the imaginative conservative logo


Eva Brann

Dear —

The dash signifies that you are reading the answer to a question unasked, the reply to a letter unreceived. No one’s written beseeching me to reveal the Art of Being an Essayist. You aren’t the heavy-hearted Mr. Kappus to whom Rainer Maria Rilke addresses his consolatory Letters to a Young Poet (last letter, Paris 1908) or the Dear Friend to whom Mario Vargas Llosa fondly writes his Lettea to a Young Novelist (last letter, Lima 1997). There isn’t likely to be such a suppliant, for an ardent young essayist is an oxymoron, like, say, a “spirited bureaucrat.” “Young poet” has a fine pathos to it, and “young novelist” a sense of high vocation, but “young essayist”—well, it is the faint comicality of the notion that gives me the temerity to range myself as a third in this famous duo, for at least I am way down in a descending order of mundanity.

Rilke’s letters aren’t at all about being a poet, but just about being. This recommended way of being, from which poetry might spring for Officer Kappus (Rilke abjures all thought of criticizing his verses on p. 1, though he devastates them on p. 2), is so loftily bipolar that any attempt to live it would drive a young aspirant into the army. Llosa, on the other hand, starts with a sensible criterion of self-discovery. “The defining characteristic of the literary vocation … [is]: deep inside, a writer feels that writing is the best thing that ever happened to him….” But then a few pages on he asks, practically: “Now what?”

I have nothing but “now what’s” to tell you about. Vocational training is more apt for a young essayist than is vocation talk. Here is the truth of it: Essay writers are by nature talentless; it is almost a requirement. Essays are sober, pedestrian, prosaic things, and have to be. For being non-fiction, they are meant to tell truth in prose through its most recalcitrant, unlikely matter—reality, so-called. And essay writing is eminently teachable, to anyone.

Why else would our students be required to write numerous essays long and short? We don’t have an annual poem requirement or a monthly novelette. I for one, wouldn’t even accept a poetic or fictional fulfillment of the requirement—plain prose and mundane matter is what I hope and pray for. The world is full of things, teachable things, almost anyone can learn: think twice, talk tersely (well, maybe), write essays. But some things far fewer people can do, and they do them as following a calling, not as fulfilling a requirement. I said “can do,” but I should have said “do do,” for the proof of the gift is in its use, and the poemless ambition to be a poet or the pageless plan to be a novelist are youthful absurdities, to be outgrown. By this positive criterion a poet is a person who has more poems than anyone asked for in a mahogany box somewhere, and a young novelist has more drafts of novels in a desk-drawer than anyone wants to see. By this standard, a young essayist would have the biggest pile of tries stashed away, since the very word “essay” means an attempt, a try. For when Montaigne, the originating master of this genre, first used the term, he meant to convey the tentative, unfinished, musing nature of such a piece; now, by a development that upgrades the genre while subverting its origin, an essay is expected to be thoroughly thought-out and finely finished.

But perhaps I am confusing two activities, that of the elegant essayist and the workaday essay-writer. To be sure, the last of our annual essays, the senior essay, the culmination of much “paper”-writing—an expression to give one pause—is supposed to be a masterwork, such as admitted the medieval apprentice into the “mystery,” the guild of masters of the arts and crafts; for us it is the lifelong bachelorhood of the liberal arts. But the essays that our students are likely to be thereafter writing will be project proposals, status reports, briefs, tracts, “idea pieces” (what a reflection on all the rest of what the British so nicely call “bumff “!). These and the zillion of like types invariably have one thing in common, that they’re longer than they need to be. Then there are also ideological tracts and “personal essays” (the shy person’s term for autobiographies) and review essays. These last please all readers (but one) most when they are least pleasant—nonetheless my present rule about book reviews is: “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all,” and I hope you, the young essay-writer, will do the same; it could kill literary criticism. These are the essays that essay-writers write, on demand.

Essayists are, on the other hand, like poets and novelists in writing what is uncalled for. But essayists differ from poets, the masters of the genre of concentrated concision (I omit for present purposes epics and tragedy, the poetry temporarily in decline), by being long but not overlong. Montaigne indulges in the canny sprawl while Bacon likes elegant curtness. Essayists differ from novelists in that the latter would be blamed for not having made up what they write (or at least decently cloaking its factuality; the catty novelist Mary McCarthy is said to have been asked by an incensed neighbor: “Next time, dear, why don’t you try writing fiction?”), while the former are expected to make the best of mere reality. Non-fiction writers are supposed to stretch the facts only so far as a knowing reader can teach and contract the assertion back into proportionate truth. For example, if a concern is reported to have “undergone a reorganization,” you’re supposed to know that lots of heads rolled, and if “Plato says somewhere that …” you’ll infer that the author has a vague, wishful memory of such a saying.

