A Reason to Try

José Saramago,  Portuguese novelist and winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature, once remarked, In effect I am not a novelist, but rather a failed essayist who started to write novels because I didn’t know how to write essays.”  I’ve always found his words both amusing and intriguing, a clever refutation of the assumption that people write essays because they are less difficult than novels. They are shorter, to be sure, and differently structured. But ease of writing is not necessarily one of their virtues, particularly when the so-called personal essay is involved.

I enjoy reading novels, but when it comes to writing I’d much rather explore the world around me than invent a fictional world from whole cloth. I’m intrigued by the challenges posed by attempting to communicate rich, densely-textured realities through the apparently simple essay form, and delight in the freedom to move from one topic to another as my curiosity is piqued and my attention engaged.

Alain de Botton, another prolific essayist whose The Art of Travel is one of my favorites, says, I am conscious of trying to stretch the boundaries of non-fiction writing. It’s always surprised me how little attention many non-fiction writers pay to the formal aspects of their work.”

He goes on to add, “I passionately believe it’s not just what you say that counts, it’s also how you say it – the success of your argument critically depends on your manner of presenting it.”

The word “essay” itself is related to the French essayer, which means “to try”. Trying to communicate the richness of life can be difficult at best. When Anita Diamant writes in her introduction to Pitching My Tent that her challenge as an essayist is to “pay closer-than-average attention to life , [shaping] experiences and reactions into entertaining prose”, she suggests something I’ve come to believe – the vision comes first.  It’s the “paying attention” that allows the essayist to say, “This is what I have seen. This is what I have experienced. This is what I have discovered lying along life’s shore, waiting to be plucked from the sands of obscurity. This is what I have turned and examined, magnified for detail, polished until its inherent nature shimmers in the light.”

In the process of probing for relevance, significance and truth, the writer speaks as directly and intimately to the reader as possible, saying, “Here is my interpretation of what I have found. This is how I understand my experience. Having come to believe this or that about these oddities of life which lie strewn about our years, I offer my conclusions to you.”

This combination of vision and discovery, of seeing and seeking, seems to lead naturally to the essay. It is a different kind of writing, focused on drawing connections, plumbing unsuspected depths, turning the kaleidescope of words around and around until discovered bits of life, tiny, jewel-like fragments of reality, drop into new and  unexpected patterns.

With vision and truth so intimately joined, speaking one’s heart becomes possible. The most personal convictions, the most privately held and deeply cherished beliefs about the world around us reside not in our head but in our heart, ready to inform our writing. For the essayist, conviction and belief are the lenses through which the world is seen, and our words reveal those convictions and beliefs more clearly than we might intend.

Over these years of writing, my own convictions have become clear – sometimes surprising even me. Despite significant evidence to the contrary, I believe that goodness abounds and trust is possible. I believe there is a moral dimension to life, a realm of freely responsible choice far more terrifying than any book of rules. I believe that pessimism and negativity, like optimism and hope, are choices we make, that cynicism is an acid that eats away life, that problems can be solved and that, in the end, there is meaning and significance to even the most lowly gesture of compassion and care.

However difficult these convictions might be to sustain in the midst of life, they are among the forces which impel me to speak.  Together with the visions and voices of others I admire, they have helped me understand my own passion for writing, and the requirements of the writer’s craft.

To put it simply, writing satisfying essays requires an ability to see the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. It requires the courage to make choices, a willingness to express personal opinion, an impulse to roam beyond received wisdom while moving from feigned objectivity to self-revelation. Ironically, it also demands a certain caution – a willingness to suspend judgements and withhold pronouncements while treading through unfamiliar territory.

Finally, there must be commitment – not only to the disciplines inherent in the essay form itself but also to a lifetime of attentiveness. Listening for the unspoken word, watching for the half-hidden gesture, feeling the shudder as conflicted human hearts confront their destiny will lead the essayist to speak, however haltingly, of hard-won knowledge and enduring truths.

As much as any novelist, the essayist engages in the re-creation of place, and one of the best essayists of recent times reminds us what that re-creation will entail.

“A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest,
remembers it most obsessively,
wrenches it from itself,
shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically
that he remakes it in his own image.”
Joan Didion, essayist

To leave a comment or respond, just click below. And please – no reblogging.
I’ll be traveling until November 3, and while I’ll still be able to respond to comments, I may be a little slower than usual. Thanks for your patience!
And a special welcome to those of you who have stopped by from the WordPress “Freshly Pressed” page. Many thanks for the likes and follows. Please feel free to leave a comment, and do come again.

127 thoughts on “A Reason to Try

  1. Hi Linda:

    Glad you have time to write while driving up to Kansas City. While I read your post, I knew I had to write about a tough issue which I have been placing on the back burner for some time.

    The following words have convinced me that no matter how controversial the subject might be, you have to tell the truth. It might irritate others, but the Truth supersedes anything, except the love of God..

    “With vision and truth so intimately joined, speaking one’s heart becomes possible. The most personal convictions, the most privately held and deeply cherished beliefs about the world around us reside not in our head but in our heart, ready to inform our writing. “

    Thank you for giving me the final push to write about the truth and how it will make you free.

    Enjoy your trip.


