On Essays

On Essays, or, How I wrote this Work

This is an excerpt from Dan’s book, Attempts.

Michel de Montaigne wrote his series of books, Essays, around the time the Spanish Armada was winging its way toward England. Shakespeare and Cervantes could have had tea with Montaigne, and some think Shakespeare used Montaigne’s writings as inspiration (that tea party would make a fine play). As part of my Great Books experience, I read and discussed the essays at length about 400 years later.

I loved reading his work. I still love this selection from On Drunkenness:

“Plato forbids children wine till 18 years of age, and to get drunk till 40; but, after 40, gives them leave to please themselves, and to mix a little liberally in their feasts the influence of Dionysos, that good deity who restores to younger men their gayety, and to old men their youth; who mollifies the passions of the soul, as iron is softened by fire; and in his laws allows such merry meetings, provided they have a discreet chief to govern and keep them in order, as good and of great utility; drunkenness being, he says, a true and certain trial of every one’s nature, and, withal, fit to inspire old men with mettle to divert themselves in dancing and music; things of great use, and that they dare not attempt when sober.”

“Dare not attempt when sober.” It made me laugh out loud when I first read this line and I continue to admire his style.

Essays comes from the French word essais which means “attempts.” I enjoyed reading this open-ended style of asking a question (rhetorical) and then diving into the topic. The route from asking the question to discovering some insights might take a few pages of writing or months (or years… or decades!) of rewriting and rethinking.

My friend, Jim, says that his best insights come from mowing the lawn, as the act of walking back and forth, back and forth, seems to turn off his brain and, oddly, allows him to think.

I think by writing.

Generally, I strive to solve problems, as I think any idiot can find problems. I may start off by writing the story of the problem—either how I heard about the issue, or how I had run into one of life’s roadblocks. I strive for three solutions because that seems to make my mind most comfortable. I might add a story or two here and there, and I try my best to be prudent about the expenses, cost-to-benefit ratio and reality of my solution.

That last part is crucial: All too often hoping for a miracle or wishing for more money or a bigger budget isn’t going to prod the reader to following a vision. That’s why I explore things until something simple pops up and leads back on the journey to mastery.

I hope you enjoy my “attempts.”

This was an excerpt from Dan’s book, Attempts.