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My ideas are constantly changing as I learn. Sometimes they even change midway through writing a post.

Sunday, August 21

Writing - The Age of Essays


To understand what a real essay is, we have to reach back into history again, though this time not so far. To Michel de Montaigne, who in 1580 published a book of what he called "essais." He was doing something quite different from what lawyers do, and the difference is embodied in the name. Essayer is the French verb meaning "to try" and an essai is an attempt. An essay is something you write to try to figure something out.

Figure out what? You don't know yet. And so you can't begin with a thesis, because you don't have one, and may never have one. An essay doesn't begin with a statement, but with a question. In a real essay, you don't take a position and defend it. You notice a door that's ajar, and you open it and walk in to see what's inside.


I have all sorts of ideas for essays, but I can't seem to do anything with them. I think the problem is that someone suggested I attempt some more "polished" posts. I tried to write one but it broke my train of thought I tried to write several more, but found myself stuck again.

I quickly realized that, as of yet, I simply can't write with the end in mind because I don't know what the end is yet. What happens is I quickly realize I don't agree with anything I think and write nothing. However, I suppose I could pull out an old piece, dust it off, and see if I can improve it. I've never been able to pick up a previous bit of writing and continue very well. It's usually boring and my mind has changed too much to even know how to start.

I'd like to write some better pieces. I don't quite know how to do it yet while still enjoying it. Maybe it's a matter of asking myself the right questions. Perhaps the fellow's questions in this essay would be of particular use:

When I give a draft of an essay to friends, there are two things I want to know: which parts bore them, and which seem unconvincing. The boring bits can usually be fixed by cutting. But I don't try to fix the unconvincing bits by arguing more cleverly. I need to talk the matter over.

Well, if I'm trying to write for a very large audience, I won't be able to talk it over with them individually, but since I don't have many readers, I could do that. I'm also curious to find out my own answers to that. Which parts are boring? Which parts are unconvincing?

There's some good stuff further down in the essay on essays. It's about surprise. It reminds me a bit of an explanation I once heard about humor - that it's a combination of the commonly understood/agreed upon with an element of surprise.

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