Sydney M. Williams
Essays from Essex
“An Essay on Writing Essays”
May 18, 2016
“Nothing is so firmly believed as that which we least know.”
Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)
A blank Word document stares out from the computer screen. An individual sits before it – the essayist at work? Not really. No one sits down to write without some idea – perhaps muddled – of what they want to say. A working title is affixed, along with a date that often proves to be optimistic, and a rubric is sometimes added. The latter adds wit and helps focus wandering minds. The concept, at this early stage, assumes the shape of a globule of mercury or a tube of Silly Putty. Sculpting tangled ideas into something concise and readable requires choosing the right words, having them mean what they were meant to mean. Essayists don’t have the latitude of Humpty Dumpty. In Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll has Mr. Dumpty say to Alice, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
We writers of essays don’t want to leave readers puzzled like Alice, so we must be clear in what we write. Obfuscation is the province of politicians, not essayists. The purpose of the latter is to make thoughts intelligible, as they get transported from mind to paper. (The former operate in the hope that they will appeal to those who read carelessly and listen inattentively.)
Periods, colons, semi-colons, commas, dashes and parentheses are not there to look pretty, but to add clarity to what is written. Even the lowly apostrophe is defended by the Apostrophe Protection Society! Lynne Truss wrote in Eats, Shoots & Leaves, that punctuation is “the basting that holds the fabric of language in shape.” Edward Estlin Cummings, better known as e e cummings, chose to write poetry in lower case letters and without punctuation. He was an artist. We are mechanics, not dilettantish virtuosos who obscure the meaning of what they write. We are more like photographers than contemporary artists. The meaning of what we write should be clear, not left to the reader’s interpretation.
The word “essay” derives from the French “essai,” which means “attempt.” It was first used by Michel de Montaigne, the man generally conceded to be the father of the modern essay. Montaigne was an educated nobleman who retired to his family’s castle in Bordeaux at the age of thirty-two to “draw his portrait with his pen.” He was a young man who knew his priorities. He once said: “For the intimate companionship of my table I choose the agreeable, not the wise. In my bed, beauty comes before virtue.” All essayists write about themselves – their experiences or their ideas. “Know Thyself” was inscribed on the Temple of Apollo in Delphi. Plato, Henry David Thoreau and the Canadian recording artist Drake all believed that knowing one’s self was crucial to a happy life.
Essays reflect the writer. E.B. White, perhaps the greatest essayist of the past one hundred years, wrote in the forward to Essays of E.B. White: “The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest…Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and stamina to write essays.” Joseph Epstein, in his introduction to Windsprints, writes that he sides with those essayists who feel “a desolating sense of uselessness if a few days go by without their writing...” Almost all writers of this genre take pleasure in their craft and inject humor where possible. In the late Christopher Hitchen’s posthumously published book of essays, And Yet…, are included three hilarious, and self-deprecating essays, “On the Limits of Self-Improvement, Parts I, II and III.” They are examples of what fun good writing can be.
However, caveat emptor should be applied whenever reading op-eds or essays like my “Thoughts of the Day.” Statistics can be skewed to fit one’s preconceptions. Conclusions are based, as the quote from Michel de Montaigne at the top of this essay makes clear, on an interpretation of facts. In short they are opinions, often on subjects with which we who write have limited knowledge. Like the non sequiturs from a dinner party guest, they are meant to startle, to start a conversation, or stimulate controversy. There are some suburb writers of this type today: Jonathon Goldberg, Ross Douthat, Mary Anastasia O’Grady, Peggy Noonan, Jason Riley, Daniel Henninger and David Brooks are but a small selection. They write well. They write, as E.B. White admonished all writers of children’s literature, up not down. A few scribes, like P.J. O’Rourke and Mark Steyn, use wit and humor. And of course, there are those – Paul Krugman comes to mind – who use the form to show off their knowledge, even when they lack judgment.
