Lopate’s work reminds me of those days when I just came to the U.S. I was taking a required course for doctoral students at my department. Every week we had to write a “reflective essay”. At the end of that semester we had to write a “problem paper” as the final. I have to admit that I was so confused at that time. I was not sure about what a “reflective essay” meant so I did not know what I was supposed to write. Even now I may say I have written a lot of “papers” but I’m not sure how many of them are “essays”. Basically, the instructor told us, “A reflective essay is your thoughts about the class readings”. Well, still very vague. Perhaps all our writings may “reflect” something about your own thoughts.

But I feel Lopate’s work gives me some clearer ideas (please correct me if I’m still wrong). He points out the difference between “a reflective, self-conscious style and an essayistic one” (p. 280): While an essay must reflect or mediate, not all meditative sensibilities are essayistic” (p. 280). When I read this, I was curious: So, what types of meditative sensibilities are essayistic?

Using his own words, “an essay is a search to find out what one thinks about something”. I notice the term “a search”. Generally, I feel other genres of writings/papers, especially scholarly papers, are “results/outcomes” of what one thinks about something, not the process of “search” before that. In other words, it seems an essay focuses on the ongoing process in which you develop your (immature? Incomplete?) thoughts, not the mature, sophisticate ones as published in a traditional social science papers (e.g., conclusions? Recommendations?)

Moreover, it is necessary to show the changes of thoughts in an essay: “An essayist who produces magisterial and smoothly ordered arguments but is unable to surprise himself in the process of writing will end up boring us” (p. 282). For example, when we write other genres of papers, the paper as the final outcome may usually be different from the original outline: There may be some “emergent” changes in our thoughts which can “surprise” ourselves. However, this paper needs to be consistent, so we may not exhibit this process of “changing thoughts” but the outcome of “changing thoughts” in the paper. Similarly, the purpose of most other films is to “tell a complete and consistent story”, not “how I came out this story”. But an essay film probably is more focused on the latter to show the “mental processes of contradiction and digression”.This is why a “paper” is not an “essay”, a “completed” film is not an “essay film”. In one word, an essay is “not necessarily finding “solutions”, but enacting the struggle for truth in full view” (p. 282)—it is a continual process of asking of questions.