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In a real essay, you don't take a position and defend it. Outside writers tend to supply editorials of the defend-a-position variety, which make a beeline toward a rousing (and foreordained) conclusion. But what you tell him doesn't matter, so long as it's interesting. At one point in this essay I found that after following a certain thread I ran out of ideas.You notice a door that's ajar, and you open it and walk in to see what's inside. Most of what ends up in my essays I only thought of when I sat down to write them. In the things you write in school you are, in theory, merely explaining yourself to the reader. But the staff writers feel obliged to write something "balanced." Since they're writing for a popular magazine, they start with the most radioactively controversial questions, from which-- because they're writing for a popular magazine-- they then proceed to recoil in terror. I had to go back seven paragraphs and start over in another direction. And after the lecture the most common form of discussion was the disputation.
The sort of writing that attempts to persuade may be a valid (or at least inevitable) form, but it's historically inaccurate to call it an essay. Trying To understand what a real essay is, we have to reach back into history again, though this time not so far. One can't have quite as little foresight as a river.
To Michel de Montaigne, who in 1580 published a book of what he called "essais." He was doing something quite different from what lawyers do, and the difference is embodied in the name. I always know generally what I want to write about.
But due to a series of historical accidents the teaching of writing has gotten mixed together with the study of literature.
And so all over the country students are writing not about how a baseball team with a small budget might compete with the Yankees, or the role of color in fashion, or what constitutes a good dessert, but about symbolism in Dickens.
With the result that writing is made to seem boring and pointless. Dickens himself would be more interested in an essay about color or baseball. To answer that we have to go back almost a thousand years.
Around 1100, Europe at last began to catch its breath after centuries of chaos, and once they had the luxury of curiosity they rediscovered what we call "the classics." The effect was rather as if we were visited by beings from another solar system.The conclusion being, say, that Ahab in Moby Dick was a Christ-like figure. So I'm going to try to give the other side of the story: what an essay really is, and how you write one. Mods The most obvious difference between real essays and the things one has to write in school is that real essays are not exclusively about English literature.Certainly schools should teach students how to write.That principle, like the idea that we ought to be writing about literature, turns out to be another intellectual hangover of long forgotten origins.It's often mistakenly believed that medieval universities were mostly seminaries. And at least in our tradition lawyers are advocates, trained to take either side of an argument and make as good a case for it as they can.But for obvious reasons no one wanted to give that answer. The first courses in English literature seem to have been offered by the newer colleges, particularly American ones.The archaeological work being mostly done, it implied that those studying the classics were, if not wasting their time, at least working on problems of minor importance. Dartmouth, the University of Vermont, Amherst, and University College, London taught English literature in the 1820s.The time was then ripe for the question: if the study of ancient texts is a valid field for scholarship, why not modern texts?The answer, of course, is that the original raison d'etre of classical scholarship was a kind of intellectual archaeology that does not need to be done in the case of contemporary authors.Essayer is the French verb meaning "to try" and an essai is an attempt. And so you can't begin with a thesis, because you don't have one, and may never have one. Sometimes you start with a promising question and get nowhere. Those are like experiments that get inconclusive results. You already know where you're going, and you want to go straight there, blustering through obstacles, and hand-waving your way across swampy ground. But not the specific conclusions I want to reach; from paragraph to paragraph I let the ideas take their course. Sometimes, like a river, one runs up against a wall.An essay is something you write to try to figure something out. An essay doesn't begin with a statement, but with a question. Just as inviting people over forces you to clean up your apartment, writing something that other people will read forces you to think well. The things I've written just for myself are no good. When I run into difficulties, I find I conclude with a few vague questions and then drift off to get a cup of tea. Particularly the sort written by the staff writers of newsmagazines. One thing is certain: the question is a complex one. We didn't draw any conclusions.)The River Questions aren't enough. An essay you publish ought to tell the reader something he didn't already know. But that's not what you're trying to do in an essay. Then I do the same thing the river does: backtrack.