An Essay A Week
In this piece I look at the value I have found from writing and publishing one essay per week.
For a considerable time, I have been writing weekly essays, articles and reviews for Patreon and Rowan Tree Editing. It did not really begin as a writing exercise, but rather as part of the promotion of the website. Like many of the best habits, I happened into it.
But it is a good habit nonetheless. While I would like to have more time to write fiction, and hope to start setting myself per day targets for doing so, I have gained considerably from producing nonfiction. In particular, I have gained from thereby containing and structuring my thoughts. I am proud of much of what I have written, and see a progression in my ideas on my blog. Continuities but also developments, divergences that perhaps betoken maturing thoughts, become apparent by having such an archive. I can critically assess and reassess these pieces.
Equally, it has been good to write across a diverse range of subjects. I struggle often to define the precise parameters of the blog. (Subject matter has included reviews of horror, socialist theory, cultural speculations, utopian studies, a reevaluation of grimdark as a satirical genre, biographical introspections, ideas about editing or, as with this very piece, writing). But that eclecticism has also been useful.
On the whole I try not to repeat a subject two weeks in a row; by setting myself that soft rule, I keep my attention from becoming too narrow. And by staying attuned to various subjects, I encourage associative thought, benefitting from the cross pollination of ideas. This is something the essay form is especially suited to, because of its lack of strictness, because of its indefinite goals, it allows for such an openness.
The demand of an essay a week does mean that I sometimes hit the deadline and draw a blank. That has, indeed, happened this week. And therefore, I have elected to get a bit meta about the writing project itself. Weeks when this has happened before have included (looking at just the more recent examples) those that led up to writing ‘A False Renewal’ and ‘Editing and Totality’, both of which I am proud of.
This is also part of the value of the discipline. I am forced to write under various circumstances. Sometimes at leisure, when a cluster of thoughts and projects culminate at once (when I finish books to review, retain lingering thoughts out of discussions with friends, etc.) and sometimes actively seeking a subject from which to tease an insight.
Writing in this way complements another form of writing I sustain as a habit: journaling. The discipline there is different. Journaling is not at all precious; for me it is not written for an audience, not written to be read, but as a process of meditation. Writing an essay a week is the same, but outward, a way of asking myself what I wish to communicate, what I wish to order into something externally intelligible.
It would be a rare week in which I cannot sit still for a moment and think of anything whatsoever to say. And if I do not have material pre-scheduled on such an occurrence, I might well be inclined in that eventuality to pass over it silently—as a necessarily rare ellipsis in my blog.
Then there is how this practice fulfils a workout in style. Writing is not some intuitive act, but a constantly developing skill that needs to be tested and honed. Keeping myself to the mere act of sitting, fingers pressed against keys, every single week, is again itself significant. To write even when it is a bit of a struggle, because it is exercising those figurative muscles.
Science fiction author Samuel R. Delany (as quoted by Lance Olsen’s fantastic book on writing experimental fiction Architectures of Possibility), argued that it is ‘almost impossible to write a novel any better than the best novel you’ve read in the three-to-six months before you began your own.’ I concur, but would add that as well as frequent reading—a familiarity with the words of others—good writing generally requires frequent writing, requires a comfort and ease in writing. Read and write regularly.
It also trains ones editing. Editing yourself is difficult. It is easier to miss my own errors than it is others, because it is easier to read the words that I conceived writing, than it is to read the ones on the objective page. This is exacerbated when editing material I have just recently written, where my psychological proximity to the text is all the more intense. The combined challenge is a healthy one for an editor.
Not everyone will benefit from writing an essay a week. Someone’s focus could justifiably be elsewhere. Nor would doing it purely as an abstracted exercise necessarily work—it often requires some greater justification, as it has for me, to sustain. But it is worthwhile per se. It provides an overview of your ideas on at least one subject; it forces you to treat writing as inherently serious; it tests and improves your writing and editing ability.
Most of all, it gives your writing an immediate sense of meaning in the world. Longer form projects are wonderful too, a discipline in its own right with a quite different set of payoffs. But writing in this more immediate way (albeit less immediate than the throwaway and therefore generally not so well written microblogs of twitter) gives a sense of continuous purposiveness to writing as such. Not every piece is equally received, but there is a special happiness in having that communication returned. The blog, for all these reasons, is a medium I would defend. And maintaining one something I would recommend.
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