Commonplace Newsletter #100
Inevitably, milestones bring reflection. So as I sit down and begin typing essay #100 I am brought back to remember and reconsider the 99 essays which have preceded this one. Since first posting my work online in 2020, I have writtenabout walking and lunch, I have written about smoking and gambling, I have written about the beach and (more than once) about the troubles with the modern internet. I have written about John Coltrane and Mark E Smith. I have written about cemeteries, Netflix and the Christmas Market. I have dabbled in a little bit of everything and also in nothing, a subject which I consider to be both vitally important and criminally overlooked.
There is no real through-line to my work as far as I can see, no calculated notion of making the work a brand complete with a signature theme or message other than what has maybe been on my mind each week as I wander through and around life at the beginning the 21st Century’s third decade. The theme is the worldview and the worldview is the theme, for better or worse. Which is not to say that these pieces are merely random or haphazard or there is not thought and consideration which goes into them. In fact- and I hope I’m not spoiling anything by saying this- the off hand, conversational, its-just-you-and-me-talking-here quality that these essays have is intentionally cultivated. Just as Dolly Parton by all accounts said ‘it costs a lot of money to look this cheap’, so too does it take a lot of practise to appear this unrehearsed.
See, this is the beauty of the essay as a form- it’s possibly one of the freest modes of expression there is. You can write in a clean and simple journalistic prose and stick to nothing but the agreed facts. You can make yourself seemingly invisible and let your data and the on the record quotations and the chosen evidence do the talking. You can be thoroughly rigorous, and you can tightly structure and sequence each utterance with a Wittgensteinian level of logical precision. But- you don’t have to do any of this. You don’t have to do anything when it comes to essay writing- and this is why it speaks to my contrarian heart. The essay can be whatever we want it to be, whatever we need it to be, it can be as rigid or as elastic a container for words and expressions as the moment and the subject call for.
The level of freedom is absolute, sometimes dizzyingly so. The form is endlessly malleable and as far as I can see (and as far as I am concerned) you can write about whatever you want, at whatever length, in whatever form or sequence you please. You can write calculated works that offer up key points and takeaways for the reader to underline or jot down in a notebook, but you don’t have to offer this. You don’t have to do anything in my opinion other than entertain the reader and not waste their time. It’s that simple, and that difficult.
If my experience to date has taught me anything it is that writing an entertaining essay is a matter of intangibles. When things click with an essay the whole piece becomes greater than the sum of its constituent parts. For instance, bread is not just flour, water, yeast and salt- there is also the key intangible ingredient of time itself. And so, writing is not just words and ideas and evidence and punctuation and quotations. There is the vital intangible of the author’s spirit, or as I prefer to refer to it as breath which manifests through what we call voice or style. You have to allow the written words to breathe, as if you were telling a story involving a back and forth with the listener. This is what I find fascinating as both a reader and writer and this is what I attribute whatever success I have to, even though I cannot explain this phenomenon of breathing life into the written word, let alone teach it. We are entering into the realm of muses and daemons with all of this and indeed the more time I spend writing, the more I understand why the ancients resorted to such mystical and otherworldly means of explaining the creative process. Because it makes little sense otherwise.
Like I said, freedom can be dizzying, and the essay as a form is a prime example of freedom. Sure, school taught us the rigid rules for composition- beginning, middle, end, cite sources appropriately, keep to a set word count and so on- but these barriers and defences soon fall apart outside the school setting. Outside a stultifying mass public schooling context many would-be writers do not allow themselves to truly comprehend the degree of freedom which the essay can bring, and if they do understand this, they don’t grasp it with two hands for the opportunity that it is. School taught us to focus on all the things that make our words markable while removing the likelihood of those words ever becoming remarkable. We return to the idea that the sum of a work’s parts not necessarily enough to create a meaningful whole.
