Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Essay Writing - Newness Taught By Father Of The Essay

When Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-1592) published the first edition of his book on essays, Essais (from the French word, essayer, "to try"), in 1580 at Bordeaux, France, he did something new. He claimed that he would try to take a new look at the overall subject of the nature of man by seeing all mankind in himself.

This was new because traditional, classical, and medieval thought had been focused on universal truths that were applied to men in general or to types or classes of men, not to individuals.

Montaigne reflected an intellectual movement in the Renaissance that valued arriving at truth individually, independently of traditional thought. And to arrive at truths by this new, individual method meant to arrive at new truths.

However, modern textbooks on writing seem to ignore the fact that the Father of the Modern Essay, Montaigne, clearly talked about the importance of newness in writing his essays, such as when he said that he likes to turn a thing over in an "unfamiliar [new] light." (If unfamiliar doesn't mean new to the reader, what does it mean?)

And in his book Essais which earned him the title of Father of the Modern Essay, Montaigne actually used the old-new pattern as his standard for both format and content, as these two typical examples from his book show:

The most usual [old] way of appeasing... is by submission... and yet [cue for newness] bravery, constancy, and resolution [reverse of submission]... [can be used to achieve] the same effect.
... let us revenge ourselves by railing at [greatness]; and yet [cue for newness]... a man may... refuse it [newness of reversing].
Those two examples are fairly plain in their use of the old-new pattern, don't you think? So it's beyond me how four hundred years PLUS of scholarship missed that constant old-new pattern in Montaigne's Essais!

The same problem exists in Communications, a discipline closely related to writing, since writing is a form of communication.

In World War II, Communications experts came up with a very simplistic model of communications that hasn't changed since then: It's nothing but a sender on the left, a receiver off to the right, and a packet of information in the middle with some vertical squiggly lines around it to represent possible interference to the message, with an arrow from the sender going through the packet and ending at the receiver on the right. As in writing circles, the model captures merely the form of communication, but not the content.

And you can't capture the essence of writing until you deal with the concept of newness---in depth, with a full definition, a breakdown of newness into a few main categories, and a complete process for creating newness---as Montaigne tried to tell us in so many words over 430 years ago.

This article was written by Bill Drew, a writing expert who specializes in teaching writing, in both theory and practice, especially essay writing, thesis writing, topic sentences, research writing, and writing about literature.

He is the author of The Secret DNA of Writing Essays-And Everything Else, as well as The Secret DNA of Analyzing Short Stories.

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