Regarding Essays and the Essayist

As a writer, my main area of expertise (I flatter myself that I have one at all) is the essay. As such, when telling others of my vocation, I rarely call myself a writer. I usually use the term “essayist” to describe the nature of my literary labors. E.B. White, one of the 20th century’s supreme figures, made a fitting observation about himself (and all essayists) when he said the following:

The essayist is… sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest.

I love this quote, mostly because I identify so closely with it. And White was spot on in his observation. Writers, at least the breed of writers among which I aspire to belong, think that anything they bother to scribble on paper must be interesting to everyone else. Most of the time, it’s actually only interesting to us. Nonetheless, I’ll always conform to the view of Rudyard Kipling, who eloquently said:

I am, by calling, a dealer in words; and words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.

Yes, essayists simply must say what they need to say, for in so doing, we take part in that most powerful drug.

As for the essay itself, there’s been much debate over the years as to just what constitutes an essay. Some say any piece of writing that exceeds 5,000 words is an essay, while others say any piece of writing that has something of importance or interest to communicate to the reader qualifies as an essay. As to what I think, I tend to defer to he who was recognized during his lifetime as the unofficial king of essays, Aldous Huxley. Today, most people know of Huxley through his classic book, Brave New World. Yet while he lived, Huxley was principally known for his many volumes of intellectual essays, the best of which, I think, is The Doors of Perception. During his weighty career, Huxley was often asked the question that writers have argued over for centuries: What exactly is the definition of an essay?

Huxley’s straightforward answer was always the same: an essay is whatever you want it to be. In short, he believed that anything you put on paper that conveyed your thoughts (the writer) to the brains of others (the readers) is to be considered an essay. As such, there are no rules, no word quotas, no stipulations for certain topics, and no right or wrong. If you write it down and thereafter call it an essay, it is.

I flatter myself further by viewing myself as a constant educator, one who never ceases to impart truth. I treat my brain like it’s an ongoing receptacle of as much knowledge as can be shoved in at any given time (educating myself). But as I store up this knowledge and file it away, I am continually looking for occasions to share it with everyone (educating others). Consequently, my writing, especially that of my personal journals (from which nearly all of my essays are sewn together) is usually a dumping ground for whatever tangent bit if of arbitrary information I see fit to deposit here. My approach to life (and my approach to writing) is to acquire, comprehend, and disseminate as much information as I can. Some of it may end up seeming pointless to those who might one day read my work, but I stand on the principle that there is no such thing as pointless information—it’s what we do with it that matters.

Not that I necessarily have anything to say that matches the importance found in the works of people like Nietzsche or Thomas Paine. The best I can do is proffer my thoughts, however insignificant they may be, for the perusal of anyone who cares enough to notice. And so that’s what I do. I labor to record whatever my mind is “chewing on” at any given moment, which usually has something to do with my ongoing curiosity about life and/or reality. Not for the first time, I will confess that I am an insanely inquisitive person. I’m always thinking about this and thinking about that, considering one concept or another, researching some problem that has been nagging at me, and recording my experiences and thoughts in notebooks, on blogs, in emails, and on scraps of paper.

The result is that, over the years, I have assembled quite a lengthy assortment of thoughts on various topics. In fact, I’ve been writing almost from the moment I learned how to read, but it wasn’t until the last few years that I began to understand my true calling. Once that happened, I stopped calling myself a writer and began to correctly refer to myself as an essayist, for what I do best is put my random thoughts on paper for the enjoyment or education of others. Adhering to Huxley’s broad definition, that means I’m an essayist and my verbose pieces of prose are essays.

Most of my essays (from which many of my blog posts are taken) are assembled in two of my books: Collected Essays and Letters From a Dissident Philosopher.

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