The Essay as a Tightrope Between The Self and The World

A transcription of the craft talk on Non-Fiction given last February 22, 2019 at the Cebu Annual Young Writers’ Studio Workshop in UC Banilad


Last year, in the same workshop, with the same role to give the craft talk on Creative-Nonfiction, I talked about the purpose of the essay as having the audacity to ask why – Why am I the way I am? Why is the world the way it is? – using the ocean as an image of the subgenres that bleed on to each other, so much so that there seems to be no disparity between what we consider news nowadays – those that are supposedly grounded on facts and actual experiences – to the nitty-gritty of our own daily living.

In retrospect, I would even be bold as to say that, in our own worlds, everything that happens to us is news. Everything that seems banal and boring and trivial to others can be our own life or death sentence. And so everything that happens to us, around us, and most of all, within us, falls in the realm of creative non-fiction.

What do I mean by this? If you bring it down to its most common denominators, there are only two elements essential to the essay: the self, and the world.

The self is a timorous creature, prone to hiding and shape-shifting into what it deems the world finds acceptable. We hide among the many layers offered by the world to form us – our heritage, our ancestry and history, our geography and rootedness in place, mass media and pop culture – all used to create a collective consciousness that marks us as whole even before we ever find the pieces that form us.

Society needs to sell us this idea, that we are functional hardware by default because society needs us to be productive. There is no time to ask questions when you’re too busy functioning, or what others will probably call living. And that is why perhaps, it takes a certain type of sensibility to form an essay because it reflects the very counter-intuitiveness it takes to accept that we are broken. Our bones are brittle. Our skins are scathed. Our wounds heal but leave scabs that mark their presence, that they were there once and always will be. We carry the marks of our mortality so it’s easy to not look down and escape such uncomfortable probing.

The sensibility to ask coupled with the sensibility to even just attempt to answer is what formed the essay all those centuries ago, that even its etymology, an old French word, essai, already justifies its very existence. Essai means to try. We need only to try. And taking it one step further perhaps even celebrate the gift of our failures.

The gamut of our creative exhales, whether it be through art or literature, poetry or non-fiction gravitates around these attempts. Of course, we hear about this rebellious streak almost all the time, find it romantic even because it’s dark and mysterious. But what many do not emphasize enough is that the process of writing an essay requires and thrives in pain. The unsexy, not for the movies kind of pain.

On his 30th year, Nietzsche who believed that difficulty is essential to a self-fulfilled life, said “To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities — I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not — that one endures.” or if Rilke was to be asked, he’d probably give you his now-famous words, “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.” and if I may say, even the dreariness of living, through those times when you think supposedly nothing is happening to you, when we’re waiting for the cashier at the bank, or catching a jeepney, going through the grinds of shopping for groceries. In these moments, it’s easy to slack off and the let the world not course through you but take over you.

In this osmotic relationship with writing, life’s favorable conditions are not always the best planting ground for literature. When we’re young, we need to learn how to purposely find difficulty. As we get older, difficulty finds us and we need to treat our suffering with respect, or at the very least not exacerbate it until it becomes a second skin.

For anyone trying to live out a literary life, what trumps over the pain of attempting – attempting to write, attempting to live – is the pain of not having even tried. We must resign to the notion that pain is the secret club that everyone belongs to. The essayist’s responsibility is to wield this pain into a weapon, a talisman, or an elixir for joy when called for.

The other element that I mentioned is the world, those that bear witnesses to our beings. Our families and friends. The books that we read. The objects that we keep, and let go. Those hidden in plain sight but oftentimes we fail to acknowledge. These are the very clues that form our tangible I.

All these haphazard, disjoint, seemingly random pieces? Examine them, probe closer, enlarge them until you see how they complement each other because they do. I find that this mindset also eliminates the problem of having “nothing to write about” or “running out of things to write about” because the everythingness of this world is material. You need only learn how to look. My last meeting before coming here was a meeting with the right-hand of Nur Misuari, and on my way here, I was trying to connect the dots how exactly that came to be because I can’t figure it out just yet. I have no history of violence or warfare, and yet I seem to be secretly drawn to chaos. How we interpret the world, how we extract meaning, and choosing which has meaning from all these clunky parts, is just as important as what’s in it.

Of course, it must be said that the deeper etymology of the essay is in Late Latin. Exagium means to weigh. We must weight this relationship between our selves and the world, and the tightrope we tread between them. Montaigne, who was the first person who called this new genre the “essay” said that every human should have two chambers, one in which to socialize and entertain the world, and the other as a retreat house for the individual to reflect and connect with their identity. The push and pull that we feel in our existence. The tension of relations, and relating. Essayists, I think, have a natural scepticism about the world, has a natural scepticism about how he thinks, and the role he plays in all this that he can’t help but be curious, probe it further, with the futile goal of seeking the truth.

And so we go into another contentious part of the essay, that of the idea of personal truth or as Donald Trump would put it, “alternative facts.” That everything in the world is the truth as we interpret it. The value of the essay is personal truth delving into a life experience that is often diluted by anything fact-driven, or real. The more correct term probably is actual. Essays delve in actual experiences since fiction and poetry can also be justified as real.

Through all this, every essayist must learn how to guard his and her inner life closely. Guard it against the noise and distraction of the world, and when you’re ready, write the silence and demons out. Make yourself visible. Show it to those who care to listen because if there’s one area where vulnerability is truly power, it’s in the essay. The admission that you don’t know, that you and your reader are perhaps finding out together, or maybe both of you will never know at all is power.

And at the risk of stating the obvious, we must learn to stay alive as we continue to attempt. For after all, what is an essay but hope that amidst what’s banal and boring and trivial in our lives is a purpose.

I know I’ve been overplaying this etymology thing but I found this interesting channel recently that explains the mistranslation of the word hope, which is another literary topic together. Hope comes from the Hebrew words “yakhal” or “qavah”. In the Western world, we interpret hope as anticipation for better days. But in its original form, “yakhal” or “qavah” is interpreted simply as “to wait” but more importantly, to hold on to the tension like a rope pulled in different directions while you wait for something to happen.

How beautiful that is if you put it into the context of writing an essay because it gives the liberty not just to write when you have a resolution in mind but to write even when there’s no resolution at all. Even when we’re in the in-betweens of our lives. It gives us only the liberty to write, to write. Always to write. I wish you more than luck when you do so.



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