I’m brought back to the notion of the quintessential talentlessness not only of the working essay-writer but of the leisured essayist. Poets and novelists have a double birth: their congenital gift and their self-generating industry. Essayists are not born but almost altogether self-made. They may have in them a propensity, but a propensity is not a talent. They are the aboriginal un-geniuses in the land of literature. Consequently enthusiastic young writers of poems and fictions feel themselves as the elect; how an ardent young essayist feels I don’t know because I doubt, as I said, there are such—which is why my letter has no addressee. Perhaps—why weasel?—for sure, essayists at work are rarely youthful, young perhaps but not gloriously young.

But that doesn’t deter me; people’s present non-existence is a perfectly piffling argument against talking to them. Its the inchoate, incipient writer in you that I’m addressing.

What is it an essayist needs that takes time, that wants maturing? An essay is, to my mind, the only one of the strictly literary kinds (as distinct from philosophical dialogues, treatises, works of scholarship) that is expected to captivate the reader non-sensuously. Poems and fictions charm by words that can be sounded out and reconstituted into sights. To be sure, they often have high intellectual content. John Donne or Wallace Stevens make poetry of metaphysics or anti-metaphysics; George Eliot for our edification and Tolstoy to out confusion work philosophical essays into their novels. But their primary business is verbal song and the call-up of moving figures and events. Essays, on the other hand, draw away from particulars (the Latin for which movement being “abstraction”), and dwell in the general. “General” isn’t the same as “universal,” which pertains to what all particulars of a kind have intrinsically in common, often called their essence. “General” is less solidly concrete than “particular” and less illuminatingly essential than “universal”; it is the realm of those boring half-truths, called generalizations, which claim more than the facts warrant and say less than human utterance should. Literary essays live in limbo between the bodyings-forth of fiction and the profundities of philosophy. What’s the good of them?

Well, literary, leisurely essays can concentrate and convey the effluvia of human affairs, their abstracted yet unmetaphysical redolence. When events have come and gone and people too, they leave behind them an atmosphere, an essence in the aromatic meaning, that is not so much a particular sensuous shape as the diffuse sense of a lesson to be learned. Its condensation demands some¬thing between the acuity of empirical observation and the penetration of philosophical inquiry, an openness to a gentle non-inferential generality—punchily presented. I’m not sure I’m getting there—but then this is a letter, not an essay.

I promised to get the “now whats” immediately and here it’s several pages later. The first and practically most decisive “now what?” is getting started. You get started by starting. Rilke’s and Llosa’s advice isn’t much better here: Starting is a mystery of the will. William James’s chapter on the will in his shorter Psychology describes it wonderfully: How to get out of bed on an icy morning? For an uneasily delicious hour, we say to ourselves: “I must get up, this is ignominious.” Then suddenly, when we wonder how we’ll ever get up, we are up. I would add that there’s much behind this: the firm intention to be up, the defined obligations of the day, the long-breathed purposes of our life. People speak of discipline; they think people who get things done, who get up and do the work they want to do, have self-discipline. Not so. Discipline is for holding yourself to a schedule, for fulfilling dated duties, not for the works of leisure, of “free” time, which is—scheduled classes aside—the type of time underlying your life as students. Recall that school is schole, Greek for leisure, and your studies are liberal, marked by freedom. It’s not discipline you want but focus, not self-forcing but surrender, surrender to a sort of love, the love of formulation.

For the works of freedom self-forcing is, then, supplanted by a kind of readiness, a receptiveness to the explosive moment. I think this readiness is achieved by letting your purpose be on your mind Guilt-feelings are the sense of not doing what one ought, accompanied by the pawky hind-thought that nothing is to be done about it for now. But the unease does eventually wear through the inertia and the now of doing arrives. So give room and recognition to your guilt-feelings day and night insofar as they raise your marginal attentiveness to usable matter. (There is a pathological, self-prolonging form of this useful readiness to be ready that is strongly disrecommended; see a counselor.)

