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Slower Than The Rest Literary Essay Template

Out the back door and under the big ash was a picnic table. At the end of summer, 1966, I lay down on it for nearly two weeks, staring up into branches and leaves, fighting fear and panic, because I had no idea where or how to begin a piece of writing for The New Yorker. I went inside for lunch, surely, and at night, of course, but otherwise remained flat on my back on the table. The subject was the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey. I had spent about eight months driving down from Princeton day after day, or taking a sleeping bag and a small tent. I had done all the research I was going to do—had interviewed woodlanders, fire watchers, forest rangers, botanists, cranberry growers, blueberry pickers, keepers of a general store. I had read all the books I was going to read, and scientific papers, and a doctoral dissertation. I had assembled enough material to fill a silo, and now I had no idea what to do with it. The piece would ultimately consist of some five thousand sentences, but for those two weeks I couldn’t write even one. If I was blocked by fear, I was also stymied by inexperience. I had never tried to put so many different components—characters, description, dialogue, narrative, set pieces, humor, history, science, and so forth—into a single package.

It reminded me of Mort Sahl, the political comedian, about whom, six years earlier, I had written my first cover story at Time. The scale was different. It was meant to be only five thousand words and a straightforward biographical sketch, appearing during the Kennedy-Nixon Presidential campaigns, but the five thousand words seemed formidable to me then. With only a few days to listen to recordings, make notes, digest files from Time correspondents, read morgue clippings, and skim through several books, I was soon sprawled on the floor at home, surrounded by drifts of undifferentiated paper, and near tears in a catatonic swivet. As hour followed hour toward an absolute writing deadline (a condition I’ve never had to deal with in fifty years at The New Yorker), I was able to produce only one sentence: “The citizen has certain misgivings.” So did this citizen, and from all the material piled around me I could not imagine what scribbled note to take up next or—if I figured that out—where in the mess the note might be.

In my first three years at Princeton High School, in the late nineteen-forties, my English teacher was Olive McKee, whose self-chosen ratio of writing assignments to reading assignments seems extraordinary in retrospect and certainly differed from the syllabus of the guy who taught us in senior year. Mrs. McKee made us do three pieces of writing a week. Not every single week. Some weeks had Thanksgiving in them. But we wrote three pieces a week most weeks for three years. We could write anything we wanted to, but each composition had to be accompanied by a structural outline, which she told us to do first. It could be anything from Roman numerals I, II, III to a looping doodle with guiding arrows and stick figures. The idea was to build some form of blueprint before working it out in sentences and paragraphs. Mrs. McKee liked theatrics (she was also the school’s drama coach), and she had us read our pieces in class to the other kids. She made no attempt to stop anybody from booing, hissing, or wadding paper and throwing it at the reader, all of which the kids did. In this crucible, I learned to duck while reading. I loved Mrs. McKee, and I loved that class. So—a dozen years later, when Mort Sahl was overwhelming me, and I was wallowing in all those notes and files—I thought of her and the structure sheets, and despite the approaching deadline I spent half the night slowly sorting, making little stacks of thematically or chronologically associated notes, and arranging them in an order that seemed to hang well from that lead sentence: “The citizen has certain misgivings.” Then, as I do now, I settled on an ending before going back to the beginning. In this instance, I let the comedian himself have the last word: “ ‘My considered opinion of Nixon versus Kennedy is that neither can win.’ ”

The picnic-table crisis came along toward the end of my second year as a New Yorker staff writer (a euphemistic term that means unsalaried freelance close to the magazine). In some twenty months, I had submitted half a dozen pieces, short and long, and the editor, William Shawn, had bought them all. You would think that by then I would have developed some confidence in writing a new story, but I hadn’t, and never would. To lack confidence at the outset seems rational to me. It doesn’t matter that something you’ve done before worked out well. Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you. Square 1 does not become Square 2, just Square 1 squared and cubed. At last it occurred to me that Fred Brown, a seventy-nine-year-old Pine Barrens native, who lived in a shanty in the heart of the forest, had had some connection or other to at least three-quarters of those Pine Barrens topics whose miscellaneity was giving me writer’s block. I could introduce him as I first encountered him when I crossed his floorless vestibule—“Come in. Come in. Come on the hell in”—and then describe our many wanderings around the woods together, each theme coming up as something touched upon it. After what turned out to be about thirty thousand words, the rest could take care of itself. Obvious as it had not seemed, this organizing principle gave me a sense of a nearly complete structure, and I got off the table.

Structure has preoccupied me in every project I have undertaken since, and, like Mrs. McKee, I have hammered it at Princeton writing students across four decades of teaching: “You can build a strong, sound, and artful structure. You can build a structure in such a way that it causes people to want to keep turning pages. A compelling structure in nonfiction can have an attracting effect analogous to a story line in fiction.” Et cetera. Et cetera. And so forth, and so on.

