The Art of the Essay

On the meridian of time there is no justice, only the poetry of motion creating the illusion of truth and justice H. Miller

Paul Graham is apparently pretty widely read on the web, though I had never heard of him until I saw mention of the piece on Michael Tsai’s blog. Since Graham’s piece is a touch out of date by internet standards, rather than comment on Tsai or Graham’s site I thought I’d write a little rebuttal/extrapolation here.

Generally speaking I prefer not to engage in the endless circular dialogue of the blog, but occasionally we all run into those writings which either, as in this case, irk us so badly or cheer us so warmly that we can’t help but comment on them. The link from Tsai’s site gave me hope that perhaps someone had something intelligent to say about what has to be the most common form of writing on the web — the essay — but, alas, several reads later I found Graham’s essay ill-informed, poorly written, full of non-sequiturs and, to be blunt, an exercise in navel-gazing drivel.

After staying up late one night reading a bunch of his essays I had to conclude that Graham is not only a poor writer but that he makes an ass of himself every time he strays from the technological realm. I can’t comment on his LISP and SmallTalk articles since I don’t know either of those languages, but his “Things You Can’t Say” ranks pretty high on my all time worst list. I would go ahead and say it’s the worst thing I’ve ever read, but then I picked over some transcripts of the recent presidential debates and changed my mind. Nevertheless Grahams’s writing is bad.

And yet it has potential. And potential is important. In fact, potential is the reason any of us are writing, but we’ll get to that. First I think it’s important that we start here at the beginning, with Graham’s essay.


Remember the essays you had to write in high school? Topic sentence, introductory paragraph, supporting paragraphs, conclusion. The conclusion being, say, that Ahab in Moby Dick was a Christ-like figure. Oy. So I’m going to try to give the other side of the story: what an essay really is, and how you write one. Or at least, how I write one.

Graham’s experience with the essay has already diverged from mine. Graham it seems, spent high school doing what was asked of him with no creative potential exercised on his part. That’s fine, true to his experience, but not mine. not to say that my high school essays were works worthy of publication, but I do know I didn’t crib my ideas out of Cliff’s notes.

So, here at the beginning of Graham’s essay we find ourselves given great potential only to have it snatched away again. We get an invitation to explore “what an essay really is, and how you write one.” Now that is almost guaranteed to be interesting. But then the mock self-effacing ego intrudes: “Or at least, how I write one.” Now why would I care how Paul Graham writes an essay? This is someone with a low opinion of creative arts whose primary interest and field of knowledge is computer programing. I don’t care how Paul Graham writes an essay and assuming that I do is huge mistake on the author’s part.

One more little quote and then we’ll set Graham and his anti-art leanings aside.

The other big difference between a real essay and the things they make you write in school is that a real essay doesn’t take a position and then defend it. That principle, like the idea that we ought to be writing about literature, turns out to be another intellectual hangover of long forgotten origins.

Paul Graham seems to have had a really wretched time in school. he has devoted a whole essay to scrutinizing the artificial social structure of high school. It’s actually one of his better pieces on the site, but it makes me curious about Graham’s school experience. I feel bad for him, I really do. Personally I hated the bizarrely pointless physics problems — blocks sliding down inclined planes — problems that my otherwise brilliant physics teacher forced us to work out on paper. Writing about literature was an exercise in creative independence after that sort of monotony. Anyway my big question is, who among us isn’t aware that the essay is a multifaceted form that far exceeds the limited examples we are exposed to in high school? (For which there is a actually specific term argumentative essay rather than just essay.)

I am, for instance, aware that the realm of physics far exceeds the inclined planes I hated so much even though I have never pursued the subject beyond that childish introduction. Graham’s patronizing of his readers’ intellectual development is rude and, to me, pretty bizarre. Rest assured you will not be patronized here.1.