Then play catalytic tricks on yourself. Drink green tea. Occupy the bathtub. Carry a notebook. Seize on a phrase. Poets, I’ve read, sometimes let themselves be captured by a wordless meaning-melody. Novelists see and hold an image that beckons to be developed; Llosa compares novel-writing to a backwards striptease during which the novelist hides a nascent nudity under layers of multicolored articles of clothing until his image is fully produced and equipped. Essayists sense a pressure in the chest, a fullness of mind, a readiness to try. The poet asks:

What is your substance, whereof are you made,

That millions of strange shadows on you tend?

You, the essayist, will feel an ambition to formulate an answer, to produce a parasitic disquisition on love’s shadowed substance. Yes, “parasite,” a Greek word said of someone who stands by and feeds off other people’s grain, isn’t a bad term for the essayist’s initial condition. For essays are not to be original or inventive; they are to be moderately truthful reflections on what is already there, what is given, be it human-made or natural. It follows that nothing need be said about essayistic subject matter. The essay-writer of required papers will have been given the topic or at least the limits of choice; the freelancer has the made and grown world to choose from. I could have said all that in a sentence: You’ll find yourself in media res when the tension of interest has coagulated into a preoccupying project—or the guilt has reached it releasing threshold.

It’s now a project, ready to go. Some people just write and keep writing. Rambling is a permissible essayistic form, particularly of the true, the unnecessary, essay. But I prefer the tangent to the ramble, as having somewhere to be drawn back to. So I put much faith in an outline, which is to say, I think an essay ought to be conceived as a whole, an organism, of which the outline is the skeleton, as a plot is for a novel. With respect to plays, Aristotle goes so far as to claim that the plot is the most important element, but that’s because it prescribes the action, and for him, the action is the drama (Greek for “deed”); for tragedy plot isn’t just the armature but the thing itself For the essayist, however, the outline is, to be sure, the organizing structure but also a work schedule. If you have an outline you know “what now.” In fact, when you’ve got that, you’re done except for the doing. I mean the dithering part is over.

How do you come by the outline? One way is to write down the questions you might address to the theme and then to put them in some order. Another is to think up a first and a last sentence and then to write in the intervening stations. Or—counsel of despair—you could just write out a sheet: IA, B, II A, B 1, 2, C 1 a, b, 2 a, b, III—recall that in outlines he who says A must say B, and that the temporality of human life being tripartite, a three-part outline hardly ever fails—then fill it in as it comes to you. By the way, while really good outlines tend to come on a sudden, like sunbursts, the filling out is a daily labor. Good advice, well known to writers: Always leave off before you’re quite written out, so that tomorrow you can start in media res, not cold.

How will it come to you? Well, as I said, levitate the body and sometimes the mind will float loose. The bathtub will do it or a walk or a workout or some inspiriting music—the shape of the whole will suddenly be there. This coming of ideas is a mystery, like the determination of the will. But like all ungrudging mysteries this one has preparatory approaches: much mulling over and casting about. If all else fails, just hearing yourself talk to a friend or tutor will often do it.

Now this caption-project has to be turned into running prose. Alexander Pope wrote his “Essay on Man” (1733) in epistles of iambic couplets, but don’t you try it! Prose should come very naturally; after all, Moliere’s M. Jourdain learns from his philosophy master that he has spoken prose all his life, and so have we all. So why doesn’t it? Some people, to be sure, have chronic logorrhea. Of them one must demand as Wallenstein does in Schiller’s drama:

Was ist der langer Rede kurzer Sinn?

What is this long oration’s compact sense?

They tend then to have it in writing too. They have what I think of as toothpaste minds: When you think it’s been squeezed dry, there’s always another little dribble.

But more students by far, even those who converse copiously and are in fact the talking scourge of their dorms, have trouble getting words on paper.

I have often wondered why people who give you so sprightly a conversational account of their thinking balk at putting prose on paper. It seems to be that there is a kind of reverse gatekeeper, a St. Peter of the Writing Threshold, who makes sure that nothing gets out that isn’t righteously stiff and properly dead. The best advice is to write it as you think it and postpone the censorship until the first revision. It is easier said than done because it requires self-confidence, the confidence that your uncurried and uncombed inward speech is interesting. Believe it: Since you trust your internal interlocutor more than anyone else, what you say to yourself is going to be interesting—as interesting as human beings and the human condition always will be. But it also means starting way before the deadline, very rightly so called. Last-minute writing is forced, false and lifeless. To be sure, due dates should loom, but as a gentle remote pressure. Senior essays, as you know, are due on a midnight of late winter. The dean has the Joshua-power to make the moon stand still in the valley of Ajalon, and so some seniors “get their essay in” (funny locution) two hours late and yet on time, but that’s not the way.

