Video Essay

By Jacob Cutler

Philip Lopate once said that the essay is “a search to find out what one thinks about something,” that an essayist is simply working out “some mental knot.”[1] I don’t know if I’ve come across a better definition for the genre and it was about two years ago that I started to think about working through that process in a medium other than the printed page. While there certainly exist many films or videos that are “essayistic,” I had never seen anyone approach the personal essay as film in any sort of formal or acknowledged way. And I thought it was time someone tried.

With the help of some very talented people I created a video essay—The Summer We Stole from the Cookie Jar—and then began sharing my idea. And in the fall of 2011 I found someone that could help me do something with it.

Patrick Madden (a magnificent essayist who has taught me most of what I know about the form) listened to what I had to say, liked the idea, provided many of his own, and has been fundamental in getting our little project to where it is now. Madden was also the one that pointed me to the work of John Bresland at Northwestern University who, as it turns out, has been working on this hybrid genre for some time now. I can’t say I was surprised and, although I admit that I had liked the idea of being some sort of pioneer, it is certainly a good thing that someone else had already made so much progress in the development of a young genre that seems ready to explode.

It will be the work of future video essayists that will eventually help us understand what exactly the video essay is, but I think Lopate’s definition of the written essay is a good place to start. Bresland agrees: “In its intent the video essay is no different from its print counterpart, which for thousands of years has been a means for writers to confront hard questions on the page. The essayist pushes toward some insight or some truth. That insight, that truth, tends to be hard won, if at all, for the essay tends to ask more than it answers. That asking—whether inscribed in ancient mud, printed on paper, or streamed thirty frames per second—is central to the essay, is the essay.”[2]

I believe that mental process is what makes the essay so compelling. As writers wind down some mental path we, as readers, can’t help but follow along. And by following we are taken to places we may never have experienced otherwise. I also believe that we will see more and more writers embark on these searches, ask these questions, and attempt to untie these mental knots on screen because the video essay seems capable of accomplishing something not found with text alone—an extra emotional sway produced through word and sight and sound.

[1] Lopate. “In Search of the Centaur: The Essay Film,” Threepenny Review.

[2] Bresland. “On the Origin of the Video Essay,” Blackbird.


A Story About Snow and People

The Summer We Stole from the Cookie Jar


by Lauren Bledsoe

Wind unhinged
and wrecked by light,
you are my own lion:
finely veined marble,
bones swung into a chest
of tree bark and plums,
the slightest tinge
of cinnamon, an amber mane
of fire-spun hair, I am
laced in your air, and
I am leashed between
your teeth, and I am
whistling your name
to each plant I pass,
your name: an insect name,
a storm name, a name
scrawled on fenceposts
and birdcages, a name
whispered in sleep
and screamed in dreams,
I am naming your fingers
at dusk and your footsteps
at dawn, names for the
sound of you: the silence
just-before the hiss of rice
poured into pan, I name
your taste and you name
mine: lemon meringue,
pomegranate, peppers split
across the tongue,
wet grass, tobacco, charcoal, sun.


The Aptitude Test

by Megan McManama

Multiple Choice Section (please circle correct answer)

1. Person N seems somewhat proficient in kissing; as this is your first kiss, you find yourself unsure of how to breathe. You
a. Snort as you try to get air through your nostrils.
b. Try breathing through your eye sockets.
c. Suck the air out of Person N’s lungs.
d. Go home.

2. Person S screams at you, “I wish you had never been born!” You
a. Throw a beany baby in Person S’s general direction because aim has never been a gift of yours.
b. Kick Person S in the groin.
c. Forgive Person S after 12 years.
d. Take a bath; wait for the day when you can move out of home.

3. Person T, whispers, “I love you.” You
a. Kick Person T in the groin and run away.
b. Stare at your feet, awkwardly. Let your eyes glide along the green grass; wish you were a blade of grass.
c. Tell Person T, “I love you too.”
d. Wake up.

4. Passing the campus’ indoor track, you pick up the phone to hear your mother tell you she has cancer. You
a. Decide that this is the end, run into the oncoming traffic of sprinters.
b. Stare at the puke green carpet blanketing the concrete floors; wish you were part of the puke green carpet.
c. Move home.
d. Call Person S, sit in silence together over the news, and decide to forgive Person S.
e. Snort.
f. Call Person T and tell them you love them.