I came late to the craft, with no training other than a love of reading. I had (and have) an interest in global and domestic political and economic affairs, and a desire to write clearly a declarative sentence – something I should have learnt when I was in school. My essays fall into two categories. The first have to do with subjects like politics, the economy, education and climate. I write from my own perspective, expressing my opinions, based on study and reflection. At times, the result is a wrestling match, with me wearing both the black and the white trunks. Other times, I find myself incensed by the stupidity which enshrouds our political and educational institutions, or by the blindness of reporters and commentators. When I see commonsense give way to political correctness, or I see universal values, which have helped people live civilly for generations, be abandoned in favor of some undefined sense of multiculturalism, I lose control of my euphemistic pen. In those essays, I deliberately violate E.B. White’s rule 17, found in The Elements of Style: “Do not inject opinion.”
The other type of essay I write are those of a more personal nature – stories of my family, of growing up, of books, hiking, skiing and kayaking, commentary on the marshes and places I have loved. Inspiration usually arrives unexpectedly. Curiously, the longer I have been writing – and I have now written over a thousand essays – the more time each piece takes. I write in bursts, and then must spend several hours editing and re-writing what I have done. Even when I push “send”, I know that one more read-through would result in more changes – the elimination of even more needless words.
An essayist is not a rhetorician. Good writing should be convincing, but should not be confused with arguing persuasively. We are not lawyers. And there is no need to shout. One hopes to have the right answers, and that one’s arguments, if simply and clearly stated, will persuade the reader that any comparisons to dunces is purely coincidental. Keeping in mind the derivation of the word, essayist “try” to figure things out. I am not an academic, as those who know me know full well. I am no grammarian. I simply ask my sentences to say what I want them to mean. I am neither an epistemologist nor a metaphysician. In fact, I would have difficulty defining those words. People have used plenty of adjectives to describe me – many of which are unprintable – but erudite has never been one. The definition of erudition that I prefer is the one used by Ambrose Bierce in his incomparable The Devil’s Dictionary: “A noun: Dust shaken out of a book into an empty skull.” Too much information, just as too much self-analysis, renders simple concepts so complex that explaining them gets lost in a jumble of incoherence. “The better the writing the less abstruse it is,” so advised Evelyn Waugh, in a letter to American author Thomas Merton in 1948.
Montaigne’s great discovery, as noted by Paul Graham in 2004, in his essay The Age of the Essay, was: “Expressing ideas helps to form them.” Graham added, “In a real essay you’re writing for yourself. You’re thinking out loud.” Similarly, the historian and biographer David Burton once wrote about Theodore Roosevelt” “…he would often write an article or essay having no immediate purpose other than to organize his thoughts.” We who enjoy grappling with ideas are in good company. But essays are more than a stream of the subconscious. An audience is wanted, which means the writing must be tight, clear and appealing.
My first attempt at writing was in March 2000. I was a stockbroker – and had been for thirty-three years – who did not understand what was happening to the market. Absurd valuations were being given companies with no earnings and, in some cases, with no revenues. I began tentatively, gradually becoming more assertive. I wrote what I called Market Notes. I enjoyed the craft; as doing so forced me to think through issues. Eight years later, as the financial crisis descended, I started what I called “Thought of the Day,” largely as a means of self-preservation. Early on, those pieces did come out once a day. But the crisis abated and my brain grew older and more tired. I backed off to twice a week, and now once a week.
In retirement, writing provides pleasure. It keeps me out of trouble – I am less a nuisance to my wife. I hear often from well-wishers, both those I have known for years and from those I have only just met. I appreciate the accolades from those whose beliefs are similar to mine, and I enjoy sparring with my progressive friends who cannot believe my obtuseness. In a world addicted to the short term, I find writing essays allows the luxury of thinking about long term consequences. With age comes perspective, some elements of tolerance and, dare I say, smatterings of wisdom? I listen to criticism, sometimes absorb it, and other times chuck it. I expect to continue to write, motivated by ideas, hoping to promote discussion…but always with a desire to write ever better.
In How to Tell a Story and and Other Essays, Mark Twain wrote: “Anybody can have ideas – the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.” I like what E.B. White told George Plimpton in a 1969 interview in the The Paris Review. “A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter…a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift them up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.”
Those are high standards indeed. Whether I have achieved any or all, I do not know? Don’t answer, because regardless of the response, I will labor on, putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard), working to improve my craft.