The University of Iowa

An Enormous Eye: Writing the Contemplative Essay

Weekend June 20 to June 21 2020

According to art critic Herbert Read, “True art persists as an object of contemplation.” One of the reasons it has this capacity to hold our attention—like the note of a tuning fork after it has been struck—is that it has been created out of contemplation. The contemplative essay, also called the reflective essay, is characterized by an intense and concentrated focus. The author tends to circle a subject, spiraling away and dropping back to describe it from all angles and to plumb it for further meaning. Contemplative essays may seem almost “spiritual” as a result, since they are written out of extreme awareness. They may explore an explicitly religious experience or turn toward nature. They may circle some quite-quirky subjects: a dying moth, a surgeon’s knife, a horse rider in a circus. We will read from a range of essays, looking for contemplative techniques and searching for our own possible “objects of contemplation.” Writers of all levels are welcome. Our aim is to generate new material that can be workshopped during our time together.


In this workshop, we will generate new writing through exercises and assignments; provide feedback on writing you produce in our weekend.