8.03.2012

Essayer -- Writing as Offering, Writing as Provocation



"If at first you don't succeed, 
try, try again."


Long before I was taught hand claps and nursery rhymes, years before I had any sense of children's literature or playground games, this refrain was imprinted onto my consciousness -- so palpable was its presence, I sometimes thought it really was tattooed across my forehead, nevermind that at two or three years of age I likely had no idea what a tattoo was.


Perhaps the great irony was that success never really factored into my mental equations about effort. Dwelling in the trying, that is to say in the doing of whatever happened to captivate my attention, was far more interesting to me than the winning or whatever other form success took. I read with great interest the article that Bronwyn Williams (@bronwyntw) shared  today via twitter, in which the author noted how much more content Bronze medalists seemed to be than those who had earned a Silver, the latter being among the many who lament what might have been (read: Gold) and the former characterized by a brow-wiping thankfulness that they earned/performed well enough to stand on the podium at all. 

The French verb essayer translates into english as "to try." An essay, thus, might be a trial of ideas, a beautiful proposition when you think about it, especially in a world where demonstrations of definitiveness and certainty are privileged over any form of unknowing. The essay is a genre of writing that Michel de Montaigne is credited with originating--that is, if genres are ever really originated, rather than merely being affixed in human history in association with a moment, event, or as in this case, a person. It helps, I suppose, that Montaigne's collection of writings that traversed the tricky terrains of a multitude of topics, was aptly named "Essays" (or "Essais") owing to their ponderous nature. Montaigne's essay, whose title is alternatingly translated as either "On Cannibals" or "Of Cannibals" from the French original "Des Cannibales," was written over 400 years ago and it, along with "Of Cruelty" are both included in that volume. I return to them often, and as such they have become, regardless of their relatively brutal monikers, my favorites, each holding amidst the words on the page (or screen, as it were...) an eerily calming prescience.


Montaigne's gifted the world with the essay -- of writing as a trial of ideas, an attempt, a discursive venture -- one that has become bastardized in many school-based curricula. How might he have responded to the ugliness of the phrase "five paragraph essay." How can you know it will take five paragraphs, he might have exclaimed with a start. What if I need three paragraphs to set up the experience? And what of paragraphs? Must a sentence necessary fall within the sweet spot of between 8 and twelve words? Some necessarily linger across more than a few lines. Shouldn't the question be whether you are able to come with me on this rhetorical ride, and not how well I can arrange words into the mold awaiting to be filled? And what's with all the words? Does argument or rhetorical offering lie solely with the word?

This week alone there have been several essays that caught my attention, gave me pause and moved me to wonder, brought me fully in while also pushing me to quickly look up a term or historical event or click on a link. They fulfill Emerson's postulate: "Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul."

Go ahead. I dare you to try and remain unprovoked.




1 comment:

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