But I want to say more about this so frequent disconnect between internally spoken and externally written speech. Conversation has to paper-speech a little bit the relation of noise to music. The former is usually diffuse and jagged, now potential infinite, now abruptly ended, now a sound continuum, now a discrete ejaculation, while the latter is supposed to be controlled, composed, articulated, completable as well as deliberately finished. Above all, speech is blessedly evanescent (“Forget I ever said it” is sometimes efficacious), whereas something down in writing and out in public is pretty undeletable. But then writing can be censored before it is released, while the moment for biting back the spoken word, the moment, in that wonderful Homeric phrase, before it has “escaped the barrier of your teeth,” is easily missed, and then it’s too late.

Since writing can be self-censored it probably should be, not so much with respect to giving hurt or offense but in regard to shapeliness. One of the consequences of the inability to translate mental speech into writing is repetitiousness and vapidity—filling up paper with verbal non-thought.

There are some languages, Hebrew, I’m told, and the Nahuatl of the Aztecs, that say everything twice, and the second time is an eloquent enhancement of the first:

And there was his [Quetzalcoad’s] temple. It was very tall, very high, exceedingly high, exceedingly tall. Very many were its stair steps; verily they lay in a multitude, each one not wide but only very narrow. On each one the sole of one’s foot could not lie.

And that’s how it is with Mexican temple pyramids, as any besneakered tourist knows. But expository English does not gain much by saying everything twice. English, to be sure, is also a double-talking tongue: You can speak Franco-Latin or Anglo-Saxon. Here’s the most famous example, from Macbeth:

… This my hand will rather

The multitudinous seas incarnadine,

Making the green one red.

But student repetitiousness is mostly filler, while the bumff-writers’ drone is verbalized mind-mud. The advice is: Say what you mean, then stop; English is a language that repays curt treatment. Vapidity and cliche-talk are signs of mind blockage. This is the language that takes over in the absence of focus; what then “comes to mind” is just what is currently being said by millions of people. What the cliche says might be deeply true, but in the speaker only a wraith of that truth remains present. Advice: If your sentence rolls by your mental ear familiarly, smoothly and without the slightest turbulence, scratch it and focus on your meaning.

Your meaning: Your teachers in high school will have told you that you shouldn’t write “I,” you should eschew the first person singular. Why on earth? Perhaps it is a brave attempt to get adolescents to be less egocentric, to become objective. Well, maybe a scholarly essay on the circadian rhythms of cockroaches should appear to come impersonally from on high, but the essayist’s essay is subjective as hell, and the risk of self-advertisement is worth the zest of self-expression. You are revealing your thought, your self, and if you aren’t allowed to say “I,” you can’t be yourself.

Socrates initiated—in the Republic—the old and continuing question: In what “person” should a work be written? (Persona, incidentally, is Latin for “mask,” that facade “through” which you send “sound.”) Socrates’ care here is candor. A drama is a consummate pretense because the actress comes on stage reciting speeches and acknowledging deeds not truly her own: “This is my husband Agamemnon stone dead,” she repeats after Aeschylus, when her real husband is called Jack and is very much alive. A narrative using direct or, better even, indirect discourse is less deceptive: “Then old Nestor”—these are approximately Homer’s words—”told young Telemachus about Clytemnestra: ‘At first she rejected the unseemly deed … but then she was overcome’.” Here the tale is told as a tale by a narrator within it, manifestly mimicking another’s words or reporting on them. Of course behind this internal narrator there’s the author. As I remember, in the Iliad this author speaks three brief times in the first person; the Muses do the rest.

