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.” Continue reading

Speaking My Heart – Writing, Vision and Truth


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.”  Implicit in his remarks is a refutation of the easy 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.

In her Write on Wednesday prompt this week, Becca asks, “Do you enjoy reading and writing personal essays?”  The fact is I do – primarily because I’m most interested in exploring the world around me, rather than inventing a fictional world from whole cloth.  I’m intrigued by the challenges posed when attempting to communicate rich, densely-textured realities through an apparently simple form, and I prefer the freedom to move from one topic to another as my attention is engaged, rather than devoting months or years to the same project.

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, “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 comes from the French essayer, which means “to try”.   Trying to communicate the richness of reality can be difficult at best.  When Anita Diamant, in her introduction to Pitching My Tent, writes that her challenge as an essayist was “to pay closer-than-average attention and then shape…experiences and reactions into entertaining prose”, she suggests what I have come to believe: that vision comes first.  Continue reading

Reading, Writing and Thinking – A Paradigm for Blogging

Recently in the WordPress Forums, justjosie asked a question: “Is there any easy way to just find something in a normal day that you can make interesting and into a blog? This may be a stupid question but I just can’t figure out what the Good Blog formula is.”


It isn’t a stupid question at all.  When I first began writing online, people seemed to enjoy my posts, but I continually was haunted by the thought: “What if I can’t do it again?  What if I can’t think of something to say?  What if I don’t have the ability to string words together time after time after time in a way that will be satisfying to me and interesting enough to draw in readers?”

As weeks passed, finding a topic became less of a concern.  Since coming to WordPress, I’ve posted 26 blogs but during the same time period I’ve placed 43 drafts in my files.  A “draft” may be nothing more than  a title or a quotation, but it still is a working point, a place to start, a bit of inspiration that can grow into a full entry.   I do “write” my blogs – I see them as essays – and I’m not certain I’ll ever be able to turn out a new entry every day.  But writing well and communicating is my primary goal. 

Even though I’m just beginning and still am feeling my way through the process, I’ve written enough to be able to look back and suggest an approach that may help other bloggers.   What works for me may not work for you, but I’m more than happy to share what I’ve found useful in this new venture.


 The first step in any new blog entry is that moment when something catches my attention.  It may be something in nature, like the two purple snail shells that were the genesis of The Surprise of Tiny Purple Things.  It may be something utterly mysterious on the internet, like the name Yoani Sanchez left on the title line of a blog listing page with the entry removed.  It may even be a memory that suddenly resurfaces, with power enough to make me look again at my own past, and re-work it in new words.

I’ve noticed my own untied shoelaces, the summer constellations, the ubiquitous presence of Sisyphus in our world and an old photograph of William Faulkner’s home.  Each of those was a starting point, just as GPS technology, peanut butter sandwiches, plywood boats, the phrase “no problem” and upside down rainbows will be starting points in the future.

So first of all: look.  Open your eyes and your ears.  Be receptive to what you see around you, and what you hear people saying.  Look for the odd, the unexpected, the commonplace that isn’t even seen any longer because it is so common.  There’s enough in the world to keep us all going for lifetimes.

The next step may be research.  I say “may” because research isn’t necessary for every blog.  A few times, I’ve done no research at all.  But when it is needed, research can be as simple as looking up the lyrics to a song or the colors in the eight-count box of Crayolas.  It also can be as time-consuming and complex as tracing the vocational path of an early environmentalist.  Where research is involved, follow the practices of a good journalist: fact check, and check again.  Get multiple sources, if you can.  Use primary documents rather than secondary if possible, and cite – accurately and in a consistent style – until you feel yourself living the life of a dedicated student.

Writing and Thinking belong together in a reciprocal relationship.  After noticing something interesting and getting the facts straight, the time has come to decide what you think about it and what you want to say.  The process is a bit chicken-and-eggish.  I often think about my subject long before I put words to paper, but there are times when words or phrases come to mind first, and then I think about them.  This is the one point where I will offer what I suspect should be an ironclad rule for good writing:

As I write, I continually edit, and my editing process is concerned with far more than correct spelling and grammar.  I edit for clarity of thought, for logical consistency and personal conviction as well.  Because I want my words to be a direct expression of who I am – because I want them to be true, in the fullest sense of that word – I’m forced to think to be sure my writing does the job. 

