For those already writing about science, an essay can be a way of stepping into an unfamiliar field, whether it’s fluid dynamics or immunology, and exploring the most personally compelling facets.
It’s not normally light reading, but it pulls the reader along with a growing understanding of Quammen’s predicament.
It’s sometimes shocking to suddenly have the freedom to insert yourself into an essay, particularly when you’re used to keeping yourself out of the story in traditional news pieces.
What’s also evident in this essay is the writer’s subtle transformation.
Boggs contemplates some counterpoints—from a female gorilla on birth control pills to Virginia Woolf, who wrote on one occasion that the thrill of writing well surpassed her longtime desire for children—near the essay’s end.
Without change, she says, an essay is just something that happened, a topic instead of a story.
Change can come through earth-shattering revelation—or, as Boggs shows, through quiet, even tentative steps.
Then in the final graphs, Boggs notes that the cicadas have stopped singing.
“The silence is startling at first—I step outside each morning expecting to hear that seashell sound—but it’s also a relief. Transformation is critical to the success of a personal essay, says Evelyn Strauss, a writer and editor who teaches the UCSC essay course in alternating years.
An editor proposed a book about the history of the telescope; when he balked, she suggested he imagine the project as a long essay. I could focus where it was interesting to me,” he says.
Because essays seem quieter to me than full-throttle features, I sometimes think that I need to grab a reader’s interest by starting smack in the middle of action.