To emphasise this again- we are not in school anymore. The rules do not have to be adhered to anymore. In fact, I would argue that this mythical manifestation of voice or breath can only be brought about by bending and breaking the rules. Virtually every great essay I have read as an adult has flown in the face of these rules and conventions- playing with chronology, meandering, call backs, using the once scholarly and serious art of footnotes as a means for tomfooleryand sometimes not only not reaching the conclusion in a timely fashion but refusing to get to the point or even having a point whatsoever. School essays would give you a few bonus marks for style whereas outside the teacher-marked world, style in writing counts for next to everything. Whether it be in investigative journalism, historical accounts, fiction, biography, reviews or in a dozen other genres it is the stylists who stand out and excel. Style is voice and voice is style and this, as we have said, is an intangible and as such it is much harder to teach and mark compared to speculating around a pre-determined spectrum of acceptable answers on what an author may have been thinking and trying to say when they wrote their classic novel.
When we are absolutely drowning in information and opinions and narratives, it is being read to the end that counts and it is being remembered after that which really counts. And style is what gets us there. Having a strong, memorable, readily identifiable authorial voice is what gets us there. And this is an innate and unteachable quality. We all inherently have a voice, the same as we all have an accent and a dialect when we speak. And for the most part standard schooling flattens and smooths away all the character and grain of this voice so we all end up sounding the same when we write, which is fine for composing terse and professional work emails and guidelines and protocols but is potentially ruinous when it comes to creative expression via the written word.
We have to become who we are, who we always were. ‘The genius is the one most like [them]self’ as Thelonious Monk once famously said. And free-form essay writing is a way we get to ourselves, or how we at least get that little bit closer. This has been the main thing that writing 100 essays has taught me. Etymologically speaking an essay is an attempt and this is how I think essays should be viewed each time we begin. It’s taking a shot, it’s having a go. The result will always be insightful as we will always learn something about ourselves- the process, our beliefs- as we are writing. The great joy of writing is in the surprise, is in the times you feel that you are a conduit and so are yourself genuinely enlightened by what has just been written- ‘I didn’t know that’s what I thought, but there it is’ is a wonderful thing to feel. And initial excess structuring or planning cuts off the capacity for such serendipity of discovery to transpire.
An essay is not homework, it is creative expression. Or at least it is for me. You may not gather data or factoids from these pieces of mine, you may not learn what to think but I can provide an example of how to think and how to question. But above all the purpose of an essay- both mine and many others’- is to entertain. To create a space, an oasis from the commotion of reality where we can stop time and ponder and ruminate for a while, and discuss differing perspectives with curiosity instead of pomposity. So rather than being (only) a way to disseminate information, an essay is not too far removed from its older siblings- the poem and the story.
They are all means of constructing a pleasing flow of words to lead someone to a place they may not have considered going to otherwise. And no matter the medium, if a writer can captivate and transport the reader they can be a small step in helping the reader broaden their understanding, and the writer’s own in the process. And this, as far as I can tell, is what this whole business of writing is for.
Until next time,
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I debated whether to use the word ‘spoken’ rather than written as even though this is a purely text based exchange, I do feel as if these essays are a casual rambling (and admittedly one-sided) conversation between me and you, the reader.
When I say nothing I mean it not in the sense of the existential void of nothingness, but in the sense of how Seinfeld is billed as ‘a show about nothing’. The overlooked quotidian ordinariness of life is where the real stuff of life develops and we often miss it as we become preoccupied with things other than the present. Hence why I chose to label my essay project The Commonplace- a suitably pedestrian name for a compendium of pieces about everyday subjects.
I don’t say this to boast- because I honestly can’t fully judge if what I do is any good or not- I merely say this to highlight that nothing about what I publish is unconsidered.
I know this is unsatisfactory to the note-takers reading this.
The Greek word for breath- psuché (ψυχή)- captures what I am trying to get at here. In the Old (or Hebrew) Testament the corresponding Hebrew word for soul is the result of God breathing life into abeing. This is the best metaphor for the creative act I have found. You have to enable your work to breathe independently.
Derrida, or Baudrillard, or one of those guys said that the real thoughts of a civilisation are to be found in the footnotes of its texts. I think this is how it goes. And if this idea is correct then the ‘true’ meaning of my texts is in its puns, witticisms, half-remembered sayings and silly anecdotes.