Sontag on the Essay

This semester I am taking a creative nonfiction writing class. I don't need the credits, but I had some extra time, and I wanted to take a class that was focused on creative writing (rather than academic writing). Something that perpetually surprises me is how bland HCI writing can be. Many papers, particularly those in conferences, follow a formula and I have found it difficult to adapt to this style of writing. Every field has its own idiosyncrasies when it comes to writing style, but lately I have really missed reading personal essays--something that never appears in the field of informatics. The last really great collection of essays I read was Madness, Rack, and Honey, by Mary Ruefle. And that was nearly a year ago! Very excited that this class will help me to remedy this! 

I began some of the course reading last night, and ran across Susan Sontag's 1992 introduction to The Best American Essays. She writes, "An essay is not an article, not a meditation, not a book review, not a memoir, not a disquisition, not a diatribe, not a shaggy dog story, not a monologue, not a travel narrative, not a suite of aphorisms, not an elegy, not a piece of reportage-- No, an essay can be any several of the above." This may be what is so exciting about the essay form--it can be anything and everything. It is a form that doesn't feel constrained by form in the way poetry or fiction (and certainly academic) writing can be. 

Sontag also writes, "Ideas about literature--unlike ideas about say love--almost never arise except in response to other people's ideas. They are reactive ideas. I say this because it's my impression that you--or most people, or many people--are saying that. Ideas give permission. And I want to give my permission, by what I write, to a different feeling or evaluation or practice. This is, preeminently, the essayists' stance. I say this when you are saying that not just because writers are professional adversaries; not just to redress the inevitable imbalance or one-sidedness of any activity that has the character of an institution (and writing is an institution); but because the practice--I also mean the nature--of literature is rooted in inherently contradictory aspiration. A truth about literature is one whose opposite is also true."

I believe this class will be the highlight of my semester, and I hope that I can push creative writing into the field of HCI in a more concrete way. I truly believe that designers should be personally invested in their work, and should be willing to write about their work in a way that is accessible to non-designers and the general public. An ideal way to do this is through the personal essay. From time to time, I see personal essays written by designers and engineers pop up on Medium. I hope that this becomes standard practice in order to promote reflection and ideation, but also to share ideas and make the design process more transparent to those outside the field. I hope, too, that this kind of writing can make its way into the academy, and well beyond the English Department.