web site because that book has been listed as “in press” for several weeks now.

Today, I checked and saw “published”—somewhat symbolically, I suppose, about a nine-month journey to its born-on date.

Those intervening months mean, as I argue in this collection of essays drawn from several years of blogging about teaching writing, that today I am a different writer and teacher of writing than when that manuscript was compiled and submitted.

Writing and teaching writing as journey, not destination, remains a powerful metaphor that grounds me because both avocations spark powerful and nearly debilitating anxiety in me.

As a regular blogger, I have become more and more skeptical of and terrified by the fixity of published works, especially books.

I like hyperlinks and being my own editor and publisher (although I often fumble these roles quite badly); I feel as if the blog posts are more living documents (I can and do copyedit them whenever I find mistakes or am prompted by a kind reader). And I have some concrete recognition of readers, a readership quantified and displayed daily for me by WordPress.

Yet, to paraphrase Robert Frost, something there is that doesn’t love a book.


Frost’s ode to a wall, I think, captures a similar ambiguity about books, especially for those of us enamored by them and for those who spend their lives critiquing and even criticizing them.

For the past nine months, I have been wading deeply into books about teaching writing—the production of my own book of essays and then reading and reviewing two published volumes by John Warner, Why They Can’t Write and  The Writer’s Practice.

This wading and mulling, nearly constantly thinking and rethinking, however, are nothing new because I exist in a permanent state of feeling compelled to write and teach writing along with being terrified I have no idea how to write or teach writing.

At the center of my compulsions and insecurities lies the essay.

Poets Write Beautiful Essays: On “Coyote” by Chloe Garcia Roberts

Like Warner, as a writer and a teacher of writing, I struggle with how to provide students some structure and guidelines for writing, and specifically writing essays, without reducing their task to templates, prescriptions, and rules that prove often to be false.

This morning as I saw that my book is now published, I read Chloe Garcia Roberts’s “Coyote,” and searched her book title, discovering that she is a poet.

And as I teach my students, I tend to read as a writer.

The essay “Coyote” opens with narrative, immediately engaging the reader with character, plot, and setting. While the first paragraph reads nothing like the introduction/thesis often prescribed to students, it does end by focusing the reader: “But actually what was happening here when the coyote was being seen as a dog was not passing, it was shifting.”

Soon, we realizing that Roberts is exploring ideas and words, “passing,” “shifting,” among others. But this isn’t some simplistic “definition essay” that may be assigned to high school students.

This essay by a poet is a testament to the power of mode—narration, description, exposition, persuasion—and a model of craft; Roberts offers historical references and literary allusions, and she breaks the narrator/reader wall.

What becomes compelling to me, however, is her diction, this essay as tour de force of seeking not a good word, but the right word, pushing me to google some along the way: liminal, thaumatrope, oscillation, crepuscular, rife.

The voice of the essayist, the poet-as-essayist, speaks through science, through history, through literature; layers here, I think, at the core of the essay speak about being an essayist like a coyote:

The ferryman is never the hero. He is always heartless. If your family cannot pay, you cannot pass. Reviled by both sides, his only purpose, his only function, is to change people from one side to the other. In Western myths, the ferryman sometimes rows alone and sometimes is accompanied by Hermes the trickster, the guider of souls. In American mythology, Coyóte plays all the roles. He is not a note in a larger spiritual pantheon but a full revolution of unraveling and creation, of journey and return.

The essay itself is a journey, and the essayist, then, is the ferryman.

“Coyote” is beautiful, and it meets the broad characteristics I often share with students: essays start somehow, develop some focus briefly and somehow, and then ends somehow—hopefully always compelling.

Now, with my teaching writing book published, I have come yet again to something new, something that will not be in that book about the essay itself as a journey, captured with poetic shape in the last paragraph of “Coyote,” again nothing like a traditional conclusion guided by the worst writing advice ever (restate the introduction in different words):

In English, a siren song is another way to say an alluring deception, a seductive lie. But I ask you: how can a song be deceptive if it is a matter of life or death that it be sung? If our very existence depends on it being sung? And in case you cannot see it, I should inform you I am singing right now.

Roberts ends with questions and her own alluring image of essayist singing, embracing the complexities she has drawn for us and drawn us into.

I, a fellow essayist and poet on a much less successful level, am further ferried along in my journey as writer and writing teacher, awaiting my copies of a book of essays, themselves fixed but just markers in my rearview mirror as I continue on my way.


Teaching Writing as Journey, Not Destination: Essays Exploring What “Teaching Writing” Means (IAP)