Friday, 1 January 2021

The weekly essay

When I was a schoolboy, I used to dread Monday afternoons.  It was the day we wrote our English essay.  The classes you hate are often those taken by some mentally defective bully whose only pathetic pleasure is to terrorise hapless children.  In this case it must have been from some deep antipathy to the form, or else a sense of personal inadequacy with words; it certainly had nothing to do with Mr Thurlow.

Normally grown-ups tower over you at school; Sammy Thurlow appeared small even to us in our short trousers.  He looked like a tiny Amazonian Indian dressed in a characterless grey demob suit.  And there would be no need to shrink his head: it was already brown and shrivelled, as if chain-smoking had cured him from the inside out.

On the Friday before the essay, Mr Thurlow would turn to us, his rheumy  eyes avoiding our gazes as ever, and between near-fatal coughing fits give us our theme for the following Monday.  We wondered where he got them from: 'it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive'; 'ambition'; 'the pen is mightier than the sword.'  They could have been framed in Sammy's native Amazonian dialect for all the relevance they had to this twelve-year old.

I did not understand essays then.  Drawn more naturally to mathematics, I could only approach essays as problems in search of a solution.  But answers were hard to come by: was the pen mightier than the sword, or not?  The best I could hope for were a series of alternatives, each paragraph nullifying the next with its "on the one hand" or "on the other."  I was deeply envious of fellow schoolmates who were able to take the title as the starting point for some huge fantasia, a pell-mell rush of ideas and images which never seemed to bother themselves with a final destination.  I was also convinced that in some sense they were cheating.

I could have lived with the rigours of my dialectical approach had it been easy to apply.  But it was not.  Every Monday I was faced with the same blank piece of paper, as if all my previous essays had been in vain.  I was oppressed by the sense of distance to be covered, as if the sheet of paper were all uphill.  The essay's form seemed to be a Procrustean bed which stretched my limited ideas and poor creativity to breaking point.

I realise now that it was meant to.  An essay that was easy to write would have been a waste of time.  As I vaguely but correctly sensed, writing is a journey, and often through harsh terrain.  Its destination is not an answer, but a coming together and accommodation of your current ideas.  Which was why I found essay-writing so hard: I had no ideas.

Nor did writing really help me to discover any.  Ideas come only from experience, be it your own or other people's.  As the first ideas begin to germinate within you, the essay becomes not so much simpler as richer.  The act of writing is a crystallisation of ideas; like a crystal, it is formed by creating links, and by establishing a larger order.  That order, however, is only one of many.  As its name suggests, an essay is an attempt, an instance of ambition and of travelling hopefully.

(1987)

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