The approach to structure in factual writing is like returning from a grocery store with materials you intend to cook for dinner. You set them out on the kitchen counter, and what’s there is what you deal with, and all you deal with. If something is red and globular, you don’t call it a tomato if it’s a bell pepper. To some extent, the structure of a composition dictates itself, and to some extent it does not. Where you have a free hand, you can make interesting choices. Three years after “The Pine Barrens,” for example, I was confronted with an even more complicated set of notes resulting from twelve months of varied travels with the four principal participants in “Encounters with the Archdruid.” The simplified, conceptual structure ABC/D, which I described in these pages in November, 2011, now needed filling in. There would be three sections narrating three journeys: A, in the North Cascades with a mining geologist; B, on a Georgia island with a resort developer; C, on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon with a builder of huge dams. D—David Brower, the high priest of the Sierra Club—would be in all three parts. Biographical descriptions of the others would, of course, belong in the relevant sections, but in the stories of the three journeys the details of Brower’s life could go anywhere. When I was through studying, separating, defining, and coding the whole body of notes, I had thirty-six three-by-five cards, each with two or three code words representing a component of the story. All I had to do was put them in order. What order? An essential part of my office furniture in those years was a standard sheet of plywood—thirty-two square feet—on two sawhorses. I strewed the cards face up on the plywood. The anchored segments would be easy to arrange, but the free-floating ones would make the piece. I didn’t stare at those cards for two weeks, but I kept an eye on them all afternoon. Finally, I found myself looking back and forth between two cards. One said “Alpinist.” The other said “Upset Rapid.” “Alpinist” could go anywhere. “Upset Rapid” had to be where it belonged in the journey on the river. I put the two cards side by side, “Upset Rapid” to the left. Gradually, the thirty-four other cards assembled around them until what had been strewn all over the plywood was now in neat rows. Nothing in that arrangement changed across the many months of writing.

The Colorado River in the Grand Canyon had several rapids defined on our river maps as “cannot be run without risk of life,” Upset Rapid among them. We were in a neoprene raft with a guide named Jerry Sanderson, and by rule he had to stop and study the heavier rapids before proceeding down them. For several days, Brower and the dam builder—Floyd Dominy, federal Commissioner of Reclamation—had been engaged in verbal artillery over Dominy’s wish to build high dams in the Grand Canyon. They fought all day and half the night, while I scribbled notes. Now,

We all got off the raft and walked to the edge of the rapid with Sanderson. . . . The problem was elemental. On the near right was an enormous hole, fifteen feet deep and many yards wide, into which poured a scaled-down Canadian Niagara—tons upon tons of water per second. On the far left, just beyond the hole, a very large boulder was fixed in the white torrent. . . .

“What are you going to do about this one, Jerry?”

Sanderson spoke slowly and in a voice louder than usual, trying to pitch his words above the roar of the water. “You have to try to take ten per cent of the hole. If you take any more of the hole, you go in it, and if you take any less you hit the rock.”

“What’s at the bottom of the hole, Jerry?”

“A rubber raft,” someone said.

Sanderson smiled.

“What happened two years ago, Jerry?”

“Well, the man went through in a neoprene pontoon boat, and it was cut in half by the rock. His life jacket got tangled in a boat line and he drowned. . . .”

We got back on the raft and moved out into the river. The raft turned slightly and began to move toward the rapid. “Hey,” Dominy said. “Where’s Dave? Hey! We left behind one of our party. We’re separated now. Isn’t he going to ride?” Brower had stayed on shore. We were now forty feet out. “Well, I swear, I swear, I swear,” Dominy continued, slowly. “He isn’t coming with us.” The Upset Rapid drew us in.

With a deep shudder, we dropped into a percentage of the hole—God only knows if it was ten—and the raft folded almost in two.

As we emerged on the far side, Dominy was still talking about “the great outdoorsman” who was “standing safely on dry land wearing a God-damned life jacket!” Abandoning my supposedly detached role in all this, I urged Dominy not to say anything when Dave, having walked around the rapid, rejoined us. Dominy said, “Christ, I wouldn’t think of it. I wouldn’t dream of it. What did he do during the war?” Brower was waiting for us when we touched the riverbank in quiet water.

Dominy said, “Dave, why didn’t you ride through the rapid?”

Brower said, “Because I’m chicken.”

That was the end of “Upset Rapid,” and it was followed in the printed story by a half inch or so of white space. After the white space, this:

“A Climber’s Guide to the High Sierra” (Sierra Club, 1954) lists thirty-three peaks in the Sierra Nevada that were first ascended by David Brower. “Arrowhead. First ascent September 5, 1937, by David R. Brower and Richard M. Leonard. . . . Glacier Point. First ascent May 28, 1939, by Raffi Bedayan, David R. Brower, and Richard M. Leonard. . . .”

The new section went on to describe Brower as a rope-and-piton climber of the first order, who had clung by his fingernails to dizzying rock faces and granite crags. The white space that separated the Upset Rapid and the alpinist said things that I would much prefer to leave to the white space to say—violin phraseology about courage and lack of courage and how they can exist side by side in the human breast. In the juxtaposition of those two cards lay what made this phase of the writing process the most interesting to me, the most absorbing and exciting. Those two weeks on the picnic table notwithstanding, this phase has also always been the briefest. After putting the two cards together, and then constructing around them the rest of the book, all I had to do was write it, and that took more than a year.

Developing a structure is seldom that simple. Almost always there is considerable tension between chronology and theme, and chronology traditionally wins. The narrative wants to move from point to point through time, while topics that have arisen now and again across someone’s life cry out to be collected. They want to draw themselves together in a single body, in the way that salt does underground. But chronology usually dominates. As themes prove inconvenient, you find some way to tuck them in. Through flashbacks and flash-forwards, you can move around in time, of course, but such a structure remains under chronological control and can’t do much about items that are scattered thematically. There’s nothing wrong with a chronological structure. On tablets in Babylonia, most pieces were written that way, and nearly all pieces are written that way now. After ten years of it at Time and The New Yorker, I felt both rutted and frustrated by always knuckling under to the sweep of chronology, and I longed for a thematically dominated structure.

