I spent some time this afternoon looking back at
the various essays I've written over the past couple of months, not
so much to look for things that needed correcting or alteration
(although there was certainly no shortage of those), but rather to
try and get an overview of the kind of things that I had been writing
about. During this recent spate of writing, I haven't had any kind of
general 'theme' or purpose in mind, and I see that as a consequence
the topics have varied widely. To my mind, that's all to the good. I
would like to think that eventually, with enough of this kind of
practice, I could perhaps develop into the kind of writer who would
have something interesting to say on topics that ranged over many
different fields. But I was also struck very strongly by the
generally 'trivial' nature of many of these pieces, and (don't
laugh!), I can't really decide if that's bad or good. Let me try and
As part of my attempts to become a better essay
writer, I have been reading works by many practitioners of this art,
both people living today, and writers from years past. Some of these
essayists have bored me, most have at least kept my attention, and
some have brought a smile to my face, or a feeling of warmth to my
heart. Now of course, as it is this latter group that I would wish to
emulate, it is to these that I have paid the most attention. Why have
I enjoyed their work? What is it that separates these writers from
the other two groups? I have read and re-read their essays, looking
for answers to these questions.
One thing I did notice was that one factor seemed
common to a great number of the essays I enjoyed the most - the fact
that they were 'familiar'. In each case, the writer spoke in his own
voice, and not in an impersonal format. I knew who was writing. He
was not afraid to speak to me directly, and in an open, honest way.
The language is clear and simple, and the written style is sometimes
quite similar to actual conversational language.
But they were familiar in another sense too.
Whether it was J.B. Priestley talking about his own face, A.A. Milne
discussing a mislaid train ticket, Robert Lynd meeting a farmer one
morning, Joseph Epstein discussing chocolate chip cookies, or Hilaire
Belloc talking to a cat (this list could go on for ever, so I'd
better cut it short there ...); each of these essays showed some
slice of actual life, and usually not any aspect of life that seemed
to be of much importance in the 'grand scheme of things'.
Essays written about such topics certainly do seem
at first sight to be 'trivial'. Many of the little pieces I have
written recently - about buying a hamburger, visiting a school,
sitting on a river bank, or just eating a bowl of granola - are of
this type. Each one just a small episode. But when you read essays
that have been written this way, in this familiar and simple idiom,
over a period of time you build up a picture of the writer, of his
real character and personality, far more than through fiction, where
it is the products of the writer's imagination that we see, or with
more formal 'serious' writing, which hides behind a wall of
impersonality and neutral voice. With familiar writing though, if the
author has written plainly enough and without artifice, then the
reader starts to imbibe something of his philosophy and his beliefs,
in an almost subliminal fashion.
Once upon a time, we had Aesop's Fables to attempt
to guide us in shaping a personal philosophy ('and the moral of the
story is ...'). Since then, a great many serious authors have written
outright statements of their philosophy, outlining explicitly how
people should shape their societies, and how they should behave. But
it seems to me that far more than those more overt propagandists, it
is actually the 'familiar' essayists who are the most effective at
philosophical guidance. These men though, don't tell us how we should
be living. They simply tell us about their experiences and
activities. And if they do their job well, if they make themselves so
personable to us that we listen to them as we would to an old friend,
then their 'message' will start to come across.
For of course they do have a message. Just as do
the 'real' philosophers with their heavy tomes, these men also wish
to offer us their views on how our lives, and society in general,
could be organized. But rather than preach at us from a pulpit, they
resort to more subtle means. Sitting together with us in
conversation. One-way conversation it may be, from the printed page
into our eyes, but conversation nonetheless.
I feel that these men, some of whom I mentioned
above, are friends of mine. Whether they are long dead, or still with
us, I feel that they are friends. I don't always agree with what they
have to say, but I do know that they have influenced me, just as have
my 'real', here-in-person friends. Perhaps I am fooling myself when I
say this, for I don't think I'm quite ready to join this capable
group of men of whom I have been speaking, but I would like to think
that one day, my voice too could speak with that kind of influence.
I suppose it is implicit in what I say, that I
feel like I have indeed something to offer. Something to say to the
world. Well, I'm far from sure about that, just as I'm far from sure
that there really is anything new left under the sun anyway. The more
I read, the more I come to think that it has 'all been done' and has
'all been said'. Those men of the past have covered all the bases.
But I suppose that, just as each man in turn has to discover for
himself what life is about, so does each age need its own people to
talk about the mysteries ...
In my own essays so far, I don't think I've
offered much that was original, but I do hope that I'm gradually
learning to express clearly what ideas I do have, and what is more
important, to express them familiarly. Like to read some more? Pull
up a comfortable chair ... let's talk!