What Should You Write About? Lessons from Michel Montaigne

“He who fears he shall suffer, already suffers what he fears.”

Michel Montaigne

Michel Montaigne is perhaps best known for his book “Essays”, which was a collection of his observations and experiences.

For most people the word “essay” invokes nausea and a slight desire to vomit. One hypothesis is the fact that the purpose of essays is never explained clearly by teachers and is therefore unconsciously accepted as a torture device used by teachers to get students to ponder on books or ideas that they could not care less about.

(To be fair, it’s pretty tough to get people, especially high school and college students, to strain themselves in their current conceptualizations of the world. Most have rather dismissive attitudes about historical figures and classic books while growing up, although with proper guidance they find that they really do appreciate and enjoy the mandatory readings.)

But I digress. For a variety of reasons, the word “essay” is charged with a negative connotation that makes most people shiver and close the shades at night.

Students and working professionals both remember the desperate nights where they had to go on Sparknotes and Cliffnotes to claw together any persuasive evidence to trick the professor into thinking that they had not just read the assigned reading and written the essay 2 hours before the 11:59PM deadline.

(No? Just me? Well then…)

For any individual like myself who wanted to get away from responsibility and remain lazy, they saw the essay become a means to an end.

The end goal was not to increase understanding and push yourself to make concise, coherent, and persuasive points. Nor was it to improve critical thinking or develop writing skills.

It was to figure out what the professor wanted to read and write exactly what the professor might agree with.

It was to do whatever it took to get a passing grade, which was probably a B or C+ (you can see I was quite the overachiever)

While at the time I was happy with receiving these grades, I didn’t realize how much of a disservice I was doing to myself.

I found that as I shifted my goal to write whatever other people wanted to hear, I started to compromise my own integrity. Rather than share what I truly thought about the subject at hand, wrestling with ideas, and deciding what argument/conclusion was most convincing to me, I looked to copy others’ answers and refused to do the heavy lifting.

I found that I started developing a negative attitude toward essays, which were supposed to be the moments where I could reflect on my own personal beliefs and values. These essays were meant to be reflections of myself, and chances for me to show both myself and the professor that I was capable of expressing my thoughts in a concise and eloquent manner.

In my arrogance, I was unable to see that these assignments could have been taken on as challenges and opportunities that were integral for my personal growth.

Unfortunately, I still embodied the Puer Aeternus, the archetype of the eternal boy, or the modern Peter Pan, refusing to grow up and take responsibility for my maturation.

These musings come to me as I realize the origins of the essay.

In Sarah Bakewell’s book “How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer”, she explains that Montaigne wrote free-roaming explorations of his thought and experience, which was unlike anything written before.

“He called them essays, meaning ‘attempts’ or ‘tries’. He put whatever was in his head into them: his tastes in wine and food, his childhood memories, the way his dog’s ears twitched when it was dreaming, as well as the appalling events of the religious civil wars raging around him.

She explains how many people throughout history have had comforting and amusing self reflections when reading Montaigne’s essays.

“The printed page fades from view; a living person steps into the room instead. ‘Four hundred years disappear like smoke’.”

All this can happen because the Essays has no great meaning, no point to make, no argument to advance. It does not have designs on you; you can do as you please with it. Montaigne lets his material pour out, and never worries if he has said one thing on one page and the opposite overleaf, or even in the next sentence.

Every few phrases, a new way of looking at things occurs to him, so he changes direction. Even when his thoughts are most irrational and dreamlike, his writing follows them. “I cannot keep my subject still,” he says. “It goes along befuddled and staggering, with a natural drunkenness.” Anyone is free to go with him as far as seems desirable, and let him meander off by himself if it doesn’t. Sooner or later, your paths will cross again.

Pay Attention And Write Down What You See And Experience

It seems that he saw writing as a captivating and cathartic activity.

Captivating because he could write about anything and everything that interested him.

Cathartic because he saw it as a way to inspect the “chimeras and fantastic monsters, one after another, without order or purpose” that filled his head.

He had started writing these essays after deciding to retire from his job as a magistrate (civil officer/judge in modern occupations).

Perhaps he took the advice of Seneca, who had warned that idleness and isolation could bring to the fore all the consequences of having lived life in the wrong way, consequences that people usually avoided by keeping busy — that is, by continuing to live life in the wrong way.

