Years of formal education have drummed into us the idea of essay as formula, a rigid structure to follow. That structure may have helped to organise your thinking, but essay-writing also sparks less positive memories: of set titles that fail to inspire, non-negotiable deadlines, struggles to meet a particular word count.
Go back to the original meaning of the term, though – from the French essayer, ‘to try’ – and the essay becomes a whole lot more interesting.
I was reminded of this in a recent Vox podcast about the work of Albert Camus, which also explores why he chose the essay form.
“An essai is a trial, it’s an attempt. And… success is not guaranteed,” says Robert Zaretsky, a philosopher and historian, interviewed on the podcast.
“The point of an essay is to sort of move in one direction and then in another direction, trying one path, trying another path; trying to open one door, opening that door and discovering that there are yet other doors you never ever anticipated. This is the very nature of essay writing.”
I love this concept of writing as process above product; getting words on the page as a way to figure something out. Not least because it takes the pressure off: suddenly, it’s not about a perfectly formed answer but about one possible answer.
Zaretsky goes on to say: “The essay never tries to prove a point, it’s not an argument, it’s an exploration.”
The world may be less polarised than it sometimes feels, but there does seem to be pressure to take a position and commit to it. An expert who publishes an opinion in one direction risks losing credibility if they change their mind too soon afterwards. Policy U-turns are usually portrayed as an embarrassment, the focus on what the government got wrong initially rather than on the fact that they’re willing to listen, as the FT’s Jemima Kelly writes.
More intentional writing-as-exploration would surely be a good thing. And I think it’s something all of us can use. A few years ago, when I was preparing to run a workshop on blogging for social entrepreneurs, I came across this tip from Joi Ito (published way back in 2005 – the olden days in blogging terms):
‘Focus on the parts that you can’t figure out. Ask people to help you think. Most of the people who comment on my blog are helping me think. In other words, don’t say, “Blah blah blah. I’m an authority. Now talk amongst yourselves while I go pat myself on the back.” Say, “Gee, I’m not that smart, but here’s something interesting I’m noodling on. I’ve gotten this far on these pieces. Help me out here… someone?”’
Ito also recommends that bloggers ‘take a position’ (“posts that don’t have a point of view are boring”), which feels slightly contradictory – unless you think of taking a position as testing out an idea that’s open to revision (and shouldn’t all ideas be?).
Writing-as-exploration has another wonderful advantage: it allows those of us content to sit on the fence (or, in another useful French phrase, le cul entre deux chaises – literally, having your arse between two chairs) to stay there.
The “suspension of judgment” inherent in the essay might “annoy the ‘so what’s your point?’ reader”, as Robert Atwan writes (quoted on Brain Pickings, in a piece about what makes great essays). The point, I suppose, is that there doesn’t need to be one.
That’s how I feel about it today, in any case.