Now what is wonderfully ironic is that Socrates tells us all these thoughts in a first-person drama, a philosophical mime in which he is an actor and of which he is the narrator, and whose author beyond, Plato, is completely hidden. Is this, the unmentioned case of the fictional first person, then the most candid or the most guileful of “spatial points of view,” as Llosa will call the relation of the narrator to the narrative space? In one of his letters he too dwells on the choice a novelist must make: in which grammatical person to write—I, you, he-she-it? For him, however, it is not a question of candor but of effect. Of course, if you think about it precisely, it turns out that you can’t write narrative in any but the first person: You can write to a “you” and about a “he-she-it,” but whether your authorial voice is hidden or patent, is directed to an other person or speaks as might a ubiquitous deity to which all that is, is an object of observation, you, the teller, are always there as the fountain and origin of your telling. You can’t escape the pressure of your own presence. Kant has a term for it: the “transcendental apperception.” It is pure philosophical poetry; it means the consciousness of self that hovers behind and accompanies all our thinking and sensing. That “I think” is always there; the question is whether to draw it down into explicit speech. Llosa was probably inspired to write concerning the novelist’s problem of the “spatial point of view” by Julio Cortizar’s story “Blow-up,” which begins: “It will never be known how this has to be told, in the first person or in the second, using the third person plural ….” The story then keeps switching, to spectacular effect, though of course the underlying person is the first. An essayist has the same decision to make. I’ve already put in my word for using the explicit “I,” for the sake of candor and responsibility. Writing teachers will tell you to avoid “you” in essays. (No one could possibly object to it in a letter which is addressed, that is, directed to a “you.”) Advice: Use “you” when the spirit moves you to talk familiarly to an unknown other, but not when it’s a mildly vulgar slide out of control.

The preceding paragraphs have gone off on a tangent, a tangent being what takes off from the periphery—peripheries being governed by central points—and could go on indefinitely if not recalled. It’s permissible if you do recall it, having gotten something off your chest that a reader might be mildly interested in reading but that you are irrepressibly desirous of telling. So back to the point.

For there is more of a point to be made about this essayistic “I think.” It concerns expression, the “pressing out” of this thinking—and feeling—that the “I” does. Young students are given to starting papers, say for the mathematics tutorial, with big flabby assertions that express nothing but the desire to find a first sentence of impressive magnitude: “Euclid was the greatest mathematician that ever lived”—a real-life citation. Far better Miss Brodie’s crotchety comment to “her girls.” (Muriel Sparks’ The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a tale of the naively eccentric and wholly exhilarating corruption practiced by a teacher on her pupils and the mean-mindedly righteous betrayal with which it is avenged.) Miss Brodie, annoyed that her girls are being diverted from her humane wisdom to Euclidean geometry, tells them:

It is witty to say that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points [Euclid doesn’t], or that a circle is a plane figure bounded by one line every point of which is equidistant from a fixed centre. It is plain witty. Everyone knows what a straight line and a circle are.

Now there’s a great opening epigram for a Euclid paper!

But seriously; how do we focus and express our thinking so that it has substance and shape? My hypothesis is—one of those hopeful surmises that might bring about the truth they are proposing—that we all have the capacity for and pleasure in making something of what comes to us, in discerning its parts, penetrating to its underside, bringing up its depth, exposing its privations—in short, in being lovingly busy about things in that peculiarly human activity called thinking (which subsumes feeling). Then why is it that so often so little of it gets through to young students’ papers?

I think it is because expression has phases, and at a crucial moment a shield of self-consciousness, stagefright, and unbelief interposes itself between mind and paper. A teacher’s best effort should go into dissolving this screen. The trick is simple: I ask people what they were actually thinking when they squeezed out these savorless nothings (that isn’t exactly how I put it, but sometimes I ask students to read a paragraph aloud until they dissolve in gracefully shamed hilarity). Then the advice is: Write what actually went through your mind. But that was messy, they’ll say, all questions, sentence-fragments, key-words. Well, better thick minestrone than thin gruel.

Here one person’s description—mine—of thinking one’s way to the point of writing may help. I am a great believer in a circumstance denied by some professional philosophers: that there is wordless thought just as there is indubitably inarticulate feeling. I have the following evidence.

“Thesaurus” is Greek for treasury, and the writer’s treasury is Roget’s Thesaurus (in the old format; the “modernized,” dictionary-like edition is pretty useless, fulfilling my surmise that all unbidden bits of progress make things a little worse). It has a thousand entries, from “1. Existence” to “1000. Temple,” and each pair of entries collects all the synonyms and antonyms of the keyword—nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. Thus “500. Sage” is opposed by “501. Fool.” Mr. Roget must have been a genius to organize the world of words so expressively.