    1. Omar,

      Deciding what to write is one thing. Deciding where to publish is something else, and discerning the right time to turn words loose into the world can be even more complicated. I suppose the good news is that, even in a time when so much seems out of our control, we still can have control over our own words.

      Recently, I’ve been thinking a good bit about William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. If you’ve never read it, I think you’d find it inspirational. Here’s a fine site that provides both the text of the speech and a recording of Faulkner himself reading it.

      As for the truth, another of our fine southern writers had her own observation to make. As Flannery O’Connor put it, “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”


  2. Most people assume that the longer your writing is, the more difficult it was to make, when in fact I think each kind of writing comes with unique challenges. I am incapable of writing a decent short story, but I hope to write novels in the future, and I have a much harder time writing an essay on real life than I do creating my own literary world to write in and about.

    1. jschotz,

      Plenty of writers agree with you about the assorted challenges that come with the various kinds of writing. There’s nothing I enjoy more than reading writers on writing, precisely because they know the frustrations so well. When I hear Flannery O’Connor describe reading her own work as akin to eating a horse blanket – well. That just makes me smile.

      And sometimes, I wonder if novelists, script-writers and such don’t just have a higher IQ than most of us. That would be “imagination quotient”, of course!

      Thanks for visiting and for your gracious comment. You’re welcome any time!


  3. Good lord, woman, this is absolutely gorgeous writing. This is wordsmithing at its best. You’ve written of my own love of the essay, those I read and those I attempt to write, and what I find in that process. I cannot imagine life now without it.

    1. Teresa Evangeline,

      Like you, I’ve come to a point where essays of every sort bring delight. For years I associated them only with the structure taught in school – oh, those Roman numerals and letters! – but of course those outlines are very much related to what Botton calls the “formal aspects” of the genre.

      You’re quite a wordsmith yourself, so it pleases me you find this little offering of worth. It’s part of my own slow process of discovery about what works – for me.


    1. phil,

      There’s no question the best single leg I ever sailed was a long reach from Galveston to Port Isabel. When a piece heels over, settles in and takes off, it’s a lot like that. And this .


  4. Enjoy your travels Linda!!

    “…challenge as an essayist is to “pay closer-than-average attention to life , [shaping] experiences and reactions into entertaining prose”, she suggests something I’ve come to believe – the vision comes first.”

    While my knowledge is a bit thin on all that defines the essay form (I think I used to know more than I at present recall!! ), I have found that the very intention to write makes one pay more attention to life. Like the Janthina shell I use as an icon, I tend to drift with life currents never really paying close attention or driving anything. My husband bemoans my lack of ‘situational awareness’ many times.

    When I started writing captions for my images, then expanding to journal about my photo trips, I realized that I was rather suddenly, actively ‘noticing’ details around me. I paid more attention to where we were, observed people more closely, started picking up history tidbits from a local paper or even a restaurant place mat with local history blurbs on it and saving them for context about the area I was shooting. I paid more attention to not just seeing the light but watching it move so I could describe it later. I was seeing with the intent to put experience into a word-visual so someone else could see what I saw and if I really did it right, they might feel the mood too.

    For me writing, or wanting to, keeps me more engaged than I otherwise would be. But, maybe awareness is easier for some more than others. Conversely, writers such as you make me want to be more observant because of the beauty you were able to convey and the rich meaning you found in the pieces and patterns.

    And that for me is reason to try!!

    1. Judy,

      Your mention of the restaurant place mat made me smile. Someone will ask now and then where I discovered the tidbits I do. I tell them part of the trick is to give up the cane pole and bobber for a seine net. Instead of focusing on that one fish-bit of information, I just pull it all in, and cull it later. ;)

      And everything does become grist for the mill. Flannery O’Connor had it right. “The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention.” That’s her way of saying what I came to believe some years ago, but said in different words: “everything counts”. We never know what set of steps will lead to a marvelous tale, or which rusted and pitted key will open the door to a kingdom.

      Of course, we need to expose ourselves to other “seers”, too – other writers and photographers and artists whose vision of the world can shape our own. Two wonderful examples – I “see” many more birds and wildflowers these days because photographers like you and Steve Schwartzman have taught me how to see them. It’s wonderful to experience “bird” becoming “green heron, blue heron, white egret” or “flower” becoming “snow-on-the-prairie”. But we have to pay attention.


  5. You call them how you see them, which is one of the things I like about your pieces. It’s not the view — which is the same view no matter who looks at it – but the point of view that makes the essay interesting., gives it perspective, which gives it depth.

    Safe journey!

    1. WOL,

      And of course, one of the hardest things to accept about writing is the necessity for a point of view. Sometimes, we don’t know “how we see it”, but get a better sense in the process of writing. Sometimes we know precisely how we see it, and just have to gather the courage to say so.

      The hardest thing about heading due north this time of year is knowing what clothes to take. With luck, I’ll get to dress for some colder weather!


  6. Such a beautiful, beautiful essay on the art of the essay! Interesting indeed what Saramago wrote, especially as I find his novel “Blindness” among the most brilliant I’ve ever read.

    I think you are off to the Kansas Tall Prairie, yes? I do hope you will give us an essay on that. It’s a place that captures my imagination thoroughly, having grown up outside Chicago at a time when there was still a scrap of prairie or two left. I remember going across the highway into the tall grasses, climbing a tree, and looking down to watch pheasant poking around below.