In 1967, after spending a few weeks interviewing the art historian Thomas P. F. Hoving, who had recently been made director of the Metropolitan Museum, I found in going over my notes that his birth-to-present chronology was particularly unaccommodating to various themes. For example, he knew a whole lot about art forgery. As a teen-ager in New York, he came upon “Utrillos,” a “Boudin,” and a “Renoir” in a shop in the East Fifties, and sensed that they were fakes. Eight or ten years later, as a graduate student, he sensed wrong and was stung in Vienna by an art dealer selling “hot” canvases from “Budapest” during the Hungarian Revolution. Actually, they were forgeries turned out the previous day in Vienna. In later and wiser years, he could not help admiring Han van Meegeren, who created an entire fake early period for Vermeer. In the same manner, he admired Alfredo Fioravanti, who fooled the world with his Etruscan warriors, which were lined up in the Met’s Greek and Roman galleries until they were discovered to be forgeries. Most of all, he came to appreciate the wit of a talented crook who copied a silver censer and then put his tool marks on the original. At one point, Hoving studied the use of scientific instruments that help detect forgery. He even practiced forgery so he could learn to recognize it. All this having to do with the theme of forgery was scattered all over the chronology of his life. So what was I going to do to cover the theme of art and forgery? How was I going to handle, in this material, the many other examples of chronology versus theme? Same as always, chronology foremost? I threw up my hands and reversed direction. Specifically, I remembered a Sunday morning when the museum was “dark” and I had walked with Hoving through its twilighted spaces, and we had lingered in a small room that contained perhaps two dozen portraits. A piece of writing about a single person could be presented as any number of discrete portraits, each distinct from the others and thematic in character, leaving the chronology of the subject’s life to look after itself (Fig. 1).

Hoving had been, to put it mildly, an unpromising youth. For example, after slugging a teacher he had been expelled from Exeter. As a freshman at Princeton, his highest accomplishment was “flagrant neglect.” How did Peck’s rusticated youth ever become an art historian and the director of one of the world’s greatest museums? The structure’s two converging arms were designed to ask and answer that question. They meet in a section that consists of just two very long paragraphs. Paragraph 1 relates to the personal arm, Paragraph 2 relates to the professional arm, and Paragraph 2 answers the question. Or was meant to.

Other pieces from that era were variously chronological, none more so than this one, where the clock runs left to right in both the main time line and the set pieces hanging from it (Fig. 2).

Written in 1968 and called “A Forager,” it was a Profile of the wild-food expert Euell Gibbons, told against the background of a canoe-and-backpacking journey on the Susquehanna River and the Appalachian Trail.

“Travels in Georgia” (1973) described an episodic journey of eleven hundred miles in the state, and the story would work best, I thought, if I started not on Day 1 but with a later scene involving a policeman and a snapping turtle (Fig. 3).

So the piece flashed back to its beginnings and then ran forward and eventually past the turtle and on through the remaining occurrences. As a nonfiction writer, you could not change the facts of the chronology, but with verb tenses and other forms of clear guidance to the reader you were free to do a flashback if you thought one made sense in presenting the story.

Each of those ancient structures was worked out after copying with a typewriter all notes from notebooks and transcribing the contents of microcassettes. I used an Underwood 5, which had once been a state-of-the-art office typewriter but by 1970 had been outclassed by the I.B.M. Selectric. With the cassettes, I used a Sanyo TRC5200 Memo-Scriber, which was activated with foot pedals, like a sewing machine or a pump organ. The note-typing could take many weeks, but it collected everything in one legible place, and it ran all the raw material in some concentration through the mind.

The notes from one to the next frequently had little in common. They jumped from topic to topic, and only in places were sequentially narrative. So I always rolled the platen and left blank space after each item to accommodate the scissors that were fundamental to my advanced methodology. After reading and rereading the typed notes and then developing the structure and then coding the notes accordingly in the margins and then photocopying the whole of it, I would go at the copied set with the scissors, cutting each sheet into slivers of varying size. If the structure had, say, thirty parts, the slivers would end up in thirty piles that would be put into thirty manila folders. One after another, in the course of writing, I would spill out the sets of slivers, arrange them ladderlike on a card table, and refer to them as I manipulated the Underwood. If this sounds mechanical, its effect was absolutely the reverse. If the contents of the seventh folder were before me, the contents of twenty-nine other folders were out of sight. Every organizational aspect was behind me. The procedure eliminated nearly all distraction and concentrated only the material I had to deal with in a given day or week. It painted me into a corner, yes, but in doing so it freed me to write.

Cumbersome aspects there may have been, but the scissors, the slivers, the manila folders, the three-by-five cards, and the Underwood 5 were my principal tools until 1984, a year in which I was writing about a schoolteacher in Wyoming and quoting frequently from a journal she began in 1905. Into several late drafts of that piece, I laboriously typed and retyped those journal entries—another adventure in tedium. Two friends in Princeton—Will Howarth, a professor of English, and Richard Preston, one of his newly minted Ph.D.s—had been waxing evangelical for months on end about their magical computers, which were then pretty much a novelty. Preston put me in touch with Howard J. Strauss, in Princeton’s Office of Information Technology. Howard had worked for NASA in Houston on the Apollo program and was now in Princeton guiding the innumerate. For a couple of decades, his contribution to my use of the computer in teaching, researching, and writing would be so extensive that—as I once wrote—if he were ever to leave Princeton I would pack up and follow him, even to Australia. When I met him in 1984, the first thing he said to me was “Tell me what you do.”

