Skip to main content

Finishing five months of daily essays

Well, we’ve reached the end of another month of monthly essays, which I think makes it five months [1]. It’s also the end of the year, but not really the end of a year of essays. That’s still seven months away. In any case, since it’s the end of the month, it’s time to reflect on my writing for the month.

In November, I primarily wrote profiles of a variety of Grinnellians. That was harder than I had expected, but I ended up finding some value in those essays, and I started getting used to writing that kind of essay. Still, I was looking forward to getting back to writing a wider variety of essays in December.

It turned out to be much harder than I expected to get back into the groove of writing other kinds of essays. Toward the end of month three, I had developed a long list of things I was really enthusiastic about writing about it. But when I came back to the list this month, few of the topics really struck me [3]. In part, I think it’s because the profiles put me in a better mood; I feel less inclined to rant about things than I might otherwise. I think the rants I’ve written recently are less extreme [4]. I wonder if the lack of rants makes me a less interesting writer?

In spite of some of these blocks, I did realize that I should be getting back to writing useful essays, essays that are intended for a broader audience, such as my early essays for prospective students. I didn’t write enough of them. In part, that’s because this month was the end of the semester, and the end of the semester is a particularly busy one. Hence, I often felt like I wanted to write, or had to write, short essays that did not require significant thought or background research.

That said, some writing got away from me. I had thought that my essay on linking endnotes would be short. However, it ended up being at least twice as long as the average essay. The original version of my essay on Trustees included a number of public rants that it probably should not have contained [5]. I’m pretty sure there were others. The essay on teaching online was long, but that’s typical of my memos to the Dean.

Some of my writing was of code, rather than text. I wrote that long essay on linking endnotes because I had written software for linking those endnotes. I also wrote a short script to renumber endnotes, one that allows me to easily insert a new endnote in the middle of the essay. It took me much too long to decide to write that second piece of software. As a computer scientist (or at least as a computer programmer), I should know that once I’ve done the same stupid repetitive task a few times, I should then write software to automate that task. At some point, I’ll probably write some more software for the essays. I think I should write some indexing software. I’m not sure what else, but I’m sure that something will come up.

Oh, yeah, I’m supposed to reflect on what effect these essays have had on my writing. Am I better at conclusions? Not really. However, I’m a little bit better at not throwing in post-essay comments [6]. Do I find that I’m magically writing beautiful prose? No, I don’t think I have the mindset to write beautiful prose [7]. I do think I communicate (relatively) clearly. I’m not sure whether or not I’m funny; I put in snarky endnotes, but they may amusing only to me. I’m getting better about not starting sentences with And, or at least noticing when I’m going it. In the end, it feels like I’ve settled in to a regular writing style, one that seems to suit me acceptably well.

Do I write this way because I assume most of my audience knows me? I’m not sure. The other night, I had an interesting conversation with a friend about the essays. He said something like It’s too bad that your essays don’t have a wider audience. I think I said I don’t really care. But what I really meant was

I’m glad that some friends, colleagues, and students read my essays. I’m probably lucky that few administrators read my essays. Most of my essays don’t need a wider audience; the ones that do, such as my comments on computer science at Grinnell, I try to make available to a wider audience.

Still, it’s nice to have an audience. I will admit that I find it strange that I have a wide variety of published writers [8] as regular readers, and two more [9] as occasional readers. For most of them, it makes sense; they are friends from Grinnell. But I’m still not sure why David Feldman ’71 reads everything I write [10] I suppose he’s waiting for a revision of the Posse essay [11].

I did say it was an interesting conversation, didn’t I? Conversations about audience aren’t all that interesting. We also ended up talking about the form of these essays. Many essayists write to convince their audience of a perspective. In contrast, most of my essays are, as the title suggests, just musings and reflections. That is, they show how I think about or through an issue. I don’t necessarily want you to believe the same thing I do; I just want you to think through it, too. Of course, that’s not always the case. A few of the rants are intended to promote a particular perspective, Most of the essays for prospective students are intended to inform. At the same time, those essays are also intended to help students and their parents think through some important issues. I’m not really sure what form my profiles take.

What lies ahead? Well, in January I’m going to try to do some writing I’ve had planned for a few years, writing that may feel a bit different. Planned but not completed writing is one of the reasons I started this series. What will it be? Stay tuned, and you’ll find out. But I do have some of those other useful essays to write. You may see them as bonus essays. What happens after January? I may do another month of assorted essays. I may do another month of profiles. We’ll see what my muse suggests.

In any case, Happy new year!

[1] Yes, I realize that five months of essays should be no more than 155 essays, and this is essay #173. But, well, I wrote forty essays in the first go-round, and counted that as only one month; I wrote bonus essays on a number of days; and I ended up moving the end of the month to the end of the month [2].

[2] That is, rather than calling a month 30 or 31 days from the start of the essay writing, I started using the last day of the month.

[3] More precisely, my muse was more obscure in her guidance.

[4] I guess the rants about Harry & David were pretty extreme. Certainly, the mostly excised list of bad experiences with Trustees was a bit excessive. Nonetheless, I think I’ve generally been a calmer person.

[5] There were originally a dozen or so. I excised all of them. Tonight, I went back and put three of the moderate ones back in.

[6] Or, more precisely, I’m better at going back and editing to put them in the essay itself.

[7] I suppose that if I worked at it hard enough, I could write beautiful prose. I do write code that I think is beautiful, but those are different criteria of beauty. As it is, I’m satisfied with my workmanlike prose. That’s probably what I mean when I say I don’t have the mindset for beautiful prose.

[8] David Feldman ’71 and Harley McIlrath are the first two that come to mind, but also Erik Simpson and Carolyn Jacobson.

[9] Dean Bakopoulos and Paula Vene Smith.

[10] Or anything I write, for that matter.

[11] Yeah, that should probably go on the list of useful essays.

Version 1.0.1 of 2017-01-22.