    1. Susan,

      We have novels about novelists and poems about poetry, so why not an essay about essays? And isn’t it fun to play with the words “essay” and “assay”? It seems there was a time when “assay” had a life apart from metallurgy and such, and meant a “trial, test of quality, test of character”. What better form for such an assay than an essay? ;)

      I’m off to the prairies, indeed – blackland in Texas, tall grass in Kansas. I’m going to visit both the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve and the Konza Prairie in Kansas, and do a little snooping in Chase County, but my primary interest is in some places that have disappeared from the map and/or have little interest for most people these days. I have some family documents and correspondence from the days when earlier generations were roaming the region, and I’m hoping to find some missing pieces.

      I’ve not seen pheasants yet – only a flash of what seemed to be sandhill cranes. But if I see a pheasant, I’ll ask if he’d give up a tail feather for you!


  7. Add in one more… they that can’t write novels, write screenplays.

    You know, I really think that people have inclinations and talents that are idiosyncratic, drawing them to do what they as individuals find most interesting or can handle best, given the opportunity. This could well be based on background, training, interests, experiences… etc. But of course, the door is wide open for debate as to born talents and nurtured skills.

    Nevertheless, I think each individual is drawn to certain forms of expressions, just like learning, some are visual learners, some verbal, some audible. I’ve appreciated your post as I can hear some very heartfelt insights that’s gleaned from personal experiences and much deep thinking. Thanks again for another wonderful post, words and images.

    1. Arti,

      I don’t know. The more I come in contact with screenplays, the more impressed I am with people who can create them. It seems like it must be like putting together a 3-D jigsaw puzzle. Perhaps the closest I’ve come was in my childhood, when I’d dress my dolls, give them personalities and have them act out storylines I created. Even on that level, it could get complicated!

      As for born talents and nurtured skills – did I ever tell you the story of my varnishing grandfather? When I decided to make a career of varnishing, my mother threw a fit. Downward mobility,and all that. Only after I’d been doing it for more than a decade did she tell me that her father had spent many years varnishing woodwork in homes. I never knew that. No wonder she was shocked when I chose work so similar to my grandfather’s. These things are mysterious, to be sure.

      The beauty of it is that no one form, no one voice, no single art can capture all of reality. Everyone has something to add – we need to nurture creativity, not constrain enthusiasm.


  8. Hi Linda
    this is a fabulous piece of reflection on the nature of essay writing. It made me wish to be back in my English teaching decade so that I could give it out to my students to enrich their understanding.

    And you have perfectly expressed my credo for me: “…. I believe there is a moral dimension to life, a realm of freely responsible choice far more terrifying than any book of rules. I believe that pessimism and negativity, like optimism and hope, are choices we make, that cynicism is an acid that eats away life, that problems can be solved and that, in the end, there is meaning and significance to even the most lowly gesture of compassion and care….”

    Thank you.

    1. Anne,

      That’s a very high compliment, indeed – that you’d consider handing this to your students. I’d hope they would profit from it.

      I’m not surprised you’d find some of your own beliefs echoed in those words. As you’ve so often said, there are many paths to the same truth. However different our paths, we’ve obviously come to some of the same conclusions.


  9. Thank so kindly for sharing this. There is certainly a lesson in this article for all bloggers. I feel as if I’m just now finding my blogging voice. And know what I’m passionate about. Now, I’m trying to make a connection with my audience. Trust is an important factor in whether or not people return to sites for more information. I think part of enhancing your craft as a writer is to build trust thru your work. Great stuff!

    1. Washington,DC,

      Trust is important – far more important than many people understand or believe. It’s made up of many elements, including respect for the reader. The primary reason I don’t publicize my page views or likes is because I want to get to know my readers, not count them.

      Thanks for stopping by, and for the comment. You’re welcome any time.


  10. I have read many teachings as well as point of views concerning essay writing but not in this perspective. Linda, this was personal and reflective as to what an essay means and depicts. You have a way of portraying your words lending into the visual.

    You wrote: “This combination of vision and discovery, of seeing and seeking, seems to lead naturally to the essay. It is a different kind of writing, focused on drawing connections, plumbing unsuspected depths, turning the kaleidescope of words around and around until discovered bits of life, tiny, jewel-like fragments of reality, drop into new and unexpected patterns.”

    I really like that. A keeper. A pearl.

    A thought… I would say that in essay is turning yourself inside out in revelation and sharing this. And isn’t it interesting that we truly have many stories within us. The more we share, the more we have to share.

    Hmm… Thank you for sharing this, Linda, as it got me to ponder within my own depths.

    1. Anna,

      You’ve raised a point that seems true in every aspect of life: the more we share,the more we have to share. Anyone who wants to experiment need only smile at someone. When we share a smile, we don’t diminish our store of smiles at all, and sometimes we help someone else discover that they have a smile or two hidden inside.
      It’s the same with insights, or appreciation, or….

      I’m really glad you found a “keeper” or two here. Now, I’m going to go see if I can find some warmer clothes. I knew I dallied a little long in coming north, but at least I’m going to get my wish about some cooler cold weather!


