Essay on Essays

John W. Pinkerton

Emerson was probably the first essayist I admired.  I recently re-read his “Self--Reliance.”  I’ve always found Emerson’s essay inspirational.   “There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conclusion that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.”  His essay is not only inspirational but also, I suspect, where I got my love for the semicolon.

The essay is a short analytic, descriptive, or interpretive prose work dealing with a narrow topic especially from a personal viewpoint.  In brief, it’s an attempt.  The attempt part of the definition is reassuring to me as I struggle to write my essays.

I began writing essays only a couple of years ago.  I thought it would be amusing to collect my thoughts in the form of essays on various subjects which interest me, which collected could be given to my pallbearers: my final words.  After I accidentally acquired a website, I decided to include my essays along with my art.  I suppose the pallbearers will have to settle for a nice sandwich.

I’ve come to have more interest in my essays than I have in my art.  After all, I’ve never thought much of my art.  I think of my art much as I do my golf game.  I love both activities, but I lack the much needed talent for either activity.  On the other hand, I seem to have a natural gift for writing.

Through my website, I’ve encouraged others to write their own essays.  It’s been a hard sell, but the couple of folks who have submitted their essays to me to be published on my website seem to enjoy their efforts.  One contributor, a retiree, says that it seems to help him with his thinking, and he finds it cathartic.  The other, much younger and very busy with his occupation, is very enthusiastic about his efforts and finds it very enjoyable.  Neither appears to wish for fame or fortune through their writing.  Both seem to achieve great satisfaction from their efforts.

Once I strike upon a subject which interests me, I find it absolutely astounding the memories related to the subject I can dredge up from my old mind.  Take for examples the essays “Television” and “The Picture Show.”  I was surprised about how much I remembered about the early days of television and my years of going to the movies.

Of course, the internet is of tremendous help.  In the case of “Television,” I was able to find the NBC television schedule for 1955.  In the case of “The Picture Show,” I was able to verify the names of actors and the dates of movies.  Pretty helpful.

As I once explained to a young friend who was considering writing an essay for my website, it’s not the subject one chooses to write about that is important, it’s what you bring to the subject.  This truism is the reason you will probably never find me writing about knitting.  I have nothing to bring to the subject.  However, as I wrote the preceding sentence, I began to wonder if there is anything worth saying that I might write about knitting.

Mark Twain is known to most folks as a novelist, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and as a short story writer, “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” and “Luck.”  What most folks don’t realize is that he was not only a prolific writer of fiction, but he was also a prolific writer of essays.  If you want a good laugh, locate and read “Advice to Youth” or “The Recipe for Genius” or any of his dozens of essays.  Some times in our rush to keep up with the future, we forget about our past, and some of our past, like Twain, should not be forgotten.  Wisdom and wit never go out of style.

I guess the essayist, well, I imagine he’d call himself a columnist, who speaks to me in terms I truly understand is Leon Hale, a native son of Texas.  I began reading Leon’s columns back when he was with the Houston PostWhen they closed their doors, the Houston Chronicle was wise enough to hire Leon to write for them.  If you ever read “The Chamber of Commerce Bull,” you’d be hooked on Leon’s writing.  Leon apparently spent a lot of time with ice house folks and country folks, and cross-road stores, and cross-road watering holes around Texas.  His essays are  a delight to my eyes and ears.  Any man who feels comfortable speaking to mules is the kind of fellow for me.  Only slightly hidden by his down home manner of writing is a lifetime of rubbing up against folks and the wisdom gained.

Of course, Leon’s columns have been published in book form which, I suppose, is when they made their formal debut as essays.  He’s also written novels; in fact, one of my favorites is Bonney’s Place  which I’ve bought several copies of to give to younger friends not familiar with Mr. Hale’s writing.  But  it’s the essays that intrigue me most.  Reading his offerings is like having a cup of coffee with a friend who tells you interesting things he’s seen or done.

Of course, we don’t all have the writing talents of Mr. Hale, but we all have experiences and values and interpretations of life which are worth recording in the form of essays.  If you’re an older fellow, you might want to write essays for your children or grandchildren or, for that matter, your great-grandchildren.  If you’re a younger fellow, you might want to get some of your jumbled up thoughts organized in a little more usable way.

I looked around the internet to see if I could find essayists who had something interesting to say about writing essays.  Of course, I found some.

            “I sort of was good at writing essays.  I was never very good at

             mathematics, and I was never very good at algebra.  I loved science, but I

             wasn’t sure of it.” Diane Cilento

Boy, can I relate to that one.

            “The essays are different because ultimately it’s things I’m interested in,

             and I’m really just writing about myself and using those subjects

             as a prism.” Chuck Klosterman

Yeah, my essays are all about me.  

            “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” E. M. Forster.

This applies particularly well to the young among us.  Write to clarify your own thinking.  When you get older and feel embarrassed by your early thoughts, you can always apologize.

I started my essay writing on pretty solid ground.  I was writing them for my pallbearers.  I’d be dead when they read them, and, therefore, I had no inclination to lie.  Any value my essays might have surely rests on their truthfulness.  That plus a sense of humor seem to serve me well.


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