These five kick ass essays will teach you how to become a better writer. I teach these essays often, and my students universally love them. In my workshops, we discuss why these essays are so memorable, and examine what we can learn from their techniques. Here, I’ll break down for you why these essays are so compelling and what you can learn from reading them. Although I give short excerpts here, all these essays can be read online, and I’ve linked to them. I encourage you to read the full essays.
1.Tough by Ann Pancake
This essay isn’t so much about going somewhere new, but reflecting upon the place where the author grew up, in rural West Virginia. She keeps circling back to that word—tough—to describe her experiences.
Her essay will teach you about balancing story and reflection. Pancake seamlessly weaves together her central story about her relationship with a boy named Jamie and her own reflections of that relationship and what it taught her. In many passages, she is pushing the story forward, bringing the reader into a scene through close description, and then interpreting that scene from her own point of view, and also reflecting upon that moment with the hindsight of time.
Here’s an excerpt where she balances all of these elements:
Jamie’s birthday was in March, and that year I was his girlfriend, I was invited to his party. At least I thought it was a party, until I got there and discovered I was the only guest. Not even Jamie’s brother, Nicky, who was only a year younger than us, showed up. Nobody came except me, Jamie, his grandma, whom he lived with, and his mom, who didn’t live there and had just come for the party. By this time in my life, a month after I turned twelve, I’d been in houses and trailers as destitute as any I’d ever enter again. Jamie’s grandma’s house seemed more or less average to me, although now I realize they were just scraping by. Like so many homes of the poor or almost poor, the house was kept dark and felt crowded and close, as though the occupants have denned up against threats outside. So when I look back now, over twenty-five years later, I see no distinct lines in the house, only blurs of soft dark furniture, and against those blurs, the pale angular form of Jamie, dashing, jumping, ripping open presents, so absolute in his happiness he was completely unconscious of it.
In the beginning of this paragraph, Pancake brings us into the scene of Jamie’s birthday party—the details of the party, such as who was there and the house itself, as well as her impressions of the place. She tells us what she thought then, when she was twelve, and what she knows now, after twenty-five years. Then she brings us back into the scene, describing Jamie actions, and then interpreting them, telling us he was unconscious of his happiness.
It is this deft blending of story details, interpretations, and reflections that makes this whole essay so rich and wise. We can learn from this whole essay about how to balance those important elements in our travel stories.
2. The New Mecca by George Saunders
This one is all about voice—a hyperbolic, humble, vulnerable, wacky voice. Saunders travels to Dubai and writes an uplifting essay about a place that is often maligned for lacking culture and sophistication. He goes into this trip and writing assignment with an open mind and heart. He doesn’t pretend to know a lot, or anything, about Dubai or the Arabian Gulf. The act of admitting this fact within the first paragraph of his essay is disarming. He gives us the sense that we will learn alongside him, and he will lavish his impressions upon us.
Here’s an excerpt of how he describes his stay at a hotel called the Madinat Jumeirah:
The Madinat Jumeirah is, near as I can figure, a superresort consisting of three, or possibly six, luxury sub-hotels and two, or maybe three, clusters of luxury villas, spread out over about forty acres, or for all I know it was twelve sub-hotels and nine luxury-villa clusters—I really couldn’t tell, so seamless and extravagant and confusing was all the luxury. The Madinat is themed to resemble an ancient Arabian village. But to say the Madinat is themed doesn’t begin to express the intensity and opulence and areal extent of the theming. The site is crisscrossed by 2.3 miles of fake creeks, trolled night and day by dozens of fake Arabian water taxis (abras) piloted by what I can only describe as fake Arabs because, though dressed like old-timey Arabs, they are actually young, smiling, sweet-hearted guys from Nepal or Kenya or the Philippines, who speak terrific English as they pilot the soundless electrical abras through this lush, created Arabia, looking for someone to take back to the lobby, or to the largest outdoor pool in the Middle East, or over to Trader Vic’s, which is also themed and looks something like a mysterious ancient Casbah inexplicably filled with beautiful contemporary people.
Saunders is able to get across so much humor here because he creates elaborately long sentences, filled with facts, exaggerated facts, and hyperbolic impressions. His writing here is also abundant with adjectives in order to convey some of the abundance that he’s experiencing. Reading it, we get the sense that few people would have such an overwhelmingly positive impression of such a place, and that fact is refreshing. Many of us might turn to cynicism. And while Saunders addresses the situation of foreign labor in Dubai later on in the essay, he does so from a place of openness rather than pessimism. That makes all the difference.