  11. I think that this is a beautiful post.. It gave me insight about writing.. I love how you put it.. You made writing sound beautiful and that is exactly what it is…

    1. deb248,

      Writing can be hard, awkward, difficult and completely unsatisfying – but sometimes it does turn out beautifully, and that’s part of what makes it worthwhile. My own conviction is that the best way to learn to write is to write. When we keep on, despite the not so good, we get better. In that sense, it’s not so different than learning anything else!

      Thanks so much for stopping by, and for the nice comment. I really do appreciate it – and you’re welcome any time.


  12. Just found this on Freshly Pressed and loved reading it. I’m pretty new at this blogging and writing (only since March); I’m very much enjoying reading so many good writers on WordPress and learning from them.

    1. LubbyGirl,

      Once upon a time I was new to blogging and writing, but after nearly five years I’ve learned a lot. I think the start is slow for most of us, but there is a lot of enjoyment to be had, too.

      Thanks so much for stopping by, and thanks for the kind words!


      1. Well…now that I found it (your blog, I mean), I should probably start following it around like a lil lost puppy. That’s how I’ve learned a bunch about this blogging, by following other bloggers around, nipping at their heels and gleaning all sorts of great info.

    1. sportsandthecross,

      Isn’t that a wonderful quotation? I’m glad you enjoyed it, and the post. I never even think about being Freshly Pressed any more – it was quite a surprise! Thanks for the congrats!


  13. I love how you address the audacity that essay-writing requires. I adore great works of literature for their mastery of escapism or their larger-than-life handling of pressing social issues. However, it bothers me how especially post-modern novels consider amoral texts as.. this beacon of exemplary art.

    Sometimes, I want to read something that’s gutsy enough to claim naked Truths (with the capital T), whether regarding the small moments or larger processes in life, even if these initial truths end up being wrong and the author gets smacked for it. Much respect for your illuminations. Thank you for this essay!

    1. L.V.,

      “Audacity” is a great word. It can be tempting to be too “safe” with our writing, telling ourselves that an idea is “silly”, that people won’t enjoy it or that the leap we want to take isn’t reasonable. All of that might be true – but it might not. The onlly way to know is to have our say.

      Thanks for stopping by, and the lovely comment.


  14. Congratulations on being Fresh Pressed.

    Great article – and I agree that goodness does abound, I’ve found that to be so anyway.

    The art of writing, to me, is putting down on paper the small observations that most people seem to miss. A piece of paper stuck to the sole of an old man’s shoe, a girl trying to hold back tears in a cafe, and so on. Observation of the small, hidden and trivial offers great insight into the lives of others.

    1. jumeirajames,

      The details – always, we need the details. I never tire of sharing the wonderful quotation from Anton Chekov – "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass."

      Goodness is harder to show than moonlight, but it has its own ways of illuminating the world.


  15. As a fellow essayist, I must say you hit the nail on the head with this: “writing satisfying essays requires an ability to see the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. It requires the courage to make choices, a willingness to express personal opinion, an impulse to roam beyond received wisdom while moving from feigned objectivity to self-revelation.” Beautiful, and I agree with every word.

    1. jessicajhill,

      I’m so glad my words resonated with your experience. It’s one reason I enjoy reading essayists. It’s always good to know that others have reached some of the same conclusions, no matter the path they traveled.

      And of course, even those we disagree with have things to teach us! Learning to articulate our disagreements is important,too!

      Thanks for stopping by. You’re always welcome!


  16. “Listening for the unspoken word, watching for the half-hidden gesture, feeling the shudder as conflicted human hearts confront their destiny will lead the essayist to speak, however haltingly, of hard-won knowledge and enduring truths.” I love that. That’s important for fiction writers to remember, too.

    1. Sparks in Shadow,

      It certainly is important for novelists – for anyone who has a story to tell. For that matter, all of that listening and watching is important for anyone who has to live with other people – pretty much all of us!


    1. The “like” button’s right up there at the top, in the usual place. The difference is that I’ve disabled avatars, so they don’t show when someone “likes” one of my posts. I much prefer comments to “likes” – they add to the discussion.

      And I am glad to know you liked the post!

  17. Wow! such powerful words, it just transported me to a place I didn’t know existed. I happened to go on Freshly pressed and I’m glad I read your post… And I thought I was doing insignificant essays, until I had the guts to dare venture into writing ” properly ” I think a lot of people consider essays as a warm up. Thanks for lifting it up to a different level!

    1. oawritings,

      Every genre has its place. Calling essays a “warmup” for real writing would be like calling haiku a warmup for sonnets, or sonnets a warmup for long narrative poems. Novels, poetry, screenplays, essays – all have their place, and something different to offer.

      Wouldn’t it be a fun project to write a poem, an essay, a screenplay and a novel on the same subject? I’m not saying I’m going to do it, but it surely is fun to think about!

      Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for your comment.


  18. A very interesting and consistent article. Yet I must disagree in one point. The novelist also pays attention to many many details. The fictional literature is built very much on reality. It is indeed very difficult to find the right word especially on certain subjects, so some writers just put it in action, into something concrete like the story of a novel, rather than something abstract like an essay.

