Nobody can get you in the mood for writing quite like Michel de Montaigne, the inventor of the personal essay — and direct literary ancestor of all bloggers.
In case you thought you were hallucinating — yes, my blogging-related recommended reading for today is, indeed, from the 16th century. It’s the Essays by French writer Michel de Montaigne, who singlehandedly invented the genre (and the term!).Montaigne‘s not your average Dead Classical Author, though. Before you fling your iPad out the window, take a look at the following quote. If you’re a blogger, odds are you’ll recognize yourself in this:
I have no other end in this writing, but only to discover myself […].
Montaigne was an extraordinary man for any number of reasons. He’s still loved and admired by writers everywhere, though, for being the first to understand that writing, no matter what the topic might be, is first and foremost an expression of our innermost selves.
With every sentence in his Essays (available for free in a number of formats here), he seems to tell us that thoughts are great, but it’s putting them out there — on a page, on a screen, somewhere where others can find them — that makes them valuable.
Lessons from a fierce writer
What could a guy who wrote with a quill possibly teach us about writing today?
There’s the lesson of consistency: for much of his adult life, Montaigne would spend time writing every single day. There’s also the lesson of good editing: he kept polishing his essays long after they’d first been printed.
But there’s also this:
There is nothing so contrary to my style, as a continued narrative, I so often interrupt and cut myself short in my writing for want of breath; I have neither composition nor explanation worth anything, and am ignorant, beyond a child, of the phrases and even the very words proper to express the most common things; and for that reason it is, that I have undertaken to say only what I can say, and have accommodated my subject to my strength.
Good writers accept their imperfections, the things they’re ignorant about, and the limits of their own perspectives. They thrive using what they do know.
It might sound counterintuitive to let it all hang, so to speak, considering that our words convey a sense of who we are. Isn’t that the perfect reason to put on our fancy clothes and douse our prose with some extra cologne? Exactly the opposite, Montaigne insists:
The way of speaking that I love, is natural and plain, the same in writing as in speaking.
(Of the Education of Children)
It’s the little tics and quirks that make our voices — whether spoken or written — our own. Since we never know how others are going to receive our writing, we might as well own our words and click the “Publish” button with our heads raised high.
If you’re ever paralyzed by the thought that publishing something honest and unadorned will push your readers away, remember that the opposite is just as possible:
A competent reader often discovers in others’ writings other perfections than the author himself either intended or perceived, a richer sense and more quaint expression.
(Various events from the Same Counsel)
Giving the Essays a try
For those who’d like to dip their toes in the Essays (or dive head-first), it’s good to bear in mind that this is still old writing: some of the language might sound archaic, and yes, there are quite a few quotes in Latin (translated as well, of course). But there’s also wisdom, beauty, and wit in just about every line, so the effort pays itself off very quickly.
The best part? This isn’t a book to read cover-to-cover, or even chapter-after-chapter. Many Montaigne lovers, myself included, love jumping around between and within essays — essay-hopping, if you will. Still, if you’re looking for a more guided introduction, be sure to check out Maria Popova’s lovely piece, How to Live: Lessons from Montaigne, Godfather of Blogging.
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