What Great Writing Does

Great writing, whether essay or story or poem or other form, is fundamentally the result of process. It is the confrontation with the unknown recorded and given over. The product itself often creates more questions than it does answers, but it is easy to tell whether or not the author had his/her life invested in the writing of it. The result is not on the petty plain that Graham would have it, whether “you got the right answers,” but instead explores the troubling reality that there perhaps are no answers after all but only “the poetry of motion creating the illusion of truth.”

My girlfriend likes to say that if the experience of something is truly great it has in some way helped you prepare for death. And neither I nor she mean this as a kind of melodrama, but simply this is the process. If you do not have a heartfelt stake in what you write your writing will never be any good regardless of your intelligence, education or any other number of factors that we often mistakenly attribute to informing the creative process.

The essay then is a poetry of motion, a poetry of the mind turning over on itself and trying to get at the “the pure potential as potential.”2 If we disregard the potential as potential in favor of the already known (another reexamination of high school?!), we confine ourselves to a world where everything that can be known is known. For instance:

In technical matters, you have to get the right answers. If your software miscalculates the path of a space probe, you can’t finesse your way out of trouble by saying that your code is patriotic, or avant-garde, or any of the other dodges people use in nontechnical fields. from another of Graham’s essays

That may be good and well for software, but Graham is assuming that there are right answers in realms beyond software (even in the realm of software I would question that assertion, design choices yes, but right and wrong? equations within software can be wrong, but does that make the software wrong?)

I for one do not wish to live in a world where there are right and wrong answers at every turn, where everything that can be known is already known. Nor do I want read essays that purport as much. If what Graham is railing against in his essay on essays is the formulaic nature of immature writing then certainly the answer does not lie in the formulaic nature of software.

In a world where there is no potential to move beyond the known there would be no reason to write. The great essay (and contrary to Graham’s assertions there are plenty of amazing essayists in this century, both those writing now, including on the web, and those whose work predates us) is the result of stepping beyond the comfortable, predictable results of the world already known into the pure potential as potential. The result then is the journey back.

On Some Common Misconceptions About Writing/Art

As cited above I have been reading a collection of essays called Art and Reality. Now generally speaking this is not the sort of book I gravitate toward, but my neighbor is a book dealer and he sold it to me for 25¢. Anyway, I had all but abandoned this article until I read the first essay in this book, entitled The Elements of “Art” (which, it’s worth noting, was transcribed from Robert Irwin’s‘s keynote address at a 1982 conference entitled Art and Reality).

Now it was no accident that above I said the experience of something truly great should help you die. I could summarize Irwin’s points on the interactive process of art, but it’s better if I simply quote:

So what we have is a structure, a process. And I will identify that as being what is being talked about here: the elements of art, the elements of the process. I would like to say that these are really more positions or perspectives, rather than being a hierarchical which assumes there is “a art” and that everything else is somehow subservient to it. I propose that we have instead a process. The first step of the process is the action of inquiry: the idea of looking at that pure potential &mdash the artist as an individual seeking out or re-examining for himself at his moment in time and in relation to the whole body of knowledge up to that moment in time, what we mean by the term art.

Art is indeed a verb rather than a noun. The noun that we are accustomed to throwing about is but a historical artifact that is the result of an art-action, to borrow Irwin’s nomenclature. Now that is not to pass any sort of value judgment on those artifacts, but rather to say the essay is not the art; the writing of the essay is the art. the essay I the reader experiences (by reading) is an object, what is important is not the object, but our experience with it. So we end up with a noun, the essay, preceded and followed by verbs, art and experience.

This emphasis on parts of speech is not a splitting of hairs, a semantic game or a “dodge” employed by one in a non-technical field. It is the fundamental point of what art, in this case writing, is: interaction between individuals mediated by some object.

It has long amused artists to hear technophiles and, for lack of a better term, suits, expounding on the wonderful interactive nature of the web and how this can revolutionize art (naturally here in its cultural baggage form as a noun) and society when in fact art is and always has been an interactive experience mediated by a static medium. The web remains every bit as static as a painting or an essay. That we describe our experience with it as interactive is a result of the obviousness, not the uniqueness, of its interaction.