He listened to the whole process from pocket notebooks to coded slices of paper, then mentioned a text editor called Kedit, citing its exceptional capabilities in sorting. Kedit (pronounced “kay-edit”), a product of the Mansfield Software Group, is the only text editor I have ever used. I have never used a word processor. Kedit did not paginate, italicize, approve of spelling, or screw around with headers, WYSIWYGs, thesauruses, dictionaries, footnotes, or Sanskrit fonts. Instead, Howard wrote programs to run with Kedit in imitation of the way I had gone about things for two and a half decades.

He wrote Structur. He wrote Alpha. He wrote mini-macros galore. Structur lacked an “e” because, in those days, in the Kedit directory eight letters was the maximum he could use in naming a file. In one form or another, some of these things have come along since, but this was 1984 and the future stopped there. Howard, who died in 2005, was the polar opposite of Bill Gates—in outlook as well as income. Howard thought the computer should be adapted to the individual and not the other way around. One size fits one. The programs he wrote for me were molded like clay to my requirements—an appealing approach to anything called an editor.

Structur exploded my notes. It read the codes by which each note was given a destination or destinations (including the dustbin). It created and named as many new Kedit files as there were codes, and, of course, it preserved intact the original set. In my first I.B.M. computer, Structur took about four minutes to sift and separate fifty thousand words. My first computer cost five thousand dollars. I called it a five-thousand-dollar pair of scissors.

I wrote my way sequentially from Kedit file to Kedit file from the beginning to the end of the piece. Some of those files created by Structur could be quite long. So each one in turn needed sorting on its own, and sometimes fell into largish parts that needed even more sorting. In such phases, Structur would have been counterproductive. It would have multiplied the number of named files, choked the directory, and sent the writer back to the picnic table, and perhaps under it. So Howard wrote Alpha. Alpha implodes the notes it works on. It doesn’t create anything new. It reads codes and then churns a file internally, organizing it in segments in the order in which they are meant to contribute to the writing.

Alpha is the principal, workhorse program I run with Kedit. Used again and again on an ever-concentrating quantity of notes, it works like nesting utensils. It sorts the whole business at the outset, and then, as I go along, it sorts chapter material and subchapter material, and it not infrequently arranges the components of a single paragraph. It has completely served many pieces on its own. When I run it now, the action is instantaneous in a way that I—born in 1931—find breathtaking. It’s like a light switch. I click on “Run Alpha,” and in zero seconds a window appears that says, for example:

Alpha has completed 14 codes and 1301 paragraph segments were processed. 7246 lines were read and 7914 lines were written to the sorted file.

One line is 11.7 words.

Kedit’s All command shows me all the times I use any word or phrase in a given piece, and tells me how many lines separate each use from the next. It’s sort of like a leaf blower. Mercilessly, it will go after fad words like “icon,” “iconic,” “issues,” “awesome,” “arguably”; and it suggests how much of “but” is too much “but.” But its principal targets are the legions of perfectly acceptable words that should not appear more than once in a piece of writing—“legions,” in the numerical sense, among them, and words like “expunges,” “circumvallate,” “horripilation,” “disjunct,” “defunct,” “amalgamate,” “ameliorate,” “defecate,” and a few thousand others. Of those which show up more than once, All expunges all.

When Keditw came along—Kedit for Windows—Howard rewrote everything, and the task was not a short one. In 2007, two years after he died, a long e-mail appeared in my in-box addressed to everyone on the “KEDIT for Windows Announcement list”—Subject: “News About KEDIT.” It included this paragraph:

The last major release of KEDIT, KEDIT for Windows 1.5, came out in 1996, and we are no longer actively working on major “new feature” releases of the program. Sales have gradually slowed down over the years, and it now makes sense to gradually wind down.

It was signed “Mansfield Software Group, Storrs CT.”

This is when I began to get a true sense of the tensile strength and long dimension of the limb I was out on. I replied on the same day, asking the company how much time—after half a million words in twenty-three years—I could hope to continue using Kedit. In the back-and-forth that followed, there was much useful information, and this concluding remark:

If you run into any problems with KEDIT or with those macros in the future, let me know. You will definitely get my personal attention, if only because I’ll be the only one left at my company!

It was signed “Kevin Kearney.”

Driving to Boston not long ago, I stopped in at Storrs, home of the University of Connecticut, to meet him and show him some of the things Howard Strauss had done. In this Xanadu of basketball, I found Kearney and his wife, Sara, close to the campus in a totally kempt small red house previously occupied by a UConn basketball coach. From my perspective, they looked young enough and trim enough to be shooting hoops themselves, and that to me was especially reassuring. He was wearing running shoes, a Metropolitan Museum T-shirt. He had an alert look and manner; short, graying dark hair; a clear gaze, no hint of guile—an appealing, trusting guy.

Before long, Sara went off to an appointment, leaving us at the dining table with our laptops open like steamed clams. I was awestruck to learn that he had bought his first personal computer only two years before I had, and I was bemused to contemplate the utterly disparate vectors that had carried us to the point of sale—me out of a dark cave of pure ignorance and Kearney off a mainframe computer.

He grew up in New Haven and in nearby Madison, he told me, and at UConn majored in math, but he developed an even greater interest in computer science. In those pre-P.C. days, people shared time on the university’s mainframe—a system that was, in its way, ancestral cloud computing. By 1982, he still did not own a personal computer and could not afford a five-thousand-dollar pair of anything. Apple II had been on the market since 1977 but did not interest him. It was “too much of a toy”—its display was only forty characters wide. The displays on I.B.M. P.C.s were eighty characters wide. His father helped him buy one. Five thousand dollars in 1982 translates to twelve thousand dollars now.