You may have realized by now that focusing on one step or another in this process will bring very different results.  My first blog about the two tiny janthina shells, The Surprise of Tiny Purple Things, was one kind of entry.   Almost all “noticing” and “writing”  it could have worked as a travel article.  On the other hand, the second blog that grew out of the experience, The Sage of Biscayne Bay, was heavily researched and more educational in nature.   A blog that is all thought, without any research at all, will be more personal and reflective.  An entry that simply reports, that is all “noticing”, invites others in for their own thought, research and reflection.  “Look at this,” the writer says.  “What do YOU make of it?”

Of the four steps, noticing comes most easily for me.  It’s a bit like breathing – I simply do it.  Research takes time, but it isn’t hard. Writing takes much more time, and is a good bit harder but not impossible. It’s the thinking that takes the most effort.  I’ve never thought so much in my life.

Once again, what I have in mind for my blog will not be to everyone’s taste, and not everyone will want to approach blogging in this way.  But no matter what form a blog takes, or what the content may be, the steps still apply, and all of them represent skills that can be learned, developed and put to use.

When one of my readers recently mentioned the Hotel Coral Essex and the film Revenge of the Nerds in a comment, it was unusual enough that I noticed it.  Since I didn’t have a clue about the Coral Essex or the film (I live under a large rock), I peeked at a YouTube clip – that’s research.  Now, I’m thinking about it, turning my nugget of information over and over in my mind.  Eventually, I may put a title or a phrase in my files, and there it will be: draft number 44.

See?  Easy!  Now, it’s your turn….

Purity of Prose is to Write One Thing


Readers who follow my postings know my habit of keeping a series of “snippets” at the bottom of my computer monitor.    Rarely inspirational in any traditional sense, they give me encouragement and perspective.  Ranging from full quotations to simple phrases, some are posted only a day or two before being consigned to oblivion. Others may stay for a month, or are posted and reposted as I consider and re-consider their meaning.  Only one snippet has earned the privilege of continuous posting, a reader’s utterly perfect description of our beloved computers as “infernal persnickity timesuckers”.  Taken separately, each word is apt.  Taken together, they form a verbal perfect storm that never fails to sweep my mind clean of whatever cyber-frustrations have built up.

Another favorite was reposted today: Soren Kierkegaard’s famous phrase,  “Purity of heart is to will one thing”.    The first of his Edifying Addresses to be translated into English, it was written in 1846 and included in the volume, Edifying Addresses of Varied Tenor,  published in 1847.  I’ve always wished that particular edifying address had the same direct beauty of the title.  I can’t read Kierkegaard – too dense, too convoluted, too formally philosophical – and I’ve never made it all the way through his essay.  But I’ve always felt the phrase to be utterly true, even though I see its truth only partially, as though with sideways glances.

The “willing of one thing” came to mind today as I pondered my continuing frustration with a short piece I’ve been trying to bring to completion.   For nearly two months I’ve twiddled with sentences, re-arranged paragraphs, rephrased thoughts and shuffled ideas, to no avail.  All of the pieces seem right, but when I nudge them next to each other on the page, they simply lie there exhausted, with no sense of life or energy.  Today as I worked, allowing my mind to wander, Kierkegaard’s words suddenly reappeared, immediately recognizable and yet utterly transformed:

Purity of prose is to write one thing. 

Startled beyond words, I wondered: had my subconscious been at work?   Was it my Muse, back from one of her famous day trips to Poughkeepsie?  Had my efforts to force the essay in one direction kept me from seeing it preferred to head off in another?   Dragging the essay from its hiding place and reading it again, I was startled beyond words to find not one essay, but two.  My original wonderful idea was walking hand in hand with a second, equally wonderful idea.  If my essay were dessert, it wouldn’t be chocolate cake and ice cream, it would be chocolate cake and apple pie.  There simply was too much.

The problem of “too much” is real.  Characters, ideas, or plots show up uninvited,  and they intend to stay.  Authors have been thinking it over for centuries.   Samuel Johnson said, “Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”  Thoreau, speaking of life,  might as well have been talking about writing when he said, “Simplify, simplify…”  

 Annie Dillard describes the irony of it all in her book, The Writing Life:  “The part you must jettison is not only the best-written part; it is also, oddly, that part which was to have been the very point.  It is the original key passage, the passage on which the rest was to hang, and from which you yourself drew the courage to begin. “

And so, with the encouragement of the ages, I begin again.   No longer content to tweak sentences or chose different words, I begin to jettison entire paragraphs.  As I do, a clearer structure emerges, and a sense of renewed life for the words which it supports.   Best of all, that second wonderful idea is still at hand, ready to be developed in its own way.  Purity of prose may be to write one thing, but it never is to write just once.  “Write your one thing,” whispers the Muse, “and write it well.”   And then, write the next thing.  And the next.  And the next…

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