Young’uns getting ready to go off to college are woeing and alasing because the SAT entrance exam has been amended to require the composition of an essay. You have to write the bastard from scratch at the start of the nearly 4-hour test, and they give you only 25 minutes to complete it.
An outrage, yes. And I would add, an impossibility. Nobody can write an essay in 25 minutes. If you’re hectic about it, if you really scurry, you might be able to amass a pile of verbiage in 25 minutes, but it wouldn’t be something you could call an essay and keep a straight face. Jack Kerouac might have produced whole chapters of “On the Road” in 25 minutes, and Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn are among the songwriters who claimed to have brought forth bona fide C&W classics in half that amount of time, but those people are prodigies; they inhabit an airy realm with the cuckoo in which the rules of ordinary reality do not apply.
The word “essay” means an attempt — an attempt to bring forth an idea out of the chaos of language and expound on it, make an argument for it, the way God did with his essay called Creation. The essayist can only hope that his argument is as coherent and compelling, but even God needed more than 25 minutes. He would’ve needed 25 minutes just for the giraffe.
Twenty-five minutes will pass without even much of an accumulation of debris. The false starts that don’t even make sense; the sentence fragments discarded for a variety of reasons ranging from unacceptable inelegance to sheer incomprehensibility; the figures of speech that don’t really figure, and turns of phrase that don’t turn anyway but rancid; the images that are confused or inapt or merely laughable; the danglers so grotesque that they might have ventured up out of a car wreck; the pointless anecdotes; the action verbs that turned out to inhabit iron lungs; the modifiers that commit assault and battery on the modified; the awkward interjections; the slovenly punctuation; what you thought at the time were near misses that on reflection and in retrospect were anywhere from 90 to 180 degrees wide of the mark; the misspellings that were intended to be temporary fixable approximations but that afterward you can even figure out the reference; the petty libels; the purple flights; the cliches; the brutish stabs at humor or irony; the examples of bad taste that simply go beyond the pale; the adverbs out the wazoo; the puerile hyperbole; more of the cliches; the beverage spills — all of this stuff is still in the gestational state in that first 25 minutes. Those sorry crimes haven’t yet been committed. You are still staring blankly at the tabula rasa. The muse hasn’t yet answered your page.
More than likely, you’ll lose most of that 25 minutes to a distraction: for example, trying to think of the name of the tune that came into your head unbidden and that not only won’t go away but swells in volume and urgency. Or you’ll find yourself unaccountably thinking about having been overcharged 27 cents for a sausage biscuit at Hardee’s one morning last November. And then wondering why that swindle had to come back to mind now, of all times. And why it lingers, and loiters. And taunts.
Bickering with that forgotten Hardee’s drive-through cashier will use up 25 minutes easy. You’re lucky if it doesn’t use up 25 hours. Such hauntings have turned people into serial killers. And when the distraction does finally move on, its place is almost sure to be taken by one on the order of why your stomach is growling like that.
When the first page of this miserable, stupid, son-of-a-bitch of an essay does finally emerge, long after 25 minutes have elapsed, don’t be surprised if the page is bespotted with moisture stains. The moisture may be blood, or sweat, or tears. A noted newspaper columnist once opined that essay writing is easy: you just get up in the morning, confront the typewriter, and open a vein. This isn’t to say that you can’t derive any satisfaction from the ordeal, only that you can’t derive any if the ordeal doesn’t last longer than 25 minutes.
Oh yes, I speak from experience here. Writing a trashy variety of the essay is how I’ve kept the brood in groceries since the year 1965. I long ago lost count, but there have been more of them than there have been years since the Crucifixion, and not a single one was composed in 25 minutes or less. Not a single one was composed in an hour and 25 minutes, or in two hours and 25 minutes. One or two might have emerged from the carnage in only half a day, but those almost certainly wouldn’t have been among the keepers. They would have been the ones with the careless mistakes (I once got a brain glitch that killed off Justice William O. Douglas three times before his actual passing), or the shabbily constructed ones, or the derivative ones, or the ones that rhymed or tried to.
If you give an essay enough time, you can cure it of most major defects by taking things out of it and taking things back. Remedial excision can work wonders, but not in half an hour.