On the mainframe, everyone from undergraduates to programmers used an evolving variety of text editors, most notably Xedit, which was written at I.B.M. by Xavier de Lamberterie and made available in 1980. Kevin Kearney was so interested in Xedit that he bought forty manuals out of his own pocket and offered them to students and faculty. Then, after the new I.B.M. P.C.s appeared, and he had bought his first one, an idea he addressed was how to achieve mainframe power in a P.C. editor. “Xedit was in a different language that only worked on mainframes,” he told me. “Xedit was in mainframe assembler language, almost like machine language.” What was needed was a text editor that mainframe programmers could use on their P.C.s at home. So Kearney, aged twenty-eight, cloned Xedit to accomplish that purpose. Moreover, he said, “You could do some nifty additional things that didn’t exist on the mainframe. On the mainframe you couldn’t scroll. You couldn’t word-wrap to a new line.”

Writing the initial version of Kedit took him about four months, in late 1982. Like a newborn bear cub, it amounted to the first one per cent of what it would eventually become. “There are two kinds of editors,” Kearney continued. “One sees things as characters; Kedit sees it as a bunch of lines. It’s more primitive, in a sense, like keypunches. Each line is like one card.” He said he started with “some things from Xedit plus suggestions from others,” and his goal was “convenient text editing.” After a pause, he added, “I’d rather have Kedit be a good text editor than a bad word processor.” He asked me to take care not to create an impression that he invented much of anything. “What I did was package in a useful way a number of ideas. I.B.M. seemed happy enough with the cloning. There was no hint that they objected.”

At a conference in Boston in March, 1984, Kevin and Sara met Howard Strauss, showed him Kedit, and sought his advice. A month or so later, Strauss telephoned Kearney for more talk, and the upshot was that Princeton bought Kedit’s first site license.

I asked Kearney how many users, nationally and globally, Kedit has now. “Fewer than there used to be” is as close as he would come to telling me, but he said he still gets about ten e-mails a week asking for support.

“Are they essentially all from programmers, or are there other users in the ignorant zone like me?”


Kedit did not catch on in a large way at Princeton. I used to know other Kedit users—a historian of science, a Jefferson scholar. Aware of this common software, we nodded conspiratorially. Today on the campus, the number of people using Kedit is roughly one. Not long ago, I asked Jay Barnes, an information technologist at Princeton, if he thought I was enfolded in a digital time warp. “Right; yes,” he said. “But you found it and it works, and you haven’t switched it because of fashion.” Or, as Tracy Kidder wrote in 1981, in “The Soul of a New Machine,” “Software that works is precious. Users don’t idly discard it.”

Kevin Kearney, who says he is “semi-retired,” hopes not “to see a bunch of orders showing up,” and he asked me to make clear that Kedit was “very much a thing of its time,” and its time is not today. I guess I’m living evidence of that.

When I would thank Howard Strauss for the programs he wrote and amplified and updated, he always said, “Oh, it was no trouble; there was nothing to it; it was all simple.”

For many years in my writing class, I drew structures on a blackboard with chalk. In the late nineteen-nineties, I fell off my bicycle, massively tore a rotator cuff, underwent surgery, spent months in physical therapy, and had to give up the chalk for alternative technologies. I was sixty-eight. Briefly, I worked things out with acetates and overhead projection. Enduringly, I was once again helped beyond measure by Howard Strauss.

September 2004

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.


The most obvious difference between real essays and the things one has to write in school is that real essays are not exclusively about English literature. Certainly schools should teach students how to write. But due to a series of historical accidents the teaching of writing has gotten mixed together with the study of literature. And so all over the country students are writing not about how a baseball team with a small budget might compete with the Yankees, or the role of color in fashion, or what constitutes a good dessert, but about symbolism in Dickens.

With the result that writing is made to seem boring and pointless. Who cares about symbolism in Dickens? Dickens himself would be more interested in an essay about color or baseball.

How did things get this way? To answer that we have to go back almost a thousand years. Around 1100, Europe at last began to catch its breath after centuries of chaos, and once they had the luxury of curiosity they rediscovered what we call "the classics." The effect was rather as if we were visited by beings from another solar system. These earlier civilizations were so much more sophisticated that for the next several centuries the main work of European scholars, in almost every field, was to assimilate what they knew.

During this period the study of ancient texts acquired great prestige. It seemed the essence of what scholars did. As European scholarship gained momentum it became less and less important; by 1350 someone who wanted to learn about science could find better teachers than Aristotle in his own era. [1] But schools change slower than scholarship. In the 19th century the study of ancient texts was still the backbone of the curriculum.

The time was then ripe for the question: if the study of ancient texts is a valid field for scholarship, why not modern texts? The answer, of course, is that the original raison d'etre of classical scholarship was a kind of intellectual archaeology that does not need to be done in the case of contemporary authors. But for obvious reasons no one wanted to give that answer. The archaeological work being mostly done, it implied that those studying the classics were, if not wasting their time, at least working on problems of minor importance.

And so began the study of modern literature. There was a good deal of resistance at first. The first courses in English literature seem to have been offered by the newer colleges, particularly American ones. Dartmouth, the University of Vermont, Amherst, and University College, London taught English literature in the 1820s. But Harvard didn't have a professor of English literature until 1876, and Oxford not till 1885. (Oxford had a chair of Chinese before it had one of English.) [2]

What tipped the scales, at least in the US, seems to have been the idea that professors should do research as well as teach. This idea (along with the PhD, the department, and indeed the whole concept of the modern university) was imported from Germany in the late 19th century. Beginning at Johns Hopkins in 1876, the new model spread rapidly.