    So even if the characters of a novel are fictional, even if the action of the novel are fictional, the thoughts, the reactions of the characters, the decorations come from the observations the writer makes in reality. He/ she may not be very good putting the observed things into an abstract text but they draw a map of the “facts” by creating the fictional world comprising it. The trick is, the reader also needs a good observation capacity to read between the line, while the reader of an essay gets everything on the plate.
    Of course it depends on the quality of the novel also, and the quality of the novel writer :)

    1. albinatoma27,

      You make some good points about the novel’s form. Of course there are similarities between the essay and the novel, just as there are differences. However, for my purposes here, I chose to focus only on the essay.

      Especially in blog entries, I try to limit myself to one topic or story line. What’s left out often is as important as what’s included – editing is more than grammar and spelling!

      Thanks so much for visiting, and for the nice comment. I appreciate it.


  19. Hi!

    Congratulations on getting Freshly Pressed! I think this blog deals with much more than writing an essay; the principles in it have a much wider application – poems, novels and even blog posts. I completely agree with the emphasis on observance. I think its crucial so as to develop any kind of creative activity – photography or even fine art well. Light and shadow, a keen sense of symbolism and other minute details often prove to add so much depth a basic idea. Thank you for this post! It’s kind of inspired me to write a book now! (long pending dream)

    1. Maulika Hegde,

      Inspiration is a wonderful thing – if I gave you a bit, I’m happy. And you’re certainly right that much of what I said applies to blog entries, too. In fact, when the person from WordPress emailed to say I was being Freshly Pressed, she mentioned exactly that point.

      Good luck with your book!


    1. aditeejoshi,

      Welcome to the wonderful world of blogging! There’s much to enjoy – make the most of it.

      I’m glad you liked the post – thanks for reading and commenting.


    1. dawnpoints,

      “What is said” and “how it’s said” is just another way of talking about style and substance. Both are important, no matter the genre.

      Didion’s a wonderful source of inspiration. One of the things i like about her work is that some is great while some is just ok (at least in my opinion), but it doesn’t keep me from reading and re-reading her. Not every dinner that goes on the table equals the holiday feast, but it still nourishes!


  20. I enjoyed this post quite a bit.

    Being primarily an essayist myself, the following struck me as particularly true:
    “For the essayist, conviction and belief are the lenses through which the world is seen, and our words reveal those convictions and beliefs more clearly than we might intend.”

    I enjoy the release of writing a well-developed essay. To me, it is where the writer first experiences a moment of transformation, then perhaps the reader. In that space of developing a well-written essay, the writer learns something new about self. It is in that form that I personally find liberation as a writer; it’s where I find the rhythm of my words and the originality of my voice. I am attempting to write a novel, but find it much more confining than the essay form.

    Great essay! Thank you.

  21. Linda,

    Oh my! Judging by the comments it appears you have been FP’d. Congratulations! Still I read this yesterday and returned again this morning to savor your words on the essay. Your title is perfect.

    Your paragraph about Anita Diamant on “paying attention” is spot on. I have found in blogging and in writing, I am much more engaged in the world. Btw – An assignment I used to give my upper level classes was to write a “diamante”–Diamant’s name reminded me of that.

    I enjoy reading your essays so much, as you go “plumbing unexpected depths.” There’s always a surprise in every paragraph you write. I have found sometimes I can’t write until I release a thought/opinion/perspective that is already germinating, calling me to speak. I know the “forces that impel me to speak” and I must be true to those influences, those forces that shaped me.

    I loved this! Safe travels as you go to visit your aunt.

    I have to wonder in keeping with the season, is this a Halloween trick that you would get fp’d while on the road?

    1. Georgette,

      Yes, indeedy, re: the Halloween trick. I’ve been pondering whether there might be a relationship between being TP’d and FP’d. ;)

      Paying attention – actively noticing what’s going on around us, what is taking shape in the world – certainly is important. But paying attention to our inchoate responses is part of the process, too. Sometimes, I don’t even realize something has caught my attention until I become aware of those “germinating thoughts” you mention. It can take a good bit of time for some of them to take root.

      I don’t know why I should have thought of this, but there’s another side to the “paying attention” coin. Some things just aren’t worth writing about. As Grandma used to say, you can’t turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse. More than a few posts have landed in what William Zinsser calls the writer’s best tool – the wastebasket – because no matter how much embroidery I applied, they still were plain old sow’s ears.


  22. I really enjoyed your post; had never, since leaving school, thought of the word ‘essay’ with anything beyond a reminiscent shudder of combined loathing and boredom. So your exploration of what an essay actually IS came as a welcome surprise, and a refreshing one at that. Thanks!

    1. kinetikat,

      Oh, I know. “Essay” became linked to “Now, class – take out your notebooks and your pencils. We’re going to write…” I wonder how many people associate the word “essay” with “what I did on my summer vacation?”

      Any time I can offer a little surprise or refreshment, I’m happy. Thanks so much for stopping by and saying it gave you a bit of both. That makes me even happier!


  23. Thank you for your post on the essay. “This combination of vision and discovery, of seeing and seeking, seems to lead naturally to the essay.” I don’t generally write essays myself but your description and explanation of what the essay does is beautiful.
    Also, is that a photo of Oregon??

    1. Healthy Artists,

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. Every now and then I seem to grow reflective about the process I’m engaged in, and it can lead to this sort of piece.