Interactivity on the web requires a gadget (a computer) which is perhaps what clues us in to the fact that our experience is interactive, whereas art in other forms is often not mediated by a gadget so its seems more remote (especially given the gadget fetishism of our times). Perhaps another reason the interactivity of the web is so obvious is because it comes directly into our living room. There is no need to travel to the museum or library, it’s all right here at our fingertips.

But I think it’s important to note that the writing of an essay is not fundamentally an act of expression or communication, something that Irwin nicely illustrates by posing the question: “can you think of anything that is not expression?” If everything is expression and communication how then would we differentiate between good essays and bad ones? For that matter, what differentiates essays from email? What we need is some better means of qualitative judgment.

Why the Rote Essay is Rampant on the Web

So after picking on Paul Graham so extensively, let us salvage the gist of what I think he was trying to say. Essays on the web are often not very well written and lack the confrontation with the unknown that marks great writing/art.

Now many people would herein proceed to argue that this is because we lack filters (i.e. editors, publishers, etc) to catch the bad stuff before it is disseminated to the world. There is of course some merit to this argument. I find myself often linking to Salon because the quality of writing published there far exceeds the other nine Google hits I get. And it might be that Salon’s quality of writing is higher because it employs editors, but there is another more optimistic way of looking at writing on the web.

With the disappearance of the filters that have shadowed writing for the last few centuries we finally have an opportunity for anyone to write about anything they please. Now this can have some serious downsides as we will explore in a a minute, but there is an upside. Universal exposure means that in simple terms of numbers there is a much greater possibility of finding great writing on the web than the new release table at your average bookstore. Even with my limited math I can process the law of averages. If a million people are publishing there is a much greater chance that there will be someone creating something great than when the poll of possibilities was limited to those with access to agents and publishers.

A friend of mind used to often say that at any given moment the best band in America is probably playing for two people in a garage. The same is very likely true of writing.

But we have overlooked the fact that we do have filters on the web and it’s very likely that if anything they’re worse than those we left behind. Google is our filter and Google is but a collection of algorithms. At least with traditional publishers there were those few that staffed their offices with truly passionate human beings who really cared about writing. Can an algorithm care about writing?

Much to my dismay if you type ‘the essay’ into google, Paul Graham’s drivel comes up as the seventh link. This is precisely why there is no link for it here.

In a way the web is what our founding father’s feared most — a tyranny of the majority. If the more sites point to it, a site gets the highest rank. In that sense it’s our own fault that the drivel is prevalent.

In closing let me leave you with some more thoughts from Irwin:

Ideas don’t just come into the world ad hoc, or they don’t just come in a sort of idle or free way. They come first to be weighted and justified in terms of their relevance, in terms of their impact, and in terms of how they might thread themselves into that body of knowledge. The process of weighing is really made up of all those people who are interested in what we mean by the concept of art. I would like to define that as “culture” (rather than how the word has normally been used) — as really a practice, culture playing back on the society as something deeply threaded into the society in the critical sense that this body of knowledge is culture, is civilization. The first action, a critical aspect, of culture is the weighing of any new idea in the light of the body of knowledge and the examining of its relevance and whether or not it’s a worthwhile idea, and whether or not we should make any commitment toward the character and potential of the idea. And then the dialogue has to do with how it is threaded into this body of knowledge.

  1. For those of you electing not to actually read Graham’s essay allow me to continue his thoughts in this footnote. It turns out that the “intellectual hangover of long forgotten origins” mentioned in the quote is actually, according to Graham, the study of law. Apparently law was prevalent in medieval seminaries. I can’t vouch for that but it sounds right. Medieval religious types did need to have some good rhetorical training to defend the contradictory-to-observation belief systems that they held. 

  2. The Elements of “Art”, Art and Reality. ed. Robin Blaser and Robert Duncan, Talonbooks Vancouver, 1986 


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