Writing was one of the casualties. Colleges had long taught English composition. But how do you do research on composition? The professors who taught math could be required to do original math, the professors who taught history could be required to write scholarly articles about history, but what about the professors who taught rhetoric or composition? What should they do research on? The closest thing seemed to be English literature. [3]

And so in the late 19th century the teaching of writing was inherited by English professors. This had two drawbacks: (a) an expert on literature need not himself be a good writer, any more than an art historian has to be a good painter, and (b) the subject of writing now tends to be literature, since that's what the professor is interested in.

High schools imitate universities. The seeds of our miserable high school experiences were sown in 1892, when the National Education Association "formally recommended that literature and composition be unified in the high school course." [4] The 'riting component of the 3 Rs then morphed into English, with the bizarre consequence that high school students now had to write about English literature-- to write, without even realizing it, imitations of whatever English professors had been publishing in their journals a few decades before.

It's no wonder if this seems to the student a pointless exercise, because we're now three steps removed from real work: the students are imitating English professors, who are imitating classical scholars, who are merely the inheritors of a tradition growing out of what was, 700 years ago, fascinating and urgently needed work.

No Defense

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.

It's often mistakenly believed that medieval universities were mostly seminaries. In fact they were more law schools. And at least in our tradition lawyers are advocates, trained to take either side of an argument and make as good a case for it as they can. Whether cause or effect, this spirit pervaded early universities. The study of rhetoric, the art of arguing persuasively, was a third of the undergraduate curriculum. [5] And after the lecture the most common form of discussion was the disputation. This is at least nominally preserved in our present-day thesis defense: most people treat the words thesis and dissertation as interchangeable, but originally, at least, a thesis was a position one took and the dissertation was the argument by which one defended it.

Defending a position may be a necessary evil in a legal dispute, but it's not the best way to get at the truth, as I think lawyers would be the first to admit. It's not just that you miss subtleties this way. The real problem is that you can't change the question.

And yet this principle is built into the very structure of the things they teach you to write in high school. The topic sentence is your thesis, chosen in advance, the supporting paragraphs the blows you strike in the conflict, and the conclusion-- uh, what is the conclusion? I was never sure about that in high school. It seemed as if we were just supposed to restate what we said in the first paragraph, but in different enough words that no one could tell. Why bother? But when you understand the origins of this sort of "essay," you can see where the conclusion comes from. It's the concluding remarks to the jury.

Good writing should be convincing, certainly, but it should be convincing because you got the right answers, not because you did a good job of arguing. When I give a draft of an essay to friends, there are two things I want to know: which parts bore them, and which seem unconvincing. The boring bits can usually be fixed by cutting. But I don't try to fix the unconvincing bits by arguing more cleverly. I need to talk the matter over.

At the very least I must have explained something badly. In that case, in the course of the conversation I'll be forced to come up a with a clearer explanation, which I can just incorporate in the essay. More often than not I have to change what I was saying as well. But the aim is never to be convincing per se. As the reader gets smarter, convincing and true become identical, so if I can convince smart readers I must be near the truth.

The sort of writing that attempts to persuade may be a valid (or at least inevitable) form, but it's historically inaccurate to call it an essay. An essay is something else.


To understand what a real essay is, we have to reach back into history again, though this time not so far. To Michel de Montaigne, who in 1580 published a book of what he called "essais." He was doing something quite different from what lawyers do, and the difference is embodied in the name. Essayer is the French verb meaning "to try" and an essai is an attempt. An essay is something you write to try to figure something out.

Figure out what? You don't know yet. And so you can't begin with a thesis, because you don't have one, and may never have one. An essay doesn't begin with a statement, but with a question. In a real essay, you don't take a position and defend it. You notice a door that's ajar, and you open it and walk in to see what's inside.

If all you want to do is figure things out, why do you need to write anything, though? Why not just sit and think? Well, there precisely is Montaigne's great discovery. Expressing ideas helps to form them. Indeed, helps is far too weak a word. Most of what ends up in my essays I only thought of when I sat down to write them. That's why I write them.

In the things you write in school you are, in theory, merely explaining yourself to the reader. In a real essay you're writing for yourself. You're thinking out loud.

But not quite. Just as inviting people over forces you to clean up your apartment, writing something that other people will read forces you to think well. So it does matter to have an audience. The things I've written just for myself are no good. They tend to peter out. When I run into difficulties, I find I conclude with a few vague questions and then drift off to get a cup of tea.

Many published essays peter out in the same way. Particularly the sort written by the staff writers of newsmagazines. Outside writers tend to supply editorials of the defend-a-position variety, which make a beeline toward a rousing (and foreordained) conclusion. But the staff writers feel obliged to write something "balanced." Since they're writing for a popular magazine, they start with the most radioactively controversial questions, from which-- because they're writing for a popular magazine-- they then proceed to recoil in terror. Abortion, for or against? This group says one thing. That group says another. One thing is certain: the question is a complex one. (But don't get mad at us. We didn't draw any conclusions.)

The River

Questions aren't enough. An essay has to come up with answers. They don't always, of course. Sometimes you start with a promising question and get nowhere. But those you don't publish. Those are like experiments that get inconclusive results. An essay you publish ought to tell the reader something he didn't already know.

But what you tell him doesn't matter, so long as it's interesting. I'm sometimes accused of meandering. In defend-a-position writing that would be a flaw. There you're not concerned with truth. You already know where you're going, and you want to go straight there, blustering through obstacles, and hand-waving your way across swampy ground. But that's not what you're trying to do in an essay. An essay is supposed to be a search for truth. It would be suspicious if it didn't meander.