3. Clear-Eyed in Calcutta by Andrew McCarthy
As the title suggests, this essay is set in India. McCarthy opens with a description of blinking and missing the sacrifice of a goat at a ritual he intended to witness. He regrets missing this moment. Then he gives us a montage of his experiences in India thus far, coming round to an explanation for why he wanted to witness this sacrifice, and why he must return. This essay will teach you about making a powerful overall impression without zooming into a scene.
In this excerpt, McCarthy provides a summary, and sometimes that’s all you need.
But most memorably I walked amid crushing crowds—rarely with a tangible destination. Wholly, thrillingly anonymous, a singular cell pulsing through a giant throbbing organism, I was carried along for hours, relieved of individuality. Smells—cumin and excrement, frying grease, jasmine and human sweat—registered and dissipated without consequence. Images—perilously thin men squatting atop idle rickshaws, naked children peeing in the gutter, stunning young women—all unfurled as I was swept onward. Thoughts slipped past without relevance—my mind rested. Decisions were unnecessary. Life amid so many was cheap. And imperative, the sensation made even stronger at night, when the heat would soften and the dim, straining streetlamps left Calcutta’s darker corners to mystery while a gauzy mist hung in the air as people sought respite from over-crowded dwellings.
Although he doesn’t zoom into a scene, he does give us precise details of his experiences, the smells, the visual images, and the feeling of being among this massive crowd, so that we feel like we are there alongside him. He also goes against our typical impression of Calcutta, or any place that is so crowded. While we often think of crowded places as chaotic, McCarthy describes a peaceful experience. This flip away from the expected response is refreshing, and something to learn from.
4. Vietnam’s Bowl of Secrets by David Farley
In this essay, Farley visits a town called Hoi An and falls in love with its famous dish, called cao lau. He embarks on a quest to learn how it is made, which is a well-kept secret within the town.
This essay can teach you about how to write the story of a pursuit of a quest. Farley’s quest is clear and immediate. Like any good quest, there are obstacles in his way, making his final achievement of his quest all the more satisfying. Along the way, we learn more about this complex dish that can only be made in this small town in Vietnam, and globalization’s effect on Hoi An and its most famous dish.
Here’s Farley’s explanation of his quest:
I had tried cao lau for the first time a year earlier, when I visited Hoi An after eating my way around the rest of Vietnam. It was a revelation, or a series of them: the snap of crisp aromatic sprouts, basil, and coriander; the sublime unctuous quality of thinly sliced salty pork; the crunch of flat, square croutons (made from the same ingredients as the noodles); the silky, smoky broth, spiked with Chinese five-spice seasoning; and at the heart of the experience, the rice noodles, thick and chewy with a coarse texture on the outside and a slightly starchy taste. I’d never had a dish like cao lau in Vietnam. Its flavors and composition were completely unlike pho, the noodle dish most people associate with the country. I thought, this can’t be Vietnamese.
Farley describes precisely why and how he fell for this dish called cao lau. He separates all the elements that make it such a unique dish, and also focuses on the noodles, the main element of the dish that cause it to be a ‘revelation.’ Farley follows this up with a deep dive into cao lau’s origin, and his pursuit of learning the secret as to how its noodles are made.
5. The Queimada by Michele Morano
This essay is about a get-together among new friends in Oviedo, Spain. American teacher Morano has moved there for a year, and zooms in on this one night where her new friends create a ritual around serving Queimada, a liquor from Galicia. She describes what this night means to her, already filled with nostalgia for her time in this place.
Throughout the essay, Morano gives us a lesson in using close, precise details. long rhythmic sentences, and repetition. Here’s an example:
Now, as I settle into the fullness, I think it is for this that I travel, for this that I sold all my belongings and took off for a place I didn’t know. These moments, walking through a park eating chestnuts, sitting at this table where by now no one is speaking, are why I have liked myself in Spain more than I have ever liked myself before. I am less encumbered here, more receptive to experience. And more appreciative of the texture of daily life.
Here she interprets the meaning of travel for her. But she also pulls in specific details, such as walking ‘through a park eating chestnuts’, or ‘sitting at this table where by now no one is speaking.’ She pulls us into and out of the moment where she is gathered with her friends, and into her thoughts and interpretations of this evening. The entire essay is filled with such long, detailed sentences. Within the essay, notice how Morano chooses specific images and impressions from the gathering that night, as well as other experiences in Spain that tie into this night.