My recent off-the-blog writing focus has been on essays – one in particular that I just finished up and submitted to two creative non-fiction contests. In an effort to improve my essay skills, I have been reading a great number of essays as I write, and am at the moment, in the middle of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a classic collection of essays by Joan Didion. I am really enjoying her writing, and below is an example of what makes it great, and what makes the essay such a perfect vehicle for the expression of personal opinion in a way that is unique, yet relatable by wider audiences.
In a profile of Michael Laski, at 26 years old, the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party U.S.A. (Marxist-Leninist), Didion describes a man on the edge of society, one that does not really fit in, even within the community and movement he so passionately dedicates his every effort towards. She follows with her reaction to this man who accomplishes little of consequence in attempting to further his ideals.
“As it happens I am comfortable with the Michael Laskis of this world, with those who live outside rather than in, those in whom the sense of dread is so acute that they turn to extreme and doomed commitments; I know something about dread myself, and appreciate the elaborate systems with which some people manage to fill the void, appreciate all the opiates of the people, whether they are as accessible as alcohol and heroin and promiscuity or as hard to come by as faith in God or History.”
This essay was written in 1967, a time when politically, there would have been much more hubbub about Communism than we are likely to see again. The focus of the piece has little to do with Communism, but it is the cleverness with which Didion focuses on the nature of Michael Laski, connecting him to any number of individuals in the world that pursue extremes as a means to “fill the void” that makes the essay work. She is able to generalize from a very specific starting point, and the examples she chooses to illustrate “the opiates of the people,” provoke a wholly separate exercise in thought, which has significant depth in its own right.