The Meander (aka Menderes) is a river in Turkey. As you might expect, it winds all over the place. But it doesn't do this out of frivolity. The path it has discovered is the most economical route to the sea. [6]

The river's algorithm is simple. At each step, flow down. For the essayist this translates to: flow interesting. Of all the places to go next, choose the most interesting. One can't have quite as little foresight as a river. I always know generally what I want to write about. But not the specific conclusions I want to reach; from paragraph to paragraph I let the ideas take their course.

This doesn't always work. Sometimes, like a river, one runs up against a wall. Then I do the same thing the river does: backtrack. At one point in this essay I found that after following a certain thread I ran out of ideas. I had to go back seven paragraphs and start over in another direction.

Fundamentally an essay is a train of thought-- but a cleaned-up train of thought, as dialogue is cleaned-up conversation. Real thought, like real conversation, is full of false starts. It would be exhausting to read. You need to cut and fill to emphasize the central thread, like an illustrator inking over a pencil drawing. But don't change so much that you lose the spontaneity of the original.

Err on the side of the river. An essay is not a reference work. It's not something you read looking for a specific answer, and feel cheated if you don't find it. I'd much rather read an essay that went off in an unexpected but interesting direction than one that plodded dutifully along a prescribed course.


So what's interesting? For me, interesting means surprise. Interfaces, as Geoffrey James has said, should follow the principle of least astonishment. A button that looks like it will make a machine stop should make it stop, not speed up. Essays should do the opposite. Essays should aim for maximum surprise.

I was afraid of flying for a long time and could only travel vicariously. When friends came back from faraway places, it wasn't just out of politeness that I asked what they saw. I really wanted to know. And I found the best way to get information out of them was to ask what surprised them. How was the place different from what they expected? This is an extremely useful question. You can ask it of the most unobservant people, and it will extract information they didn't even know they were recording.

Surprises are things that you not only didn't know, but that contradict things you thought you knew. And so they're the most valuable sort of fact you can get. They're like a food that's not merely healthy, but counteracts the unhealthy effects of things you've already eaten.

How do you find surprises? Well, therein lies half the work of essay writing. (The other half is expressing yourself well.) The trick is to use yourself as a proxy for the reader. You should only write about things you've thought about a lot. And anything you come across that surprises you, who've thought about the topic a lot, will probably surprise most readers.

For example, in a recent essay I pointed out that because you can only judge computer programmers by working with them, no one knows who the best programmers are overall. I didn't realize this when I began that essay, and even now I find it kind of weird. That's what you're looking for.

So if you want to write essays, you need two ingredients: a few topics you've thought about a lot, and some ability to ferret out the unexpected.

What should you think about? My guess is that it doesn't matter-- that anything can be interesting if you get deeply enough into it. One possible exception might be things that have deliberately had all the variation sucked out of them, like working in fast food. In retrospect, was there anything interesting about working at Baskin-Robbins? Well, it was interesting how important color was to the customers. Kids a certain age would point into the case and say that they wanted yellow. Did they want French Vanilla or Lemon? They would just look at you blankly. They wanted yellow. And then there was the mystery of why the perennial favorite Pralines 'n' Cream was so appealing. (I think now it was the salt.) And the difference in the way fathers and mothers bought ice cream for their kids: the fathers like benevolent kings bestowing largesse, the mothers harried, giving in to pressure. So, yes, there does seem to be some material even in fast food.

I didn't notice those things at the time, though. At sixteen I was about as observant as a lump of rock. I can see more now in the fragments of memory I preserve of that age than I could see at the time from having it all happening live, right in front of me.


So the ability to ferret out the unexpected must not merely be an inborn one. It must be something you can learn. How do you learn it?

To some extent it's like learning history. When you first read history, it's just a whirl of names and dates. Nothing seems to stick. But the more you learn, the more hooks you have for new facts to stick onto-- which means you accumulate knowledge at what's colloquially called an exponential rate. Once you remember that Normans conquered England in 1066, it will catch your attention when you hear that other Normans conquered southern Italy at about the same time. Which will make you wonder about Normandy, and take note when a third book mentions that Normans were not, like most of what is now called France, tribes that flowed in as the Roman empire collapsed, but Vikings (norman = north man) who arrived four centuries later in 911. Which makes it easier to remember that Dublin was also established by Vikings in the 840s. Etc, etc squared.

Collecting surprises is a similar process. The more anomalies you've seen, the more easily you'll notice new ones. Which means, oddly enough, that as you grow older, life should become more and more surprising. When I was a kid, I used to think adults had it all figured out. I had it backwards. Kids are the ones who have it all figured out. They're just mistaken.

When it comes to surprises, the rich get richer. But (as with wealth) there may be habits of mind that will help the process along. It's good to have a habit of asking questions, especially questions beginning with Why. But not in the random way that three year olds ask why. There are an infinite number of questions. How do you find the fruitful ones?

I find it especially useful to ask why about things that seem wrong. For example, why should there be a connection between humor and misfortune? Why do we find it funny when a character, even one we like, slips on a banana peel? There's a whole essay's worth of surprises there for sure.

If you want to notice things that seem wrong, you'll find a degree of skepticism helpful. I take it as an axiom that we're only achieving 1% of what we could. This helps counteract the rule that gets beaten into our heads as children: that things are the way they are because that is how things have to be. For example, everyone I've talked to while writing this essay felt the same about English classes-- that the whole process seemed pointless. But none of us had the balls at the time to hypothesize that it was, in fact, all a mistake. We all thought there was just something we weren't getting.