He noticed that an unoccupied mind gyrates unpredictably and brings forth mad, directionless whimsies. He found that he was alone with his thoughts more since he had more time on his hands, which led him down strange and dark paths.

He decided to write them down, not directly to overcome them, but to inspect their strangeness at his leisure.

Rather than fill his time with busywork to avoid having to explore the nature of his consciousness, he decided to focus on what was present in front of him and to pay full attention to it.

“Writing had got Montaigne through his ‘mad reveries’ crisis; it now taught him to look at the world more closely, and increasingly gave him the habit of describing inward sensations and social encounters with precision.”

He quoted Pliny on the idea of attending to such elusive fragments: “Each man is a good education to himself, provided he has the capacity to spy on himself from close up.”

As Montaigne the man went about his daily on the estate, Montaigne the writer walked behind him, spying and taking notes.

While reading about a man who explored his consciousness may be entertaining and seem fairly simple, the act is quite a strenuous task and not one that should be ventured into lightly.

The mind is an ancient part of your being, and what is most paradoxical about its existence is the fact that it cannot understand itself.

You would think that your mind is at least something you can understand fully, since it’s YOURS, but you find that you’re able to hide things from yourself (repression) and surprise yourself with your own thoughts (epiphany) that arise (from where exactly?).

The most damning thing is the fact that you can’t even control yourself! You tell yourself you’re going to eat healthy, work out, and sleep early, and on the same day you will be on your bed at 3AM, munching on McDonald’s while watching Netflix with dead tired eyes.

Montaigne admitted that he had worked hard to articulate these realizations:

“It is a thorny undertaking, and more so than it seems, to follow a movement so wandering as that of our mind, to penetrate the opaque depths of its innermost folds, to pick out and immobilize the innumerable flutterings that agitate it.”

I found this particular instance that shows a fragment of what kind of a person Montaigne was:

“He was so determined to get to the bottom even of a phenomenon that was normally lost by definition — sleep — that he had a long-suffering servant wake him regularly in the middle of the night in the hope of catching a glimpse of his own unconsciousness as it left him.”

Navel-Gazing Doesn’t Have To Have a Negative Connotation

Write about whatever you experienced. Write about whatever you experience. Write about how you think you will experience a future experience.

You must follow the stream of consciousness and be willing to follow your mind through the inner, mystical landscape of the human psyche.

Develop an insatiable curiosity and allow yourself explore. When you keep the thoughts in your mind, it stays in its chaotic form, full of potential but unable to be identified/categorized/analyzed.

A thought can only be studied closely once it is articulated and manifested into reality. By writing about the thought that occurs in your mind, you have given life and structure to the chaos, and you are able to look for the potential power and value that the thought can bring to yourself and to the world.

“This is why Montaigne’s book flows as it does: it follows its author’s stream of consciousness without attempting to pause or dam it. A typical page of the Essays is a sequence of meanders, bends, and divergences. You have to let yourself be carried along, hoping not to capsize each time a change of direction throws you off balance.”

You must not fear the digression and randomness of your essay while you try to make your point. Sometimes your best plan might be to not have a plan — you’re simply exploring and seeing what will happen without a predetermined goal.

If you venture into the unknown depths of the psyche while maintaining a mindset of caution and courage, you can come out of it with newfound and revitalizing knowledge.

It’s comforting to realize that Montaigne had a pure motive in mind, which allowed us to peer into one man’s authentic and untainted journey of self exploration. He is never satisfied with what he knows about himself and the people around him — he reminds himself and the reader that he is continuously perplexed by the nature of his consciousness.

“Most of Montaigne’s thought consists of a series of realizations that life is not as simple as he has just made it out to be.”

If my mind could gain a firm footing, I would not make essays, I would make decisions; but it is always in apprenticeship and on trial.

Don’t be afraid to contradict yourself in the next sentence. If you find yourself deleting something because you’re scared of how other people will perceive you, you are limiting the creative potential of your writing.

(Though if you’re writing things that incite violence, talk negatively about others based on their immutable characteristics, or rationalize immoral behavior, perhaps you should limit yourself)

Readers can only know you as a writer if you’re able to express yourself fully.

But that practice also comes with time, so the act of writing is inevitable. Start writing and exploring and enjoy the entire process :)

“Learned we may be with another man’s learning: we can only be wise with wisdom of our own.”

— Michel Montaigne

If you want to ask me a question or simply want to talk: @ohc.william@gmail.com. Check out my publication — https://medium.com/sapere-aude-incipe