Essays – thinking and trying?Posted: November 13, 2008
I often think in quotations.
In fact I sometimes even look for quotes to help me start thinking, trying to make sense of or answering a question. In my experience this often frustrates others – for 2 reasons :
1.‘Why don’t you use your own words/thoughts’?
My words are often not as well thought through as they might be – “in other words” (sic) if someone has said it better than I was beginning to think I could, it would be extreme arrogance to assume that I could say it better (given enough time – see below) just because its me.
2. ‘It’s lazy’
Perhaps it’s lazier to bumble out knowingly, something which closely approximates what I wish to communicate but not exactly.
In the words of Blaise Pascal writing in 1657:
“I have made this [letter] longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter.’
In my opinion this is as close as its possible to get to the spirit of George Orwell’s well known piece on Politics and the English Language (ref.)
Further to using a quotation to defend the use of quotations:
“You can easily see the infinite regression that this line of conversation would take.”Wayne Campbell
– here’s some great quotations about essays which perhaps continue the arc described by Orwell and Pascal.
“In a real essay you’re writing for yourself. You’re thinking out loud. But not quite. Just as inviting people over forces you to clean up your apartment, writing something that other people will read forces you to think well. So it does matter to have an audience.”
“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.”
All from this amazing essay about essays.
Paul Graham – A programmer who invented Arc and one of the first Bayesian spam filters, he’s also a superb, first-rate essayist who published Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age — a meditation on art, programming, business, life, and just about everything else.
I love his point that an essay is not an argument to convince somebody of something – not about taking a position and defending it; Rather a record of thinking something through. What I like most is the fact that for Graham the whole process is somehow iterative in terms of not refining to argue more cleverly but rather a clearer explanation.
Here’s a couple more quotes:
“Fundamentally an essay is a train of thought– but a cleaned-up train of thought, as dialogue is cleaned-up conversation.”
“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.”
Maybe this has been a bit long?…