Sometimes, I have thoughts about something. They are fleeting images that flicker across my mind and body. They don't cohere into a point of view or even into a lucid argument: they are moments of thought, images without narrative.
So I sit down to write. My writing, in this case, is not simply an expression of my thoughts. Rather, the writing is the thinking. As I string words, sentences, paragraphs together I am forced to find connections — causal, affective, complementary — between and amongst my otherwise scattered thoughts.
Language, at times like this, is amazing. Its more or less rigid structure coerces sense from nonsense, order from chaos, effability from the inchoate. It can be a frustrating process as the thoughts aren't sure of how they connect to each other — or whether they even want to.
Maybe I sense a structure to the thoughts but that structure doesn't fit into the linear structure of language. The fault, then, is mine: I need to make the words wind and pleat.
Usually, however, it's exhilarating. I sit down before a blank screen and then lean into language to see how my thoughts will meet words and grammar. Which part of my thought will become the subject of the sentence? What action will it take? And how will it do it all — emphatically? Dead pan? Ironically? Not only does writing distribute sense, it distributes affect — the feel of the idea.
As thoughts are distributed on and by the page, constellations crystallize and dissipate, sometimes simultaneously. Perhaps there is no argument here, no narrative for these images:
perhaps it's a Harmony Korine film, moments strung together. Perhaps
it's nothing at all, all gossamer to be washed away by the stronger winds of an idea or the sheer force of chaos.
The means of assembling and distributing the ideas are many — logical derivations, anecdote, sheer sentiment. There might be a generalization or three, perhaps a quote or vaguely remembered citation; there could be a tangent that suggests another direction; or a polemic that awkwardly but powerfully glues disparate thoughts.
Writing like this is what we call an essay — a try, an attempt. This is, of course, the etymology of the word — from the French, essayer, to try. This is not about creating a highly polished, clean, clear monolith. It's about seeing how thoughts meet language and what kind of order might emerge. Sure, a good essay enjoys a certain lucidity. But this lucidity doesn't turn on singularity or conclusion: it may be a multiplicity that never reaches its climax, a jouissance of thinking.
Essays take place on the page, in and of the strange and beautiful space of writing. Essays are open to all sorts of connections and sutures, including caesuras and ellipses. Unlike, say, the article, the essay is a generous form, embracing multiple modes of address, even in the same essay. It can follow a digression, fold back around into a new beginning, or just entertain a passing whim. (Compare this to the academic article.)
And the essay asks for this same generosity from its readers. Don't look for a point, the essay says. Just let it lead you here and there, see where it takes you. An essay is uncharted: you never know where you'll end up.
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Thanks for writing this. I loved it so much I stopped reading 1/3 of the way in to just think for a while. Do you have any personal essays or favorite essays that show this transitory exchange of meaning in a style that might be comforting or liberating for students to see?
Thanks so much, David. I used to teach Nicholson Baker's absolutely perfect essay, "Changes of Mind" from his book of essays, The Size of Thoughts. The whole book is astounding; his novels are good but his essays are ridiculously good.
Of my own essays, I like one I wrote recently about looking at art: http://hilariousbookbinder.blogspot.com/2013/11/looking-at-art-at-museums.html. What I like about it is the way it moves through a lot of different aspects of the experience but still makes an argument — albeit one that's open and multiple. And the way it shifts from the personal to the philosophical and from the particular to the general and back again.
A while ago, I wrote a little bit about how I used to teach comp: http://hilariousbookbinder.blogspot.com/2012/01/teaching-way-of-words.html. I found the argument map incredibly useful. I'd be very curious to hear your thoughts.
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