No lover of words would use this treasury to find fancy alternative synonyms. It is good for fulfilling a much more genuine desire, that of articulating yet-wordless thought. We feel, as a first phase, the pressure of a hazy bulk, a presentiment; it hangs within like an incubus. We know exactly what it means, what we mean, but we can’t say it. Now the Thesaurus comes out, and gets opened to a key-word wrested from the margins of the inchoate notion, and so the verbal gist is developed, the mot juste is found. It is almost, the opposite genesis of Llosa’s novelistic figures, which are enveloped, dressed up by the writer’s imagination. Essayistic thought requires first of all developing ideas, concentrating, coagulating them, giving a bulky ghost its slim body. I wish there was a verb in use from the noun “gist”—”gisting” would be the essayist’s second-phase activity.

But this is still “mentalese,” in the sense that it is just the thinking student’s signifying mess of crude key words, private language, floating phrases. Now comes the third phase, and here the shield goes up, or maybe just a filter. The thought and its feelings are marshaled, rectified—skewered and skewed. If gisting is the meditative counterpart of sauce reduction in cooking, articulating is the boot camp of thoughts; they will never be quite their frisky civilian selves again, but they will stand up straight and cohere with their company. Regimented spontaneousness is an oxymoron, but that is what verbalization is. Students often think that this internal marshaling is meant to throw out all that is alive: feeling, questioning, doubting, essaying. (Incidentally, “to essay” is a verb, a transitive one, which means to try, to make an attempt, to test, to weigh something.) On the contrary: There is a lot of loose talk about the cooked-up kind of self-esteem these days, but an essayist is a paradigm of natural self-esteem, a person who finds all these internalities interesting enough to be worth uttering (“outering”), worth putting into cleat and correct written form. And behold! the world agrees.

The final phase is finding the flowing, continuous language, the flux that will bear the meaning. Not that this is the first time pencil has been put to paper or the keyboard has been pressed to feed the word “processor” (yech!). The mentalese phase should have been expressed in the outline and accompanying notes of bright ideas and serendipitous expressions. But now comes comet language, obeying all the age-old conventions of human speech by which the ever-new exploits of thought are made presentable. Here the student-shield really goes up, that infamous writer’s block, as if the thousands of neurological events that translate floating thought to scribbling deed were being maliciously uncooperative. I have this advice: Don’t overload the system with premature perfection. Get it down any old way; hear yourself talk to a friend and put that down; borrow phrases in your ear from reading and copy those down; run through your outline and start on the heading that is least problem-fraught—just get down to it. This will be the famous first draft; there should be at least three.

The final phase is correction and revision. English is the gift of the god of signification (that’s Hermes) to the freedom of speech, by which I here mean not the right to express yourself but the chance to do it any which way. You can be flamboyant and formal, folksy and neological, high as the Bible, low as the street; you can mix and match. This “any-which-way” has, however, severe though subtle constraints. You can say practically anything in English provided you know what you’re doing. That means you have to be even more aware of traditions and idioms, conventions and rules than are the speakers of proudly formal languages for whom deviations are sins to be savored. Every English deviation is a new “usage,” witness the way immigrant English is received fondly as a dialect. So if you’re uncertain consult a handbook of English usage. And there’s no fooling around with spelling unless you’re being orthographically witty. As for punctuation, colons, semicolons, periods, quotation marks, hyphens, dashes—I’m too fond of them—and the other stipplings that visibly inflect writing, I’d just do what your tutor says, for now. There are several schools of thought about punctuation, and to be opinionated about them is the mark of arrival.

After correction, the clean draft, comes revision. “Revision” means seeing the thing anew. It requires the passage of time and the willingness to rewrite; just as it sometimes costs more to remodel an old house than to build anew, so redoing a paper may be almost harder than starting all over. What will never do is making minute adjustments; that’s like taking 220 grade sandpaper to a ripsaw cut. Here you have to be willing to excise, rearrange, remove attempts at being obscurely witty or cute (this hurts!), to put in lots of connectives, check for logic, and above all, simplify without losing precision. Here is the time to recall and hold on for dear life to the internal intention while ushering it into its public life, to lick the thing into shape but not to leach out the meaning. Advice: Try it on a kind yet candid friend.

