Maximally inviting, highly revealing, often inspiring, and absolutely non-fungible: The Essay. Stand-alone in interestingness and possible affect, there’s nothing quite like it.
Essays are quite different to most other forms of publication. Unlike other forms, they’re explicitly exploratory: the author is exploring their own ideas, opinions, biases, errors, and idiosyncrasies in real-time.
From the blank page to the final word its relatively unknown how things will pan out—where the initial reason for starting the essay (the shower thoughts, the internal conflict, the embarrassing inconsistency recently discovered in conversation with my professor about string theory) will lead, whether you change your mind about something fundamental, the learnings, quake epiphanies, what questions will arise, and so on.
Outlines and essays are incompatible. Types of writing which lend themselves well to outlines typically aren’t those which involve any notable amount of creativity. FAQs, software documentation, customer service responses from Amazon (and most big corporations), terms and conditions, legal documents, most business plans, guides on travelling to location X, some aspects of journalism: these and others are often completed with the aid of outlines and blueprints; at the very least, they aren’t harmed. In contrast, if Dostoevsky used outlines as outlines are commonly thought of, then, well, we wouldn’t know Dostoevsky.
The act of writing an essay is not much dissimilar to that of writing a novel: the individual words combined aren’t as great as the piece viewed in totality; the work takes on a life of its own. A great novel can’t be written any faster than it’s written by the author, because where it matters, the author knows what’ll unfold as much as anyone else. You’ll often hear writers remark about ‘having not written that’, or about ‘being a different person when they write’, or something similar. There are various ways to read such words, but it might help to make clear what they are not implying—that their work is very much like that of an engineer, where the outcome is known and the primary task is execution without error (a skyscraper’s foundations can’t be messed up). Writers, painters, musicians when jamming, philosophers heeding very seriously Nietzsche’s Rule12, gardeners and landscapers and architects starting with untouched land, the first of our Great Ancestors to venture outside the known boundaries of what today we know as Africa—they’re in a never-ending, complicated dance with the incorporeal tentacles of Uncertainty. The civil engineer working on Dubai’s latest skyscraper is working in a landscape of absolute certainty relative to that of the artist’s mindspace.
The betwixt of writings where certainty is present and those where it’s absent is the locus of most journalism, the blogging space, opinion pieces, and other medium to long-form efforts. To some degree they’re all forms which demand real-time thought, i.e., where the thinking is done as the words are written. But the essay is a special case. Too often in journalism the purported goal is to minimise bias and subjectivity, which is impossible to do and often just spoils the writing; on the other hand, essay writing is about exploring biases, not in an unbiased fashion, and as a result the words feel more real, interesting, and lively. In journalling, the intention is typically either to record recent events or let off steam in a sort of stream-of-consciousness fashion; but in essay writing I am making sense of recent events, and the apparent desire to go stream-of-consciousness, and I’m trying to extract some kind of meaning from i tall. And non-fiction authors will start with an explicit description of a finalised big idea or set of ideas, then use the rest of the book to explain, confirm, justify, and do exactly what is expected of book authors: use an astonishing amount of pages to explain an idea which could be explained in two. Essays are a special form of writing. Perhaps above all descriptors, an essay is thinking made manifest; it’s thinking on paper as obvious as it’s ever going to be.
Take the software on your most-used device. Well-built software does an insanely good job of keeping bugs, internal errors, and other such things from the experience of you, the user. This is why Apple dominate: the software and hardware is so intuitive, beautiful, simplistic. It’s very hard to switch from iOS to android or windows, but not the other way around. To the average user, incredible design is invisible. For some reason, using a MacBook and apple software just feels right—that is what great design does; it hides complexity, makes the complicated understandable, and tunes right into one’s intuition. Imagine if your favourite app suddenly throwing errors left-right-and-center—logs starting printing in an ugly dialog box at the bottom of your screen, endless streams of gigantic character strings which make no sense to anybody but the developers; the navigation is slow; things just aren’t working. Well, in some sense the application in its normal state represents exactly what an essay isn’t: a finished product, smooth, seamless, alluring, and so worthy of five-stars it’ll remind you at every given opportunity. Like writing, thinking, composing, and other acts of creativity, your favourite application was built through a never-ending process of erring and correcting, otherwise known as trial and error. The errors have to be made in order for progress to be made. From the initial idea to the mock-ups, from the first working version to the venture capital investment, from the first user to the first hundred million, the process is the same: there is a premise about what will happen, that premise is falsified or improved upon with actions conducted in its name, errors are made, and where possible they are understood and corrected-for, and thus the needle is moved forward. Your favourite journalist creates via this process, and your favourite filmmaker, author, painter, and thinker. Your favourite application was built this way.
The difference between the essay and the New York Times hit piece starts at the level of intent: the latter is about telling people how it is, what happened, facts, figures, and most importantly, it’s about accuracy; the former is nothing of the sort. And it’s not that essays aren’t written to be accurate; it’s more that the intention is first and foremost to make sense of some data, and do so honestly and openly, with acknowledgement of possible error and patent awareness of the high probability. The difference between the essay and basically all other forms of making ends with the presentation: the latter are first subjected to several edits and presented with all obvious errors removed; the former is just presented. Of course an essay need not be published to anyone but the author themselves, in which case presentation truly doesn’t matter. But even where they are presented, the edit process is nowhere near as rigorous. To continue with the software-speak, essays are computational data processing done with the debugger log level set to severe, but with pretty-print enabled.
As the reader of an essay you’re given an exclusive invite into the mind of the author—exclusive because there’s nobody there but you and the interpretations you draw are yours alone3. You’re participating in the exploration of someone else’s world—what and how they think, develop ideas, digress, use words, make sense of information, how often they go back on themselves, how they weight A against B, and so forth. You get to paint your own picture of a person, their idea, worldview, or whatever else. The only constraint is the tools offered: the author’s choice of vocabulary, sentence and paragraph structure, tone, pronoun use, etc. It’s with these that you get to turn a blank or otherwise ugly or dull canvas into something interesting and possibly beautiful, and maybe original. There is nothing quite like the essay. To the author, it’s a violent act of courage. To the reader, its revelation unrivalled in potential.
- As Anti-Cartesian as one can get: “Only ideas won by walking have any value.”. And Nietzsche not only quoted mountains but walked them.
- Nietzsche fans will note the double reference here. Nietzsche not only advised on walking but on taking everything seriously.
- Of course this doesn’t mean they’re accurate.