Writing, Essay, and Form

Author: Dom Rottman

In my experience, there are two obstacles to writing. The first is that undefinable experience of “writer’s block,” and the second, on which I will focus here, is what I call form. By form I mean things such as basic structure requirements or formulas like those for research papers, as well as style requirements such as AP style, long form vs. short form writing, etc. I never loathed form per se, but I never gave it any great weight. To me, attention to form seemed too much worrying and time over minutiae, and wasted effort that could be invested in content and the act of actually writing, but really, what leg did I have to stand on? Earlier this year, However, I read Theodor Adorno’s piece “The Essay as Form” for a course I was taking, and suddenly I was vindicated.

The title betrays itself. The so-called “form” of the essay appears to be no form at all. Adorno’s account of the essay talks about what the essay is not, what the essay does functionally, and what the mental exercise of the essay is, but Adorno gives no sort of recipe for the essay, no checklist or particular requirements, not even so much as a sine qua non for what makes an essay an essay except the attemt at critical thought. Adorno’s conception of the essay in a way harkens back to the word’s etymology, the French word essai, meaning a trial, or attempt. The modern essay, then, might be thought as the documented attempt of the author at… something. What that something is does not matter, nor does it matter whether or not the attempt ends in a success: in the essay, only uncertainty is guaranteed.

Rather than continuing to explicate the already written since the reader can simply read Adorno’s original themself–if quite dense, it’s certainly worthwhile–, I will instead use my own impression of “The Essay as Form,” as a springboard for an essay on writing itself as a personal experience, which might hopefully shed light on the mentality behind this site and why I bothered with it in the first place.

Reading “The Essay as Form” was a rare celebration of the sort of writing which I find the most authentic and rewarding but for which there is no place. The writer, and the essayist in particular, is a pioneer of sorts, boldly voyaging to the unknown for its own sake, in this regard more of a Captain Kirk than a Lewis and Clark. As such she knows not where she goes, nor where she will end up, but that is hardly the point; the value is almost wholly in the journey, and it is through the essay that the writer documents that journey and invites the reader to follow.

Certainly, this spirit of adventure is far from absent in other writing–newspaper columns, research papers, novels–but such forms have value more weighted towards their ends; a story to be told, a product to be consumed, or even to merely exist; publish or perish, as the saying goes. Often, the process goes unappreciated and is sublimated under form in order to expedite results with the desired clarity and particulars.

But while form is created with good reason, its predominance sacrifices an appreciation of writing itself. Form, in conjunction with a focus on writing for ends other than itself–for grades, business, etc–takes away almost completely the appreciation and joy of writing in and of itself.

On this site, through what I suppose can be called–perhaps only be called–essays, I aim to exercise this appreciation and joy and bring it to the forefront. The only restrictions of form are my own, and, while I do sometimes want to get a point across, if my ideas happen to ring true with the reader I only consider it a happy bonus, my chief aim is to exercise and experience the joy of writing and what it can do and uncover, and to share this phenomenon with others by posting things here to be read. As much as one can write for oneself, to document the critical and constructive energies of the mind, writing is worth infinitely more when read, again, not to convey a particular belief, but to share in the experience and journey of human thought.

And so, I hope that you, the reader, find some joy in the journeys I embark on here, that the reading of these posts stimulates you in a similar way that they stimulated me as I was writing them. I do not desire–nor do I think I am able–to churn out gold with every keystroke. It is this messy nature of writing that is the cause of form’s existence in the first place, when writing is needed as a means, or as a reigning measure to at the very least retain coherency. Adorno admits that the proper essay “obeys logical criteria insofar as the totality of its sentences must fit together coherently,” the difference between the essay and say, a formal research paper, is how the essay develops, and consequently, how it is written.

That said, when writing is done for an end in itself, strict adherence to form does more harm than good. Most of my posts here are written without curation and maybe read over by a close friend or two if at all; I am the only and final judge on what to write and how to write it. Thar said, my half-intentional disregard for form is certainly no excuse for error or incoherence. To be sure, I am not vomiting out a stream of consciousness onto a keyboard; each word that I write is still given careful thought, but no writing is short of imperfection, especially the essay with its formless movement of carefully calculated chaos–as Adorno puts it, “methodically unmethodical.”

All told, I am in part indebted to Adorno for the inspiration to continue to put my thoughts to pen–or keyboard, as it were–and even bother with this site at all. And in this space I hope that you, the reader, will also embrace the spirit of the essay as you read my posts, one of absolute freedom and thought unchained and therefore able to cross boundaries other writing is unable to cross. Through heresy, the essay illuminates what could not otherwise be illuminated.