In my “kitchen,” I have a minifridge underneath my two stove burners. It’s wedged into a space between the sink and the wall, and I have to bend over, almost get onto my knees, to get anything out of it. It’s okay, because I don’t keep much in it—mostly vegetables and tofu—but in the upper-right corner, there’s a freezer big enough for only one very precious item: a bag of Stumptown coffee.
My little bag of coffee has traveled from Sumatra to Portland to Hong Kong, and right now, I only have enough of coffee left for two more cups. It’s the type of coffee used by many of the coffeeshops that I frequented in high school, and its smells like many of my best moments in Portland.
Part of the enjoyment of the morning coffee is the process. Every morning, I pour the grounds in the French press and add boiling water. While I wait for the coffee to steep, the world stands still. For those three to five minutes, it’s my time to do nothing, except to wonder why this particular coffee foams while it steeps while other coffees don’t. This is an important thought that I have almost every morning. When I feel I’ve pondered this enough, I push down the plunger slowly. I somehow feel that the coffee deserves better than to be crushed to the bottom of the glass with swift, violent jerk. After pouring the coffee into my white Ikea mug, I take the tiniest of sips for fear of burning my mouth.
I bend back down and put the coffee bag back in the tiny freezer. I can now start my day. Somehow, coffee can simultaneously slow down life as well as speed it up. I’m about to finish my Stumptown coffee, and though my morning ritual will stay the same, I fear its ability to momentarily transport me to a nostalgic Portland will be gone.
Sometimes I feel guilty when I teach my students how to write the standard college essay. You know the essays with clear theses, which are really just mini-outlines that state all the main themes; the ones where every paragraph has a topic sentence that supports the thesis, because everything must always support the thesis; the ones where you hold a position and defend it logically to the bitter end; the ones where you’re never quite sure what you’re supposed to say in the conclusion, because you’ve already staid it in the first paragraph. It’s the type of disciplined writing that will get you high marks, but it will never help you gain insight into the human condition. The essay questions are coursewide, which means a student can’t alter the question or explore the grey area surrounding a topic. Bush-whacking into a dense thicket of unknowns rarely leads to the clear path of a talented rhetorician, but it can lead to a surprising discovery. To shift metaphors, the college essay should be a tapestry where the writer is in control of every strand and knows from the beginning exactly the pattern he or she will follow. The type of essay structure that I’m teaching can be traced back to the education of the sons of Roman landowners, learning to defend their future legal interests. They were not trying to learn; they were trying to become lawyers.
Michel de Montaigne, the inventor of the essay, would fail my class. The word essay comes from the French essai, which means an attempt or trial. Montaigne’s goal was not to hold a position and to defend it. Defending a position may be necessary in law or in my class, but it is not a good way to make an attempt at understanding. Essais try to figure something out. They may not have a thesis. After all, you don’t know the answer before you’ve written it. Heck, you may not even know what it is you’re trying to understand till the end. Montaigne’s goal was never to maintain total control of his arguments but rather to try understand what it means to be human. In a single essay, he could make incisive, philosophical, and existential conclusions about humankind one moment and ruminate on the nature of farting the next. He would receive poor marks for his lack of paragraph unity; he would be penalized for never having a clear thesis, and he’d lose points for constantly including irrelevant information about his kidney stones.
It’s dangerous to be inspired by Montaigne in a college setting. Professors, not used to such a disobedient style, will not appreciate an attempt. Robert Frost wrote, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader,” but the essays in my class are not trying to surprise. They are trying to convince. The college essay form tries destroy all surprises. Nowadays, the blogosphere is the true inheritor of the essai. The interweb is chocked full of people writing about what they’re curious about and being surprised by it. No one thinks in the five paragraph essay form, and no one wants to read them. Being a wealthy 16th century statesman like Montaigne and being a blogger aren’t so different. Montaigne’s status freed him from constraints. He didn’t need to write for a publication or for a particular audience or for an assignment. He could just muse over his beliefs and doubts and put them to parchment. Bloggers are similarly freed from writing constraints. There is never an editor or a Mr. Shay informing you how you should structure your argument. Of course, I have yet to run across a blogger as insightful as Montaigne, a once in a century brilliance, but if Montaigne were around he’d probably be on blogspot.