Tending My Word-Garden

On building essays and tending blogs.

November 06, 2019Filed under blog#productivity#writing#zettelkastenMarkdown source

There is something about the commitment to write that I always find not only tiring—as it is, at times!—but also liberating. Much of my best thinking has been done through the work of putting pen to paper or keys to keyboard, for well over a decade now. I do not recall when I first discovered the power of the act of writing itself for focusing the mind and sharpening thought, but certainly by the end of high school and early college I was figuring it out. Somewhere between the point my freshman year when I started a long-since defunct Xanga site and the time I wrote a paper on art in the Great Depression late that year or early the next, the switch had flipped and I had come to understand what so many authors before me have: that writing can be a wonderful discipline for clarifying one’s own thoughts and understanding the world more clearly.

Blogging is the easiest expression of that reality for me, but that does not necessarily make it the best. In the post in which I committed to this November-long effort to write every day, I noted that part of what I want to be about is longer-essay-writing. This is because the work of building out an essay—not unlike the work of constructing a good paper for an advanced degree—requires the development of an argument. In a blog post, I can easily get away with a gesture (much as I can do verbally on an episode of Winning Slowly). In something that grows out to 4,000–5,000 words, though, a gesture will not do. An outline is a necessity.

This is not to say that a blog is a bad thing—not at all. As I have noted before, this site is a very useful kind of journal of my thoughts, a Zettelkasten that just happens to be public. To riff on an idea from Alan Jacobs, a blog can be a kind of garden—perhaps one that is well-tended, or perhaps one that is gone a bit wild and overgrown, but either way a place where the structure is organic and emergent as much as it is planned. Even the most carefully-kept gardens have surprises in them, courtesy of the infinite variety that is life. And the beauty and delight of a well-tended garden is distinct from the goodness of a well-built piece of architecture. So too the beauty and the goodness of a blog is organic and emergent, whereas an essay or a paper (much less a book) is structured and rigorous. Both are good. But one of them requires more, and yields as much or more, than the other—for the thinker producing it at least, and for others as well if the thing is blessed with an audience.

And so while I am publishing this tonight—largely as a way of just keeping some forward momentum on this project, keeping my mental muscles moving, keeping myself from giving up simply because the task is not trivial and I am tired late in the evening—I am considering, too: what should I write? What subject would I benefit from tackling with a long essay?

There items on my docket which I could finish, and perhaps I will. There are also places where there seem to be gaps, gaps to which I might be able to speak—but even to think so then seems so audacious (especially given my lack of rigorous reading or training in those areas!) that I struggle to pick up the task. Writing well, perhaps especially writing to persuade, is hard. Doing so at length the more so.

That does not make it less worth doing. Rather the opposite! But it does mean that on an evening like this one, I am hard pressed to make progress on any such task. I can tend this little garden, though, and keep these muscles moving. And so I do.