      You’re close, on the photo. I can’t place it exactly, but it was taken between the mouth of the Russian River and the Lost Coast in northern California, sometime around 1995. It was just a vacation photo – but I liked it, kept it, and now found another use for it!

      Thank you for stopping by, and for your gracious comment.


  24. This was a great post that I so identify with. I too “enjoy reading novels, but when it comes to writing I’d much rather explore the world around me than invent a fictional world from whole cloth.” Thanks for exploring this topic in such a nuanced way.

    1. hungryhippo,

      There’s room for all of us – fiction writers,non-fiction, poets. The beauty of it is that if we begin down one path and don’t enjoy it – we can start again!

      Enjoy your writing!


    1. aboomersvoice,

      Thought is so important in the writing process. You’ve mentioned introspection. Other people may talk about pondering a topic, or musing over a subject. But whatever we call it, it does help us clarify our intention – it “clears a path” for the writing to come.

      Thanks for the visit and comment.


  25. This was written with such intelligence. I believe the truest part was about writing with the heart instead of the head. I have a tendency to write from my head space, which is probably why I tend toward comedy writing. But it is my desire to write from the wisdom heart more often. Thank you for posting this. I’m definitely going to Follow your blog. :-)

    Hope you have an excellent day.

    1. smichellespencer,

      For a whole variety of reasons, one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced is joining head and heart in my writing. Whether we’re writing comedy, history or art criticism, there’s a place for both. Writing that’s all “head” can be dull and boring. Writing that’s all “heart” can risk sentimentality. Finding that perfect balance is so important.

      Thanks for stopping by, and for reminding us of this important issue!


    1. Hippie!

      How nice to see you! and thanks for the good words. I trust all’s well over in your part of the world. It’s cold here in Kansas City now, which makes huddling around the warmth of a cozy laptop even nicer. ;)


  26. I’m reading this right at a time when I’m starting to realize novel writing might not be for me, but essays most certainly are. And the fact that this piece reads so poetically has certainly helped matters!

    1. Creative Liar,

      I think it takes time for most of us to find our “comfort spot”. I used to come up with every sort of excuse for not participating in NaNoWriMo, until I found the only reason that made sense. I didn’t want to write a novel!


  27. Thank you for such an insightful post. Your observation that “cynicism is an acid that eats away life” strikes me as so very true. It is a denial of those small, persistent beauties that arrest us and bid us write, paint, dance, cook, create et cetera.

    1. franny,

      Thanks! I must say – I didn’t expect Franny Glass to show up here, but it tickles me to death that you did. I just spent a few minutes refreshing myself on the best Salinger quotations. I particularly liked, ““An artist’s only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else’s.”

      Thanks for the kind words, and for giving me that little nudge.


  28. I am new to writing and I have been surprised by how much I love essay writing. I find that the thing I love most about it is the honesty and emotion It allows me to express. I enjoyed the way you wrote about so many things I have been contemplating myself lately when writing my own blog. Thank you for sharing.

    1. znara,

      My pleasure. Writing isn’t always easy, but it certainly provides great rewards, and there’s always something new to learn. I hope you continue to enjoy your writing and the freedom it gives you to express yourself.


  29. Congratulations on being FP’d! Loved your post — I love essays, but am not good at writing them. Start many. . . but you have given me hope and inspiration. Thank you.

    1. kirs09,

      Anyone who can vacuum the living room and clean the bathroom in the midst of “all that” has what it takes to write. Many people have a rather romantic image of the writer, but there’s a good bit of cleaning up paragraphs and vacuuming up exxtra words involved. I think you’re ready to go!

      Thank you for stopping by, and for the kind words.


    1. snowtrill,

      I’ve really enjoyed my time here at WordPress. There’s plenty to learn – about the mechanics of blogging as well as the writing itself. But there are plenty of folks to help, and many of them are more than gracious.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for stopping by – you’re always welcome!


    1. Jan,

      It’s probably a little long for a t-shirt, but the thought made me smile. I went looking for a take-away phrase and thought perhaps “Seeking and Seeing” might do. It would look good on green, I think!

      Thanks for the visit and the smile. I really appreciate it.


      1. When I read your essay, the euphonious phrase “seeing and seeking” jumped out at me. Later, as a literalist and a cause-and-effect man, I wondered if it should be “seeking and seeing”, which is the version you’ve used here in your comment. I could make a case for either order. Now that you’ve used both forms, what do you think?

        1. What an interesting question, Steve. The fact that I so easily used both forms suggests this might be another instance of the “art imitates life imitates art” dynamic, which just as easily works as “life imitates art imitates life”. There’s clearly a reciprocal relationship. The only question is where one happens to begin.

          My impulse is to say that, in the physical world, seeing tends to come first. Then, curiosity leads to seeking, usually for more information. On the other hand, after a period of the kind of seeking called research, reflection can lead to insight – a different kind of seeing.

          What a fun thing to ponder!


  30. Linda, in my humble opinion, some of your most interesting wordsmithing comes after you have been on the road. You have a knack for seeing the beauty in the most humble of subjects, and it is the photographs of your encounters along the way that inspire your best work. I do look forward to reading about your newest discoveries in future essays!
    Do have a safe journey,
    ~ Lynda

    1. Lynda,

      There’s no question that I love to travel, or that being on the road shakes out the cobwebs.Even if I don’t write specifically about a given trip, there’s real value for me in the solitude and sense of movement that road trips provide.

