On Trying

Portrait of Michel de Montaigne around 1578 by Dumonstier/Public domain

I’ve been thinking a lot about trying: trying times, trying new things, trials and tribulations. And last week, trial by fire as the devastating Almeda fire burned just 25 miles from my home.

As I went for my walk today (freshly reminded of how rare and wonderful a smoke-free sky can be), I tried to remember the etymology of the word “trying,” recalling that in Les Essais, Michel de Montaigne transformed the French verb essayer (to try) into the one of the most ubiquitous literary forms we have: the essay.

The essay is, or should be, fluid and malleable, shifting form and purpose as the writer, the reader, and society transform. Aldous Huxley called the essay “a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything.” It can be personal and autobiographical. It can be informative or persuasive or entertaining. It can, rarely, be all of these.

But I fear we (society, teachers, schools) have also turned the essay into an object of dread, an academic Mad-Lib with arcane terminology. We teach that the thesis statement should go here; the topic sentence there. Sometimes we explain why, but often we don’t, and students get the impression that the essay form is immutable, a natural product of a mature, academic sensibility. That it has always been thus.

But, of course, it hasn’t. The essay form as it stands today is as contingent as any cultural artifact. Montaigne’s essays could be four paragraphs or fourteen, his paragraphs direct or meandering. Montaigne didn’t have exactly two proof points in each paragraph. He certainly didn’t worry about having an engaging-and-interesting-but-not-too-cheesy-academic-hook.

I’m not teaching right now, but when I was, I thought about this a lot. I tried to historicize for my students the form the essay takes today, the rationale behind citation styles, subtitles, etc. But I also tried to impart a sense of that original meaning of essayer: to try, to experiment, to test, to prove. To reclaim the joy and freedom of thoughts and ideas. To play.


^^^This is me playing with this essay form now. In an academic essay, I would be expected to provide a logical, seamless transition from one idea to the next, but I’m not going to. I’m going to jump to the next paragraph with all of the connections, connotations, and intuitive understanding left unwritten. (I like to think that if Montaigne had written his essays today, they would have been in a blog.)


I imagine that one reason I’m thinking so much about trying is that I’m now in a newly empty nest. My daughters have both left for college, and there is a world of ideas and opportunities out there to be tried.

But I’m scared. In the past, I’ve been pulled away from things that called to my heart, and it hurt to turn my back on them.

I’m tempted to stick with the formulaic, the security of knowing where my thesis statement should be.

But I know that my joy lies in the essayer.

It’s time for me to try.