Longreads Best of 2014: Essay Writing

We asked a few writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in specific categories. Here, the best in essay writing.

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Meaghan O’Connell
Freelance writer, “Birth Story” author, motherhood columnist at The Cut, who believes her best work is at The Billfold.

The Empathy Exams (Leslie Jamison, The Believer)

I did not know who Leslie Jamison was before I read her essay “Empathy Exams” late one night at the pie shop that I use as an office when the library is closed. I was hungry, and it was dark out, and I was very pregnant and needed to get home. But I stayed in that uncomfortable chair and read it the whole way through, bursting with excitement. I G-chatted friends in all caps asking them if they’d read it. I Googled her, saw she had a book coming out, and floated home feeling like, “Yes, let’s do this. Let’s write some fucking personal essays, people!” I think Jamison, especially here, convinced or re-convinced a lot of people of the possibilities and the value of writing in the first person. Of course I think it’s horse shit that it takes a white lady with a veneer of intellectualism to make it okay, but I’ll take it where I can get it. Jamison, for her part, rises to the occasion. She certainly reminded me to hang onto the art of the thing, all the while going deeper, letting the problem of whatever you’re trying to do take up its own space.

How Much My Novel Cost Me (Emily Gould, Medium)

Emily Gould’s epic essay on Medium, “How Much My Novel Cost Me,” made me want her to write a book about the process of writing a book (or just write another book about anything—I’ll read it). No one tells the truth about money, about ambition and desire and the attendant disappointment like Gould does. Critics love to evoke her “gimlet eye,” which is too restrained a phrase for my taste—too abstract. Emily does not like flowery language. Emily DGAF. Her DGAF-ness challenges us all to be better, to look critically at what parts of us are operating just below the surface. You have to really be ready to read stuff from her, because you know there will be a few lies you’ve been telling yourself that you’ll have to let go of after reading whatever it is she’s aimed her gimlet eye / razor tongue / raised brow / man-eating heart on this time. Gird your delusions, various parts of Emily’s face are coming for you.

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Rachael Maddux
Writer and editor living in Decatur, Georgia.

Poor Teeth (Sarah Smarsh, Aeon)

When it comes to narrowing down end-of-the-year favorites, increasingly the only criteria that makes sense to me is, “How profoundly did this change the way I thought about its subject?” And reading this essay on class and poverty and dental care felt like following Sarah Smarsh around as she flipped on light switch after light switch, illuminating not only dark rooms I’d never thought to enter before, but also spaces I thought I knew well but which turned out to be all shadowed corners. It works so well, I think, because Smarsh seems to have sensed that this couldn’t just be a personal essay or a reported story or a piece of pop-culture criticism—to talk about Pennsatucky’s teeth is to talk about her grandmother’s teeth is to talk about her own teeth is to talk about America itself. 

‘It’s Silly to Be Frightened of Being Dead’ (Diana Athill, The Guardian)

Diana Athill is 96 and has written so much in her life, but this was the first I’ve read of any of it—and while that now feels like a grave mistake, this essay does seem like an oddly ideal starting point. It’s a miniature memoir of her mortality, from her childhood spent in the long shadow of the mourning-obsessed Victorians (“my mother never went to a funeral if she could help it … and my father vanished from the room if death was mentioned”), through her own brushes with death as a young and less-young adult, and on into the present, when the fickle pendulum of death-acceptance seems to be swinging back towards some saner middle ground. Grappling with death seems to have been a major project of Athill’s life—not one of those things that dawned on her in middle-age after however many decades of careless existence—which is what makes this such a gift for anyone who also first found themselves mucking around in the strangeness of human impermanence when they were very small.

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Belle Boggs
Fiction writer and essayist and visiting writer at North Carolina State University.

The Art of Arrival (Rebecca Solnit, Orion)

First published in Orion, this essay about friendship, environmental activism, and journeys has all the pleasures that make Rebecca Solnit a favorite: a landscape you want to inhabit; a demand you pay attention to what is disappearing and vulnerable; elegant, wise sentence progressions that reward rereading, like this one: “In a way, everything is traveling: the planet revolving daily, orbiting the sun annually, the blood traveling within our veins, the ideas traveling within our minds. Maybe being still is how you turn your attention from the logistics of your own trajectory to the passage of all the other beings and their shadows. To arrive, then, is not about immobility but something else, perhaps confidence, clarity, satisfaction, attention.” “The Art of Arrival” is also as tender a portrait as I read all year, both of Solnit’s tough, selfless, welcoming friend, Jo Anne Garrett, but also of Solnit herself, someone trying to find her way back to the best kind of journeys.

52 Blue (Leslie Jamison, Slate)

Everyone who loves essays is talking about Leslie Jamison’s brilliant The Empathy Exams, published this year by Graywolf Press. I trust that someone else will choose the powerful title essay, also featured on Longreads this year, as a favorite. But I like teasers, too, and reading about the way we try to inhabit the minds of animals, so I’ll pick this Atavist single, excerpted in Slate, which introduces you to the human obsession with a blue whale singing at a frequency beyond communication with his species. Of course once you sample the excerpt you’ll need to read the whole essay—a nineteen-part story as riveting as a good novel.

My Vassar College ID Makes Everything Okay (Kiese Laymon, Gawker)

Everything is far from okay, as this devastating, intimate essay about the impact of white racial supremacy makes clear. Had Laymon described only his own experience as a professor at an elite Northeastern college—of racial profiling by white cops, ignorant stereotyping by white students, open hostility from white professors—the essay would be gripping and infuriating. What makes the essay luminous is the way Laymon expands the scope of his critique to include a crescendo of moments experienced by his own minority students that will probably, terribly, never leave them: moments of fear, violence, and willful, consequential misunderstanding. “We are not OK. We are not OK,” Laymon writes, in a style that wavers between a lonely interior dialogue and incisive, withering commentary. But, he suggests, “We are so much better than the sick part of our nation that murders an unarmed black boy like a rabid dog, before prosecuting him for being a nigger.” Better, too, he says, than the “innocent” racism practiced at places like Vassar. This is essential reading.

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Longreads Editor’s Picks (Mark Armstrong)

Dear Kate (Nancy Comiskey, Indianapolis Monthly)

This essay by Nancy Comiskey about losing her daughter ran in the November issue of Indianapolis Monthly, and it just gutted me. It’s not just because I’m a parent, but because I also saw myself in the awkward reactions from Comiskey’s friends when they struggled with how to react to her grief and anger and desire to talk about her daughter—to defiantly not just be “over it.” You lose good friends who don’t know how to react, you gain some friends you never expected. You yearn. She describes this moment with her husband:

On his third birthday without Kate, Steve and I were standing in our kitchen, crying, when he choked out these words: “It’s not that I want her back. It’s not that I need her back. It’s that I have to have her back.”

Comiskey bravely and honestly walks us through these emotions, and we get to know Kate along the way. It is certainly the most moving piece of writing I read all year, and I am thankful to her for sharing this story.

The Case for Reparations (Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic)

This is where Ta-Nehisi Coates puts all the pieces together. An incredible history of slavery in America, in all its forms, and a stirring call for “a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal”:

We must imagine a new country. Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. The recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie. Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans.

After 2014, it is hard to not see how overdue we are for such a spiritual renewal.