We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the
first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there
were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this
theme by the narrowness of my experience. Moreover, I, on my side, require of
every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and
not merely what he has heard of other men's lives; some such account as he
would send to his kindred from a distant land; for if he has lived sincerely,
it must have been in a distant land to me.
~Henry David Thoreau, Walden
It is nigh about impossible to write any sort of convincing essay about something you know little about, which is the main reason why so few of us read essays for pleasure--we sense the fraud and deceit of the writer's argument, and so we turn away from the writing piece like we would a piece of cheese gone bad. Still, as teachers, we fire away on the front against an overwhelming army, thinking we can win a battle that is lost from the start; we expect you to know, and if you don't know, we want you to figure out a way to make it sound like you know. This goes on from middle school through college--and then you graduate, and ninety percent of you will never write a true essay again (thank God for the ten percent) because you never will have written a true essay from the start. To write a true essay you must begin from the ground you know well. Thoreau knew this and admonished every would be writer to start from this unflinching ground of oneself: “Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men's lives.” [Economy: Walden] This is the spirit you must embrace in this essay when you explore this question: “What did the first chapter of Walden offer you, and what did you take away?”
Sometimes it is best to start with what you don't know, and since you are writing about Thoreau at a fairly young age, you probably don't know enough about his tome of writings to overly praise or condemn him; you probably don't get all the complexities and nuances of his arguments in what you have read, so if you decide to attempt a strict literary analysis, you run the risk of sounding uniformed at best and arrogant at worst—but don’t let this dissuade you from writing about Thoreau! This doesn’t mean you have not had a profound and transformative literary experience; it does not mean that your thoughts, insights, and opinions are not as valid as those of the most seasoned critic. It simply means that a narrative essay—since its genesis is in the undeniable validity of you—is probably your best approach to writing about your experience reading and reflecting on the first chapter of Walden—that maddening treasure trove of pithy wisdom and parables simply called, “Economy—“
Use your journal as an extension of your head and heart and soul. Thoreau kept a daily journal—thousands upon thousands of pages—which was filled with detailed observations on the world around him and piercing reflections on the world within him that helped him see—from the vantage point of distance—the world as it really was (and in most ways still is). Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond was not a place for Thoreau to escape society, but more of a “place” for him to see and report on society with all of its frauds, hypocrisies, and glories in full and unhindered view. Thoreau knew, as Buddha said (Thoreau was well-versed in the literature and traditions of the east) that “a muddy puddle only clears if left alone.” It is in this way that you need to reflect on what you’ve read and taken away from a first reading of “Economy.” You need to step away and fill your own journal (and many of you already have) with your thoughts on your initial impressions of Thoreau, and, more specifically, “Economy.” A wise person will step away and think. Only a fool would run away.
Wisdom is not in knowing an answer; wisdom is in knowing and balancing the answers. If you really want the glory of insight, then you must tackle great literature humbly. Walden does not yield its secrets easily, and so it is important that you approach this essay as you would a bird in a bush—slowly, quietly, and with a determined focus. Be confident in your thoughts, for a good question is often better than a good answer. Your readers will embrace your odyssey of discovery; they will be drawn to your search for meaning and method in Walden. Retrace your first tentative steps. Go back to your text and look at again at your scribbles and highlights and underlines. These are the cairns you leave behind as you move ahead in your journey. Something caught your eye; dig deeper than you did on your first read. Question your initial assumptions and opinions and weigh the possibilities of truth. Write down your thoughts, for it is only through words that our thoughts are made real. Stare at the blank page until drops of blood form on your forehead!
A writer reads the writer as much as the writing piece. Get to know “Economy” in the most real and in depth way you can. This is the best way to prepare for a “true” essay. Aside from your classmates, it will probably be hard to find someone to talk to in your circle of friends about Thoreau, and “Economy” in particular; however, the internet is full of people who have already shared their thoughts about Walden in some pretty insightful pieces of writing. Find them. Read what they have to say. Measure their words against your own words or your own thoughts. Throw the thoughts into the air and separate the wheat from the chaff—and then collect only the best grains you can find.
For homework, assuming you have read this far, prepare yourself for writing an essay. Prepare to fully explore a thought. “What did the first chapter of Walden offer you, and what did you take away?” Write a journal entry about what you are doing to prepare for writing this essay. We’ll see on Monday who is preparing and who is not. Don’t injure eternity.