5. Walking home alone, crying, you try praying because
a. You were saddened that you gave up, and took a kick to the eye, and a few steps on the kidney by some sprinters.
b. You cannot go home.
c. You never told Person T that you loved them.
d. Your mom has cancer.

True or False (please circle correct answer)

6. True or False. You will never be a blade of grass.

7. True or False. The only time you kicked someone in the groin it was an accident during a game of capture the flag; he was 12.

8. True or False. It is too late to tell Person T that you love them.

9. True or False. You want to go home.

10. True or False. To inspire is derived from the Latin word Inspiritus. It means that God will breathe into your nostrils.



by Katie Pike

The first shower after you’ve chopped off your hair–
Like missing a          in a dark flight of stairs
Or pushing up          you no longer wear–
Your sliding hands drop when the          isn’t there.

Even contacts suck          from always-low stores
The stumble sends          on a long tour
And years that were          now lie dead on the floor.
step glasses hair coolness dignity yours


Notions of Emptiness

by Lauren Bledsoe

In this cage of bone a stranger strikes the sky.
A dress touches the floor. Everywhere the river.
Everywhere the people are turning into trees.
In this country mirrors dissolve like prayers, a pair of birds.
Dusty roads without windows. Someone asks you for the light
you haven’t had in years. There is nothing left but water:
the same rain, all this air. A stranger approaches.
And when you open yourself: nothing.
But when you’re broken open:
silence clearer than the human voice.



by Sophie Lefens

I remember now,
how to speak to mornings
how to step out of sleep
and break in my skin

I peel back glass and swallow light
I crack three eggs and call it praise


Contemplating a Mandelbrot Set

by Melissa Morgan

Where does the human mind go?
In places that are not places
That are spaces within spaces.
Infinite depths of things that we know
Infinite thoughts that we try to show
Of places that are not places
Inside spaces within spaces
That is where the human mind goes.


Only in America Would This Make Any Sense

by Dallin Law

the apartment building
sheets billow from each window
exhaled in staggered unison

one thousand bitternesses
become residue
clinging to the underneath parts

machines thus disfigured
camouflaged as people

I’m writing you to tell you–
asymptomatic asymptote makes contact
a special connection


Since Now God Hath Impald Us

by Kylan Rice

1             (The church-porch)
By virtue of the isolating canopy the light not readily
The light in the grouping the straining out of enough
And out of enough I come seldom either heard or seen
And in the pasture lost and in the light impaled
                (Beyond the pale a surging of what
                Might be flags or am I only drawn to the edge

2             (Part of the main)
At a lower height as vector or as isolated habitat
Lapping over isotope and alder leaf or over-
Lapping forfeit and creation at creation’s
Heart a lake divided from a lake and staved
                Therefore gently move across me
                It is called morning’s light and fettering

3              (Perirrhanterium)
No gesture is alone nor seldom is enough nor is
Our fall forgathered our cataract through glass
And slipped from one hand to the next a tax
And crashed from one lip to the next a litany
                Therein I did not dare to intervene
                Nor freely swim the purling of the stream

4              (Sheepfold)
To clarify to study sameness sweetness to let my mind
Be bent still appalled by balsam and balmed by light
Having circled back through pasturage and turned
By bell and book to vector where field has fell to fold
                There I render and there I’m wrought
                And there I’m folded back and stopped



by Craig Arnold

Windflower     wildflower     the grass wears you in its hair
tatter of leaf and purple star of petal
How do you keep your balance in the dirt     you are so frail
grubbed up in the gardener’s palm you wilt
thing of an hour     but still the fields fill with your sisters
shivering with the wind in their thin skirts
Maybe you sprang from a god’s blood or a murdered lover
But I will say that the pale maiden spilled you
out of her lap     when she turned her face from the sun’s warmth
and chose the shadows     but buried still you remember
these seasons of gray rain     this world blurred by tears
are not forever      soon it will all be over
Soon she will come back        scattering flowers before her
Soon you will raise your head from the grass to praise her
Oh let the sky break and the bud open      oh let her bring
all things to peace     to the cold blue peace of spring