On couch forts and bean burritos: A brief look at the essence of essay writing

Josh MacIvor-Anderson

I spend most of my year cartwheeling around a nonfiction classroom, trying to convince students that everyone has a story to tell, a story that matters. Each and every single last one of you, I say.

Josh MacIvor-Andersen
Josh MacIvor-Andersen

Mostly I believe it. Even if you’ve only traveled as far as Escanaba, just once, and the trip was in a non-descript beige Nissan Sentra and you just went down to pick up a friend from the airport, grab a bean burrito from Taco Bell, no onions, and you listened to generic pop radio by bands with petal and autumn in their names, and spaced out coming home, missing the booming metropolis of Trenary entirely.

Yes, even you have good stories to tell. It’s my thesis. My semester-after-semester main point.

Because even the minutiae of our lives can carry a kind of universal dovetail. We connect through the cosmos — that immense vacuum of space and cold and roaring silent ether — by the tiny experiences we all share as human beings on Earth.

Couch forts, for example. Or pillow forts. Or the forts you build by arranging kitchen chairs in a half circle and draping sheets over the spines.

For most of my students these constructions were almost obligatory, a rite of passage for a bona fide North American upbringing.But it’s when you enter. It’s the feeling of it. It’s how the entire universe shrink-wraps around that tiny space and suddenly, inextricably, that space is all that matters. It’s the silence and the getting-away-with-it and the fact that no one, if only for a second, can even see you.

When we talk about it in class, there’s a sort of hushed, mutual recognition, as if that long ago fort magic was settling over us like a dust.

The question, then, is whether your story can be crafted into an essay or memoir or lyric-what-have-you, elevating an intimate experience into something a person other than your mother might want to read.

Yes, I say. Sure, but it’s hard, and takes practice, and requires a posture toward the experience that treats it as skeleton — or a piece of the skeleton; the femur or the stirrup bone — in need of deep archeological digging and dusting and cataloguing; a screwing together of all the right bones into just the right shape. And then the fleshing.

This is where some students roll their eyes or chafe at the thought of revisions and endless fiddling with prose. It starts to simply feel like homework.

But those who persevere receive this prize (even if Mom’s are the only eyes on the finished page): the blessing of self-examination, of personal-interrogation; the blessing of a mechanism that helps us make sense not only of our own loves and lusts but, also, perhaps, of the migratory patterns of monarch butterflies — and maybe even finds some weird connection between the two.

The world, after all, is full of inconsiderate beings — people who don’t properly consider their environment or themselves in it. We are an increasingly unreflective bunch raging in knee-jerk anonymity on the comment threads of a million internet sites, waxing vitriolic on Miley Cyrus and Syria, sometimes in the same virtual breath, mostly without thinking.

The personal essay, though, even centuries after Montaigne used it to explore himself as if he were a continent, is still the most potent tool for internal and external reflection that I know. It’s like a superpower. A super magnifying glass beaming both inward and outward. A super search engine, albeit a tad slow, but here the slowness is life-giving: we can look, and then look again, and then look again.

I wish the world were full of more essayists. I wish we would take more time to consider, to reflect a little harder, and then share what we find only after much deliberation in unique, well-crafted, generous and endlessly creative ways.

I wish that even if you’ve only travelled as far as Escanaba, just once, you’d still ask of the experience: What does it mean? and then essay your way to the answer.

That bean burrito may be a gateway. The missing of Trenary might be the beginning of something rich, a human story, and that story may hum with meaning across a cacophonous planet and land in the head and heart of someone who knows, even over all those miles, exactly what you mean.