      When I was getting ready for this trip I told some friends I was ready to channel my inner trucker again – and that, as my mother would say, is more truth than apple butter. Since my high school days, when I would sit on our front steps and listen to the semis running I-80 across the Iowa cornfields, I’ve had the traveling bug. Ships and planes are fine, but the combination of a car and a good road is hard to beat.

      I had an easy jaunt to Kansas City and am here for a couple of days. Then – on to the prairies! Maybe by the time I head west the wind will have died down. I suspect you and your garden will be getting some of this front, too. It’s beautiful – I went to dinner tonight without a jacket, just for the pleasure of shivering!


    1. nikkipolani,

      I’m glad you like the slogan. The more I thought about it, the more I liked it, too.

      The top photo actually is me – in your state! I can’t quite pinpoint the location – I know it’s north of the Russian River and south of the Lost Coast. I still have a clutch of wonderful, white-veined pebbles from that day – but not from that particular beach.

      The middle photo’s also California, mid-coast (but not me) and the bottom is the Mississippi Delta in rain. Three separate locations, one feeling. ;)


  31. Might I offer up my congratulations on being listed on FP’d as well.

    Goodness, was I happy to have stumbled across your blog! I must say,from an editorial standpoint you had me dancing a jig. If one of my contributors submitted this to me I would be awestruck. Structured, succinct, engaging, thought-provoking, beautiful.

    From a writer’s standpoint I feel humbled. Stepping outside my non-fiction technical box to take a stab at the satirical pales next to the eloquence of your essays. It does give one another form to aspire to :)

    1. leilainparadise,

      Thank you for your congratulations, and your more than kind words. All of those lovely adjectives you used are qualities I strive for, so to read them here made me very happy.

      Stepping outside our boxes, self-imposed or otherwise, is an important part of creativity. Thank for your reminder about that, and for your lovely comment. I appreciate it.


    1. Steve,

      I have trouble with some of his work – it gets a little too formally philosophical for me – but I’ve really enjoyed a good bit of it. On his site, in the section devoted to his writing on work, you’ll also find a collection of photos that weren’t included in the book. They’re quite interesting.


    1. soundhealher,

      I’m glad you found the post useful. No, I don’t have any books on essay-writing. I’m still learning how to do it! A workshop would be fun, but I’ve only spoken about blogging – not writing, per se.
      Maybe some day, but not quite yet. ;)


  32. I was just reading all these comments about your beautiful writing and then I came to the quote from Flannery O’Connor about reading her own work ‘being like eating a horse blanket’ This has really made my day, I am chuckling still.

    I used to write fiction but now I tend to focus on nature – it’s a new departure but feels right and your words about the essay are a great encouragement. Thank you. I also like Alain de Botton, I’ve quoted him too on my blog! – from Status Anxiety.

    1. thinkingcowgirl,

      Those are some fine looking cattle you have on your blog. Back in 1962 or so I fell in love with a future district attorney who showed his Hereford at the county fair. I curried the very dickens out of that cow. In return, the future DA dumped me head first in a cattle trough. Then, I knew he loved me, too.

      If you’re inclined, you can see me in my cowgirl finery and read a little about some of my favorite cowgirls here .

      The good news is life doesn’t have to be all either/or. There’s no reason that essays on Spanish cows, the color gray, and grass belly can’t coexist with “Humphrey, the Hippy Hereford” or “Belita’s Revenge”.

      I’ll bet de Botton would be pleased to come and help curry some of the least status-obsessed in the world!


      1. Hehehe…maybe I should invite him! This has been so enjoyable, thank you. I love these stories of the cowgirls, including THE outfit :) I’d like to read those books. It brings back memories too.

        My friend and I were obsessed with the cowboy life, we dreamed of riding in wide open country and working the land – at this point I think the cattle were secondary, a vague blur in the background which necessitated more RIDING. We would watch westerns and talk endlessly about our favourite horses.

        We always identified with the men, as sadly the women were mainly for decoration. Not being part of our culture, we didn’t get to hear of the real cowgirls.

        Once, we made a corral in the woods for our horses and determined to spend the night outdoors. However, not being well behaved like they are in the movies, they promptly broke out, snapping the poles which we’d laboured over for the whole day. We rounded them up and put them back in the field and went back to the tent. Then the night creatures started emerging, their footsteps crackling on the leaves outside. Within an hour we were running like mad things back to the safety of my friends house, clutching each other with fear and relief. We were put together in a big double bed where we couldn’t stop giggling until her mum came in and said it was time we went to sleep.

        1. Wonderful stories of a childhood so similar to mine and yet so different. I was much older when I finally began to experience things like the “night creatures”, learning, for example, that a single armadillo can make as much noise as a dozen armed men in the middle of the night.

          The good news is that it’s never too late to become a cowgirl, metaphorical or otherwise. If you don’t know Patsy Montana’s The She Buckaroo, I suspect you’ll enjoy it.