There is also a final final phase, the finishing. In Hermann Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund (which used to be a student cult book because it is about journeying toward oneself) there is a lovely description of Goldmund, now a journeyman wood-carver, completing the last, delicate modeling of his Johannes-figure, the transfigured portrait of his friend, in a spirit of festive collectedness. And in this mood should the finishing touches be administered to your essay, not in a harried last minute.

I want to end with that first and last, that everlasting writer’s “what now?”: idea-having. How to call up ideas? “I can call spirits from the vasty deep,” boasts one of Shakespeare’s people. `Why so can I, or so can any man; But will they come when you do call for them?” replies Hotspur. That failure to turn up of the spirits that we can, it would seem, all call on, that blankness which makes of paper or screen a mocking mirror rather than a ready receptacle, is the ultimate version of writer’s block.

I have no idea what makes the spirits come or stay away on a particular day. Indeed, though it is I who think, I may be merely the usher and bouncer of thoughts; their coming is not my doing. Thoughts happen, ideas occur—I only receive or eject them. Still, I have some devices for attracting these guests to the open house of the mind:

First, reading—when allowed to fill the ear with the cadences of artful speech, to rouse the mind to unwonted reflection, to open the inner eye to “imaginary gardens with real toads in them” (Marianne Moore, “Poetry”). Books supply the world with its explanatory double, its signifying counter-world.

Second, living experience—when faithfully and laboriously digested. Hans Castorp, the slyly simple-minded hero of Mann’s Magic Mountain, practices something he, living in imperial times, calls Regieren, “regulating, ruling,” but which I call “housekeeping.” It keeps the interior space livable. Here nothing is swept under the rug; nothing thrown into the closet. I am thinking of that punctiliously objective introspection which is carried on by means of meticulous recollection and patient sense-making of external events. Still, worldly experience is possibly somewhat overrated as an instigator of insight. Think of the poets, novelists, philosophers whose world was deliberately narrow, both because they knew how to make a little go a long way and because their interior territory was more eventful in any case: Emily Dickinson, the Brontës, Kant. Yet some real life (which most students locate in the post-graduate future and some alumni in their student past) does sometimes yield up the kind of wisdom fungible into essayistic ideas.

Third, day-dreaming—when pursued not only atmospherically but also exactingly. There is an imaginative zooming in on internally visualized situations that details them nearly up to existence and is close ally to verbal exactitude. For precision, accuracy, exactness (I’ve searched in vain for accepted distinguishing definitions for these terms), although they appear to me to be at odds with adequate philosophical truth-telling since they fix meaning at too small a scale, seem to make for just the right kind of fine tracery proper to the gentle generalizations of the essayistic mode.

Fourth, music—when heard as the moving portrait of the soul’s disembodied gestures. Though real musicians may scorn this technically unmusical listening, in amateurs music does induce musing.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

The famous epigram and the recurrent theme of E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End is “Only connect ….” In no place does he allow it to become quite clear whether the verb is meant intransitively or transitively, whether it means “You should connect yourself with others” or “You should connect the elements of your world with each other”—more the latter, I think. To me, as well, nothing seems more efficaciously to call forth from the deep the random muse of prosaic possession than this: to have read, seen, dreamed, heard enough to find within oneself and through¬out the world the nodes of myriad relations, references, resonances, recollections, so that significance is everywhere. That’s cumulative, to be sure, but it starts to work from the very beginning.

Then what? Well, then you needn’t bring on yourself a dark night of the soul over your essay deadline, since, having lived in the world for a score of years or so, and with yourself for only a couple of years fewer, you’ve already got what it takes to be an essayist, and certainly an essay-writer. Instead of agonizing, start early and savor the sweet freedom, the lovely leisure, to be fully at work, essaying yourself and the world.


Eva Brann, Tutor

Books by Eva Brann may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This article first appeared in The Collegian (Autumn 2002) and is republished with the gracious permission of the author.
Miss Brann welcomes questions/comments via mail: Dr. Eva Brann, St. John’s College, 60 College Avenue, Annapolis, MD,  21401-1655 (she does not use computers and thus no email).
Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
1 reply to this post
  1. “Essay writers are by nature talentless; it is almost a requirement.”

    As a lifelong would-be essayist, I am heartened to learn that I have what it takes. Now if I can just put my natural lack of talent to work following Dr. Brann’s many excellent suggestions, maybe I’ll finally get somewhere!

Leave a Reply