An essay is something you write to try to figure something out.Paul Graham, “The Age of the Essay”
When I think of this blog, and its tagline “Writing and Learning at the Margin”, I immediately think, “Wow, I really never publish on this blog.” Of course, I’m always writing and learning the margin. Everyday I write emails to colleagues and friends, going through technical processes, sorting out project details, or hashing out the grand philosophy and the mean and nasty everyday politics. And learning is part and parcel to going through life — “That’s gonna hurt!”
But the essay implies something more formal, more focused. We anticipate publishing, which implies an audience. Who is the audience, and how do we reach them?
Write a Note, Wrap It Around a Brick, and Throw it Over the Wall
In school, we had to make the teacher happy, which was honestly a low-bar. Get your citations in the right format! I heard that a local public high school in Northern Virginia wasn’t even requiring students in the regular track to write essays at all. Perhaps they assumed those students would not have need to organize their thoughts in any focused way. Give them a course in texting instead, perhaps. Which emoji is best for saying, “That tiktok video repeated propaganda I already believed but it was good to hear it one more time.”? The communication by emoji represents a shared lingo, even if it reduces even the least of thoughts down to a symbol with even less content.
In the academic world, there is the bad habit of scholars purposely adding jargon and esoteric blather in order to make their papers more unreadable and thus more unassailable. Nobody’s reading it, and we’ll make sure nobody can figure it out if they try.
In writing news, you start with lede, the latest and greatest and then you fill in the details and background. The type of publication determines the grade-level of your audience, so you can talk down to them with the appropriate vocabulary. Is for the 7th grade public? Well, with grade inflation, 7th grade is now more like 5th grade, so, we have to dumb it down a bit more. We can always replace the text with a picture.
But all these kinds of writing impose a structure that forces you to think about the problem in a particular way. And the focus is on acceptance by the receiver. Writing in school is all about what you can get away with so you can go back to screwing around — what were the requirements to pass the assignment anyway? Writing in academia is largely about performing a ritual so you can attain or retain your spot in the pecking order. And the news is there to keep the public calm or excited according to demands of Gnomes of Zurich.
But we can actually just write for ourselves. You are the writer, you are the audience. You can say that yourself. In fact, if you essay towards your own understanding, you will be saying it to yourself.
It’s My Blog, I Can Cry If I…
I left off the “want to”, because I expect the reader to be able to complete the sentence. I added this in there because I want to talk about sentence completion. Sentence completion is a big part of writing and it will be mentioned again below. Which way shall I go with this sentence? With the format of “It’s my party, I can cry if I want to.” I can replace the words “party” and “cry” and describe any number of place and activities that I’m authorizing for myself and declaring ownership over that place. It’s my essay and I can walk in the woods if I want to. But, if it is an essay, what am going to learn as I go? Am I navigating leisurely, taking note of my surroundings and considering the value of the beauty and richness surrounding me, or am I thinking about navigation and how to get out of the woods, or to at least not get lost in them? Am I on the path?
When I think about paths, I think about structure, something someone has already built and we can benefit and/or suffer from adhering to it.
When the blizzard came through, who was the big burly guy who forged a path through the snow drift? Did he do a good job? Why aren’t we just happy that we can get to the store thanks to his effort?
There’s no crying in baseball.Tom Hanks as the coach in A League of Their Own
Do we agree that there’s no crying in baseball or do we acknowledge that there is crying. Should there be crying or not? Who made the rule? Doesn’t matter. Our time, our rules. Take a rule and run with it, reflect on it, put it out as a question to people who care, run real-world experiments, or just put the idea in the drawer and work on something more pressing. This isn’t school. Essaying is for you and yourself and you.
Answer Questions Even If You Are Sure You Are Wrong
The questions are endless, we have to answer some and move forward. In this sense, the person who faces the snow-drift of uncertainty (and fear) is the big burly guy who pushes through with whatever strength is available and that strength in writing is the ability to start writing even if you are unsure of how it will turn out.
Andrew Ng has a course at DeepLearning.ai on ChatGPT prompting. The course suggests that ChatGPT should be given time to think about its answer before committing to its final conclusion. You can encourage ChatGPT to “think” by asking it to write out its thoughts about each premise, leading to the conclusion. This apparently causes the sentence-completion engine to write better sentences.
As a sentence-completion engine yourself, go ahead and dump out what you are thinking about. Your very next paragraph can reflect on whether that is anything close to what you need to be solving for. If you actually find the right thread in the jumble of your stream of consciousness, put a couple of separator characters on a line (like ***) with a couple of hard returns to create vertical space, and proceed with the questions you want to answer. You have to get to a conclusion with the best reasoning you can think of right now.
“These are the exam answers I can think of today”, I once wrote on the top of a grad school final exam, riffing off Mitch Hedberg’s line, “These are jokes, I can think of today, therefore they are the CD jokes.” It seems like an apology, anticipating the reader’s judgment that what follows won’t be up to snuff, but that the reader will understand that the material is in development. Sort of a good-faith effort with the promise of future excellence.
But that’s all the essay has to be. It is a promise to yourself to keep moving forward, to keep moving the margin of understanding and quality.
Writing as Thinking
In economics and in software, the idea of a model is that of a disposable construct that holds the current best-thought-of way of managing parameters, including the environment and functional inputs. The environment is the context in which something operates and the functional inputs are those elements that affect the the behavior of the model causing specific or statistically-likely outcomes. They are disposable because it is cheap to come up with new ones, although it is more work to prove that the new model is better. Often time and experience will be required to get the data to draw contrasts. The formal theories using math or pure logic represent the attempts to predict outcomes without that time and experience.
And so essaying provides the average person with the tools to work out the validity of their thoughts and plans. We write ahead to see the future so it doesn’t hit us in the face. And we write looking back to see where we went wrong. But it doesn’t have to be a only practice of risk management. Writing helps the essaying adventurer imagine new paths and work though how to get to them in the real world.
As each sentence heads towards completion, and each essay begins to feel full, and you are ready to hit full stop for now, a point I’m about to reach, it is good to appreciate that each essay represents a piece of learning that is personal and is personally useful even if it moves the ball forward only a foot or two.
Remembering Johnny Cash, we gather together our resources, “one piece at a time, and in the end it will all be mine.”