Faye Rapoport DesPres

The Brave New World of Video Essays

If you’re following this online chronicle of a semester’s Creative Nonfiction Writing Workshop, you know that last week guest blogger Michael Steinberg wrote about “The Role(s) of Memory and Imagination in Literary Memoir.”

“And now,” to quote the old favorite, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, “for something completely different.”

Screen Shot 2014-10-06 at 3.41.06 PMAs if it weren’t challenging enough to define “Creative Nonfiction,” fans of digital and visual arts are now joining the fray. In recent years, the “video essay” has become an accepted new sub-genre of the personal essay. The well-known literary journal TriQuarterly, for example, regularly features video essays in its online issues. TriQuarterly even has a film editor, John Bresland, who is a proponent of the video essay form. In fact, Bresland wrote “On the Origin of the Video Essay,” which is included in our textbook, The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of /on Creative Nonfiction.

So, what is a video essay? To be honest, the concept confused me at first. Like many writers, I am used to thinking of the essay as a format of expression developed solely through the written word. Once you add video, I wondered when I first contemplated video essays, aren’t you talking about a film?

The truth is, I’m attached to what I consider one of the most treasured aspects of the writing/reading experience: the use of the imagination to create images in our minds that are either described by (for the writer) or born of (for the reader) the written word. To me, that imaginative space that is fed by the writer and augmented by the reader is what writing is all about—and the idea that this space could be intruded upon through the insertion of pre-determined images disturbed me.

For example, the way I imagine one of my favorite literary heroines, Elizabeth Bennet from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, will never exactly match the way another reader imagines her. My personal image of her is what I bring to the reading process; this image merges my own perceptions and experiences with those set on the page by Jane Austen. Our ideas collide and play off of each other more than 200 years after Pride and Prejudice was first published. I, like many readers, guard that relationship with the writer closely.

But what happens when I see a film of Pride and Prejudice? Now I am experiencing someone else’s interpretation of Jane Austen’s story. Have you ever had that experience where you see a film adapted form a book and think, “That’s not how I imagined (s)he’d look?” That usually happens when I see an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Even when I enjoy a director’s “take” on the character, as in the BBC’s 1995 mini-series, I feel a bit bereft because the interpretation has replaced my own.

So – doesn’t the video essay take away a reader’s privilege by inserting its own images and soundtrack to accompany text?

Maybe – but it doesn’t have to.

After viewing a number of video essays (and my exposure is admittedly limited), I’ve observed that video essayists appear to be taking on the same challenge as personal essayists who write with text only – to draw meaning from the world and interpret it through a lens, or filter, of self-exploration. Video essays differ from topic-oriented documentary films, for example, because the writer isn’t exploring a subject outside the self; the writer is exploring some aspect of the self, the self’s experience, or how the self relates to the world. These essayists combine images with a scripted voiceover to prompt the imagination, much in the way a writer of pure text uses words. Rather than substituting for the images that would normally form in a reader’s mind, the images in a video essay, combined with the narration, challenge the viewer to comprehend something new – something, allegedly, that neither the script nor the images would communicate on their own.

Writers have taken different approaches to this relatively new form, and in our class we viewed several of the video essays published in TriQuarterly Issue 141. Our opinions of each piece differed, as they should. The contributions are varied and interesting.

If you’re interested, watch a few and see what you think. “History,” by Dinty Moore, a well-known essayist and writing teacher, is an example of what I would consider the closest marriage of the classic personal essay with images on video.

As I’ve said, the video essay is a new format for me, so I’m still exploring it and forming an opinion. I’m still admittedly partial to the lonely written word. However, there’s no doubt that some of the efforts I’ve viewed are highly creative, and a new generation of writers is coming up in a world that is inundated with video images. Meanwhile, the genre of creative nonfiction continues to evolve.

For some the jury is still out, and for others the jury went home long ago. Either way, the video essay is a new, interesting craft form to explore.

Next week our class is taking a break for the Columbus Day weekend. I’ll be meeting with students one-on-one to talk about the first drafts of the personal essays they’re writing for class. In two weeks, we’ll pick up in class (and on this blog) with another sub-genre of creative nonfiction: Personal Reportage.