Paul Graham asserts that the essay is thinking out loud. You don't start with a thesis and then write an essay to defend it - instead, you work backwards. You go into the unknown, and try to reason it out, and in the process, find answers. Good essays ferret out the unexpected.
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.
If all you want to do is figure things out, why do you need to write anything, though? Why not just sit and think? Well, there precisely is Montaigne’s great discovery. Expressing ideas helps to form them. Indeed, helps is far too weak a word. Most of what ends up in my essays I only thought of when I sat down to write them. That’s why I write them.
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. The things I’ve written just for myself are no good. They tend to peter out. When I run into difficulties, I find I conclude with a few vague questions and then drift off to get a cup of tea.
Questions aren’t enough. An essay has to come up with answers. An essay you publish ought to tell the reader something he didn’t already know.
I always know generally what I want to write about. But not the specific conclusions I want to reach; from paragraph to paragraph I let the ideas take their course.
This doesn’t always work. Sometimes, like a river, one runs up against a wall. Then I do the same thing the river does: backtrack. At one point in this essay I found that after following a certain thread I ran out of ideas. I had to go back seven paragraphs and start over in another direction.
Fundamentally an essay is a train of thought – but a cleaned-up train of thought, as dialogue is cleaned-up conversation. Real thought, like real conversation, is full of false starts. It would be exhausting to read. You need to cut and fill to emphasize the central thread, like an illustrator inking over a pencil drawing. But don’t change so much that you lose the spontaneity of the original.
So if you want to write essays, you need two ingredients: a few topics you’ve thought about a lot, and some ability to ferret out the unexpected.
What should you think about? My guess is that it doesn’t matter– that anything can be interesting if you get deeply enough into it.
If there’s one piece of advice I would give about writing essays, it would be: don’t do as you’re told. Don’t believe what you’re supposed to. Don’t write the essay readers expect; one learns nothing from what one expects. And don’t write the way they taught you to in school.
Source The Art of the Essay by Paul Graham (2004) Source Link [paulgraham.com]
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