Bryan VanDyke in The Millions:
Some years ago, I attended a conference featuring boldface names and their thoughts on the topic of the essay as art. At 39, I’d written three failed novels, and essays felt like the last form left to me. I was desperate for tips, tricks, and whatever writerly chum they throw to audiences at events like these.
“An essay,” said Philip Lopate on the day of the conference, “is an invitation to think alongside me.”
I jotted his words in a Moleskine notebook and have been turning them over in my head and on the page ever since. The best essays are trips to terra nova, yes; but at heart, all essays depend on a simple sense of camaraderie. From the first word to the last, the writer of an essay is a guide, even if the piece never gets out of first gear. Each essay is a fellowship.
By Lopate’s definition, there’s no better essayist than Annie Dillard. Her thoughts go places no one else can see. Following in her path, you can sip the cold fire of eternity, cheat death in a stunt plane, or trace God’s name in sand, salt, or cloud. She didn’t invent the essay. Her most famous work isn’t classified as an essay. But in the cosmos of essayists, there’s Annie Dillard, and there’s everyone else.