The essence of good writing is essence
If there’s anything writers know about writing, it’s that the surest way to improve their prose is to heed the advice of good writers. Here’s a sample:
- “Omit unnecessary words” – William Strunk Jr., The Elements of Style.
- “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” – Stephen King, On Writing.
- “Do back exercises because pain is distracting.” – Margaret Atwood (I love this one).
- “Go for a walk to focus the mind [and] read Keats’s letters.”- Helen Dunmore
- “Write short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.” – David Ogilvey
- “When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.”- Zadie Smith
- “Pick a subject you care so deeply about that you’d speak on a soapbox about it.” – Kurt Vonnegut
- [Avoid] “The stench of turgid prose.” – Kas Thomas
- Take a huge bowel movement [because] if your body doesn’t flow then your brain won’t flow.” – Author and blogger James Altucher (Quora comment).
And to this advice may I add:
- If you want to be a better writer, then write from essence, not from personality.
Essence? Isn’t that something we flavour cakes with?
Most of us have no idea what essence is, so let’s find someone who does.
George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (ca 1872-1949) was a charismatic spiritual teacher whose severe and unorthodox methods earned him a reputation as “the rascal sage.” Colin Wilson, gifted writer on all things eerie and mysterious, calls him “the greatest man of the twentieth century,” and if you’re ready to have your worldview thrashed, pummelled and blasted into the ionosphere, then I recommend G. I. Gurdjieff: The War Against Sleep, his startling chronicle of Gurdjieff’s life and work.
Gurdjieff would likely be embroiled in protracted lawsuits (or even arrested) if he tried to pulverise our egos the way he did with his students in the early-to-mid-twentieth century. Yet, although he was tough he was also kind and his ultimate goal was to help people distinguish the false from the true in themselves.
This true self he called “essence”.
Gurdjieff made a clear and brutal distinction between essence and ego (personality):
“Essence is the truth in man; personality is the false. But in proportion as personality grows, essence manifests itself more and more rarely and more and more feebly and it very often happens that essence stops in its growth at a very early age and grows no further [and] it happens fairly often that essence dies in a man while his personality and his body are still alive. A considerable percentage of the people we meet in the streets of a great town are people who are empty inside, that is, they are actually already dead.
– G. I. Gurdjieff, as reported by P.D. Ouspensky in In Search of the Miraculous.
Essence, explained Gurdjieff, is what is our own; it is what we are born with. It is our true nature.
Personality, on the other hand, is what is not our own. It is our social conditioning, our opinions, beliefs, habits and knowledge. It is what we learn and imbibe from the culture around us. It is everything we are not. Moreover, said Gurdjieff, essence only manifests when the pressure of ego diminishes and the greatest obstacle to the growth of essence is, of course, the heavy cloak of personality.
What happens when we write from personality?
The corollary of this is that when we write from personality we draw from a false self that has no depth or wisdom or substance. This is because personality is a bunch of concepts held together by a story about who we think we are and who we think others are. Everything we see, hear, feel and touch is observed via this mind-made existential filter and we then base our sense of reality on this phantom state. Most people write from personality so is it any wonder that what we read is soon forgotten?
Writing from essence
However, when we create from essence we produce a different effect entirely and you probably know people who write with such ease and grace that each time you read their work you notice something fresh and true and beautiful. They are “essence writers” and they’re as rare as the white rhino. But they don’t have to be.
How to cultivate essence
So, to produce memorable and authentic prose we must write from essence and as a way to cultivate this quality Gurdjieff taught what he called “self-remembering”. It’s what the contemporary spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle calls “presence” and it means to be aware, without judgement or analysis, of our thoughts, feelings and body sensations as they happen, moment to moment.
“Remember yourself always and everywhere.” – G. I. Gurdjieff
But how do we remember ourselves? How do we stay present as we write?
Here’s a wonderful explanation on how to read with presence (which could easily be adapted to writing with presence):
“Right now, for example, notice how you are reading words in front of your eyes, on a screen. Notice the thoughts and images that they are creating in your mind. Notice the emotions they are arousing in you. Notice how your body feels right this instant; the posture you are in; the sensations you can feel. Don’t let this article and these few seconds of your life be like a disembodied film being played out in front of you — put yourself in the picture. Feel what it’s like to be alive at this moment.”
– Mark McGuinness (Guest post on Gaping Void blog)
Try this with the next thing you read (or write) and you’ll notice how quickly you forget yourself and how hard it is to stay present. Before you know it, you’re lost in thought and writing from personality again so it’s helpful to train your mind and learn how to steer it in the direction of your true self, your essence. Meditation’s good and so is any kind of bodywork that gets you out of compulsive thinking and into your body. I’ve listed a few helpful books by people who write from essence to get you going.
And remember to do your back exercises.
Books written from essence:
A New Earth – Eckhart Tolle
Stillness Speaks– Eckhart Tolle
Born to be Free – Jac O’keefe
Everyday Dharma – Lama Willa Miller
The Elements of Style – William Strunk Jnr., and E. B. White
Passionate Presence – Catherine Ingram
In Search of the Miraculous – P. D. Ouspensky
G. I. Gurdjieff: The War Against Sleep – Colin Wilson
The Reality of Being – Jeanne de Salzmaan
Memories, Dreams, Reflections – C. G. Jung
Surfacing – Margaret Atwood
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About the author
Claire Bell is the health and wellbeing editor of Midlifexpress. She is the author of Stone Age Secrets for Mind and Body and Comma Magic. Print and ebooks available on Amazon.