  33. Congrats on your FP!! I think “essay” gets a bad rap (probably thanks to English classes!). Still, there’s a definite need for essayists in our world, to point out things and describe people and places, to propose ideas we might not have thought of. I admire those who can do all that, even though I tend to prefer creating a fiction world when I write. To each his/her own!

    1. Debbie,

      Someone up the page made the same point about the essay. It was a teaching tool extraordinaire when I was in school, but following the formula and getting to 500 words was the first order of business.It makes sense, of course – the basics have to come first. Lay the foundation of the house first, and worry about picking the color of the shutters later.

      Have you taken part in any of the flash fiction challenges around WordPress? Or do you have a story or novel going. I need to poke around in your archives to see what’s up! But as you say – none of us have to complete someone else’s assignment now. We’re free to write as we please!


  34. Your writing here is so inspirational to me. I am new to the essay and very new to writing, wanting mainly to share my take on issues I am familiar with but now I hope to branch out and give up the grossly emotional in order to concentrate objectively on what I see about me.

    Your writing here is beautiful and your words have hit home with me. Thank you.

    1. Rubye Jack,

      I’m delighted you stopped by, and so glad you enjoyed the piece.
      I think I saw a mention from you over at Susan’s that you were thinking of doing more writing – happy to have provided a little encouragement. It really is great fun.

      I tend to be a bit more reserved than some people, and it took me a while to find my own way through some of the blogging thickets. One guideline I created for myself is called “Be personal, but not confessional”. I suppose that’s my way of rephrasing what Georgia O’Keeffe so famously said: ““Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant… It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest.”

      Thanks so much for your generous words. You’re always welcome to stop by!


  35. Hey Linda congratulations on being FP! Your writing shines with a glow all the way across the internet and I’ve always wondered why you weren’t freshly pressed :D As you always do, you’ve managed to say so much in this post it needs more than one reading.

    José Saramago’s quote is brilliant. I didn’t know that The word “essay” is related to the French essayer, which means “to try”

    I love the pictures. Also like your challenge Wouldn’t it be a fun project to write a poem, an essay, a screenplay and a novel on the same subject?

    I’m being compelled to “speak” right now, to share my story. I hope I can do it justice. I may not be able to pop over that often.
    much love

    1. rosie,

      Being freshly pressed is nice, but I much prefer the honor of a comment from a reader. That’s just me – I have my own views of what I want to accomplish here, and they’re probably a little quirky.

      Do I understand you correctly? Are you working something now, “off-blog”? Or will you be telling your story on your blog? In either case, I’ve learned enough about you to know it will be interesting and enjoyable. I hope we’ll get a peek.

      I was thinking about the word “essay”, and suddenly wondered about the word “novel”. In the process of learning that a novel originally referred to a collection of shorter stories, I found this marvelous quotation from Stendhal that I’m sure you’ll also love: “A novel is like a violin bow; the box which gives off the sounds is the soul of the reader.” (from the “Life of Henri Brulard”).

      Isn’t that nice? The writer and reader, making beautiful music together!


    1. isguardiola,

      Thank you very much. Head and heart do belong together, when it comes to writing – and I very much like your combination of grace and beauty.


  36. Your insights, as usual, are spot on. I’ve much to learn about essays and essayists, not having been one myself. Maybe one day I’ll be up to the challenge. Your depth of writing boggles my mind, though. What an inspiration you continue to be to those who could think and write with such conviction. Enjoy Kansas!

    1. Bayou Woman,

      I’m back, and now it’s my turn to get caught up! I think you shortchange yourself. I’ve read plenty on your blog that could qualify as an essay – I’m thinking of Bayou Fabio, for example. You’re doing less of that kind of writing now, but part of the reason clearly is the expansion of your business and the changing nature of your blog as a result. But you certainly are up to the challenge!

      As I said somewhere to someone (I have no idea, but it’s here in the comments) it thrills me to think I could be an inspiration to anyone. So many people have inspired and supported me, it’s just nice to think I can return the favor. You’re a sweetie for saying so.

      I see you’ve moved into film! I’ll be by shortly to see what that’s all about. How long until you’re a full-length feature film?!


  37. I was glad to see that you talked about surprise and discovery as important elements in the process. You referred to “unsuspected depths” and “unexpected patterns.” I never learned that in school, but wish I had. We were taught that essays were some sort of delivery system, as though the writer were doing the reader a favor by sharing a few crumbs of privileged wisdom. As you said, it’s much more about exploring the world and reporting back on what may have otherwise remained unnoticed. And you do that as well as anyone.

    1. Charles,

      That’s a perfect description of how I was taught to understand essay writing – as a delivery system. In many respects, our entire educational system has been seen in the same way. In his critiques, Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator, described education as a “banking system”. Teachers held the capital, students made withdrawals. Of course his theories were more complex than that, but there was a great deal of truth in them.

      Surprise and discovery are the great rewards of curiosity. Truth to tell, there’s not much difference between this old-lady blogger and the five year old who always was running to the house saying, “Hey! Look at this!”


    1. Andrew,

      Oh – this one got “freshly pressed” by WordPress. There’s nothing like a day on the front page to whomp up the comment total! It pleased me enormously, but I think it’s not likely to happen again for a while (if ever).

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Here’s to another wonderful year of “seeing and seeking” for both of us!


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