I have a hunch you want to pay attention not just to things that seem wrong, but things that seem wrong in a humorous way. I'm always pleased when I see someone laugh as they read a draft of an essay. But why should I be? I'm aiming for good ideas. Why should good ideas be funny? The connection may be surprise. Surprises make us laugh, and surprises are what one wants to deliver.

I write down things that surprise me in notebooks. I never actually get around to reading them and using what I've written, but I do tend to reproduce the same thoughts later. So the main value of notebooks may be what writing things down leaves in your head.

People trying to be cool will find themselves at a disadvantage when collecting surprises. To be surprised is to be mistaken. And the essence of cool, as any fourteen year old could tell you, is nil admirari. When you're mistaken, don't dwell on it; just act like nothing's wrong and maybe no one will notice.

One of the keys to coolness is to avoid situations where inexperience may make you look foolish. If you want to find surprises you should do the opposite. Study lots of different things, because some of the most interesting surprises are unexpected connections between different fields. For example, jam, bacon, pickles, and cheese, which are among the most pleasing of foods, were all originally intended as methods of preservation. And so were books and paintings.

Whatever you study, include history-- but social and economic history, not political history. History seems to me so important that it's misleading to treat it as a mere field of study. Another way to describe it is all the data we have so far.

Among other things, studying history gives one confidence that there are good ideas waiting to be discovered right under our noses. Swords evolved during the Bronze Age out of daggers, which (like their flint predecessors) had a hilt separate from the blade. Because swords are longer the hilts kept breaking off. But it took five hundred years before someone thought of casting hilt and blade as one piece.


Above all, make a habit of paying attention to things you're not supposed to, either because they're "inappropriate," or not important, or not what you're supposed to be working on. If you're curious about something, trust your instincts. Follow the threads that attract your attention. If there's something you're really interested in, you'll find they have an uncanny way of leading back to it anyway, just as the conversation of people who are especially proud of something always tends to lead back to it.

For example, I've always been fascinated by comb-overs, especially the extreme sort that make a man look as if he's wearing a beret made of his own hair. Surely this is a lowly sort of thing to be interested in-- the sort of superficial quizzing best left to teenage girls. And yet there is something underneath. The key question, I realized, is how does the comber-over not see how odd he looks? And the answer is that he got to look that way incrementally. What began as combing his hair a little carefully over a thin patch has gradually, over 20 years, grown into a monstrosity. Gradualness is very powerful. And that power can be used for constructive purposes too: just as you can trick yourself into looking like a freak, you can trick yourself into creating something so grand that you would never have dared to plan such a thing. Indeed, this is just how most good software gets created. You start by writing a stripped-down kernel (how hard can it be?) and gradually it grows into a complete operating system. Hence the next leap: could you do the same thing in painting, or in a novel?

See what you can extract from a frivolous question? If there's one piece of advice I would give about writing essays, it would be: don't do as you're told. Don't believe what you're supposed to. Don't write the essay readers expect; one learns nothing from what one expects. And don't write the way they taught you to in school.

The most important sort of disobedience is to write essays at all. Fortunately, this sort of disobedience shows signs of becoming rampant. It used to be that only a tiny number of officially approved writers were allowed to write essays. Magazines published few of them, and judged them less by what they said than who wrote them; a magazine might publish a story by an unknown writer if it was good enough, but if they published an essay on x it had to be by someone who was at least forty and whose job title had x in it. Which is a problem, because there are a lot of things insiders can't say precisely because they're insiders.

The Internet is changing that. Anyone can publish an essay on the Web, and it gets judged, as any writing should, by what it says, not who wrote it. Who are you to write about x? You are whatever you wrote.

Popular magazines made the period between the spread of literacy and the arrival of TV the golden age of the short story. The Web may well make this the golden age of the essay. And that's certainly not something I realized when I started writing this.


[1] I'm thinking of Oresme (c. 1323-82). But it's hard to pick a date, because there was a sudden drop-off in scholarship just as Europeans finished assimilating classical science. The cause may have been the plague of 1347; the trend in scientific progress matches the population curve.

[2] Parker, William R. "Where Do College English Departments Come From?" College English 28 (1966-67), pp. 339-351. Reprinted in Gray, Donald J. (ed). The Department of English at Indiana University Bloomington 1868-1970. Indiana University Publications.

Daniels, Robert V. The University of Vermont: The First Two Hundred Years. University of Vermont, 1991.

Mueller, Friedrich M. Letter to the Pall Mall Gazette. 1886/87. Reprinted in Bacon, Alan (ed). The Nineteenth-Century History of English Studies. Ashgate, 1998.

[3] I'm compressing the story a bit. At first literature took a back seat to philology, which (a) seemed more serious and (b) was popular in Germany, where many of the leading scholars of that generation had been trained.

In some cases the writing teachers were transformed in situ into English professors. Francis James Child, who had been Boylston Professor of Rhetoric at Harvard since 1851, became in 1876 the university's first professor of English.

[4] Parker, op. cit., p. 25.

[5] The undergraduate curriculum or trivium (whence "trivial") consisted of Latin grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Candidates for masters' degrees went on to study the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Together these were the seven liberal arts.

The study of rhetoric was inherited directly from Rome, where it was considered the most important subject. It would not be far from the truth to say that education in the classical world meant training landowners' sons to speak well enough to defend their interests in political and legal disputes.

[6] Trevor Blackwell points out that this isn't strictly true, because the outside edges of curves erode faster.

Thanks to Ken Anderson, Trevor Blackwell, Sarah Harlin, Jessica Livingston, Jackie McDonough, and Robert Morris for reading drafts of this.

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