Last Updated on September 28, 2002 by Paulette Brown-Hinds

If the sounds of jazz music could somehow be translated into words, the result would be what literature calls a personal essay.

Throughout school we students had to write essays without being told what essay meant. Had they connected it to jazz music, I could relay it to freedom of playing a tune in such a new way that it could never be duplicated again. John Coltrain, particularly well-known for his renditions of: “My Favorite Things,” never played it the way it was originally written. Nor did he play it the same way twice (he recorded 27 versions). Whereas a classical music artist is considered great if he/she plays something exactly as the master originator would have done it, a jazz player is great by creating a musical experience to remember — using his/her own feelings and ideas to rearrange an existing tune.

Similarly, an essay is a short piece of writing on a single subject in which you can show your own thoughts and feelings to describe a tiny piece of the world. That tiny piece may be related to nature, to people, to things (e.g. money or possessions), or to your own self in to general or to your feeling, thinking, spiritual, or physical self in particular. The more you learn about the context of the content concepts within the essay, the sharper the “what it is” of your point comes into focus. For me, this mind sharpening process always starts with the source — “what caused it” or “who caused it” to come about? Although the word “essay” is modern, its concepts and practices are traced back to ancient Egypt whose literature served various purposes. For example, their moralistic essays — which spread to other lands and found its way into the Bible under the title “wisdom literature” — were very popular. They are generally known by the names of their supposed authors — e.g. The Instruction of Ptahhotep. Because of the Renaissance European practice of studying classical ancient Black African works, copying it, and claiming it as their own. It is not clear if this is how Montaigne, a cultured French gentleman, came up with using essays in 1571. He had retired so as to forget the cares of the busy world and to read and meditate in quiet. A desire to “preserve his memories” and “clarify his reflection” led him to write a little book entitled: “Essais” — meaning “Attempts” or “trials.” His title implied that he was merely touching upon “bits and pieces” of the subject at hand and not treating its entire “big picture” — a short comment rather than a complete and formal discussion that reflected his personality. Whereas the ancient Egyptian essays were more formal (organized and serious), Montaigne’s was more personal (causal and conversation).

Personal essays are based mainly on personal experience done in an intimate, informal, and graceful manner. It is almost as if you are feeling your way from the known into the unfamiliar (a place which would need a far wider involvement to exhaust) but by writing it to communicate an interesting point of your inner journey to the reader. Maybe you want to express what you think about laziness or lying. Formal Essays, though also short, are less free and easy in expression, more impersonal and informative, and deal with more “heavy” topics (e.g. love, truth, fear). For example: Happiness that can be bought — like “the American Value Dream” (fine car, house on the hill, yacht) — are not necessities. Greedily acquiring things makes you a slave to them and leaves you empty. Achieving “Universal Worth Dreams” of great and beautiful creations that give real human satisfaction from hard work. Their achievements give fulfillment and a sense of freedom.

Joseph A. Bailey, II, M.D