This is an essay by Cian Morey Sep03


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This is an essay by Cian Morey

I don’t write essays.

I don’t write crosswords in pencil either.

“Desperate times” etc.


‘Mr Morey,’ I hear you ask, ‘why are you so resistant to the idea of “the essay?”’

‘Ah,’ I reply, ‘I’m glad you asked that, because I was going to answer it for you anyway whether you liked it or not. My reasoning is quite simple – I don’t know what they are.’

‘But Mr Morey,’ I hear you inquire, ‘how could you have no knowledge of so common a style as “the essay?”’

‘Ah,’ I suavely reciprocate, ‘it is not that I have no knowledge; it is that I have too much.’

‘But Mr Morey!’ I hear you tempestuously expostulate. ‘How can there be such a thing as “too much knowledge?” Surely there is no limit to learning!’

‘Ah,’ I ratiocinatively riposte, ‘that, my eager but obtuse friend, is where you are gravely mistaken.’

Knowledge, you see, is an excellent thing when it builds on previous knowledge. You learn one thing, and then you learn another, and the second adds something to the first. Step by step, your information becomes more advanced. Knowledge is not an excellent thing, however, when it builds beside previous knowledge. If you learn one thing, and then you learn the same thing again in a different way, you have still learned only one thing. Step by step, your information becomes more confused, but no more advanced at all.

Consider the way in which I just wrote the words “ask” and “reply” in increasingly elaborate forms. By the time I arrive at “ratiocinatively riposte”, three things have happened to the reader:

  1. They are now 100% certain that I am the most linguistically intelligent man alive.
  2. They have now learned how to write two ridiculously simple words in a number of utterly useless ways.
  3. They are now so discombobulated that their train of thought has been completely derailed, crashed into a canyon, sold as scrap, melted down and remodelled as a large set of spoons.

The way in which I learned about essays was something rather similar. For example, I know not just one definition of an essay, but twelve. In fact, I know so many definitions of an essay that I haven’t got the faintest idea which one is correct.

So, being the dedicated and enthusiastic scholar that I am, I have naturally avoided the buggers at all costs.

Almost all costs.

There comes a time in the life of most writers when they realise that they can’t just keep doing the same thing ad nauseum. The food critic must understand that the world keeps turning beyond three Michelin stars. The crime writer must understand that the butler actually can’t always have done it. The expert historian of the German Student Union must understand that one can only read about book-burnings a certain number of times before one is driven to test its effectiveness on the historian’s own publication.

For years, the essay has called to me. For years, I have blocked my ears. I have scraped many bottoms of many barrels of fiction. I have smiled through the best and screamed through the rest of the world’s artwork to build up a portfolio of reviews or loosely-structured emotional explosions. I have even braved the wilds of the mysterious memoir, and discovered just how empty my life has actually been.

But the essay comes for us all in the end.

And so today I made the long walk to my computer (it’s actually about 7 metres from my front door, but a poor choice of shoes made it feel like an eternity); threw myself into my chair with the heaviest of hearts; waited patiently for Windows to apply 256 updates; and finally set to work.

“This Is An Essay”, I wrote proudly at the top of the page. (I was feeling particularly innovative with my titling at that moment.) I capitalised it. I underlined it. I put it in thick bold print. It was exactly what I wanted – the perfect mélange of the archaic and the avant-garde, the subtle and the striking, the generic and the genius. I gave myself a well-earned pat on the back (which is surprisingly difficult to do in a computer chair) and left to eat a much-deserved sandwich.


Despite my best intentions, the sandwich did not last forever.


Fifteen minutes later, I found myself back in my computer chair again, staring at my title and wondering where the magic had gone – or, indeed, if it had ever truly existed at all. The blankness of the page was oddly blinding. The flashing cursor taunted me like a cheeky schoolboy from the left-hand margin. Even the title had lost some of its original creative flair. I sat in deep thought for a short while, twiddling my thumbs – whatever the hell that means – and trying to pinpoint a problem that danced just out of the reach of my reasoning.

And then, at last, just as my thumbs began to grow tired from their intensive twiddling, the pesky epiphany hit me with the force of a full bus – I didn’t know what an essay was anymore.

‘Feck,’ I philosophised.

But I was determined this time. I was steadfast. I had sat through 256 updates for this moment. There was no turning back now.

There was, however, some slight turning to be done after all. I turned my chair to my bookcase and whipped out the thickest dictionary with a flourish. It then emerged that the thickest dictionary was in fact a German one, so I put that back and took out the second-thickest instead – Collins Paperback English Dictionary, Now In Colour! I thundered forth: hurtling past several paragraphs of threats that seemed to imply that it was actually possible to plagiarise the English language; storming through a full two pages on how to use the internet safely; blazing from “adultery” to “bigamy”, from “cocaine” to “drugs bust”; until I finally arrived at “essay”, and found merely this:

essay n 1 a short literary composition on a single subject

            2 a short piece of writing on a subject done as an exercise by a student

            3 an attempt

I ground my teeth.

“A short literary composition on a single subject” – yes, it was technically a definition of some sort, but what did it actually tell me? What had I learned? Could I now write the perfect essay from those eight words?

Spoiler alert – I absolutely could not.

“A short literary composition on a single subject”. That could be an essay, but it could also be a short story, or a piece of flash fiction, or an article in the Constitution, or the text of a radio advertisement for a new brand of sausage. It was completely meaningless.

“A short piece of writing on a subject done as an exercise by a student”. A definition I was all too familiar with, but one which still did not clear the ambiguity or teach me anything new.  

“An attempt”. This one was just insane.


In short, I no longer own Collins’ Paperback English Dictionary.


Still seeking answers, I went to the ever-reliable Wikipedia (Wikipedia even has an article called “Reliability of Wikipedia”, so you know you can trust it). I searched for “Essay”, and read the following opening line:

“An essay is, generally, a piece of writing that gives the author’s own argument — but the definition is vague, overlapping with those of an article, a pamphlet, and a short story.”

I swore loudly and murdered the Wikipedia page with one brutal strike of my mouse button.

My investigations, I realised, were doomed to perpetual futility. The enigmatic essay had just been literally defined as “vaguely defined”. The rest of the world was just as baffled as I was. All hope from external sources was lost; only one solution remained. My brow furrowed, my eyes closed, my thoughts darkened as I slipped inside myself and came to the terrible understanding that had been lurking in the shadows from the very beginning – I would need a second sandwich.


The butter was gone.


My heartache still fresh, my wounds still raw, my very essence still shook to its butter-less core, wracked with the horrors of the driest of all meals, I trudged back to my chair and readied myself for the final push.

Deciphering the mystery of the essay on my own seemed like an insurmountable challenge. Surely the answer had to be there somewhere, waiting to be seized from its fog of obscurity and dragged, kicking and screaming, into the sunlight of clarity? But as I plumbed the depths of my personal experiences, I became only further perplexed. The dreaded essay had stalked me through all of my years of schooling. For a student, it was the black spot, the kiss of death, the foulest stuff of nightmares; for a teacher, it was the favourite word, the finest punishment, the grandest stuff of dreams. But for a writer – what really was it after all? A short story? A review? A passionate debate? A news report? A journal entry? A discourse on modern life? Something more or something less? All of these things or none? I have heard the term “essay” applied to so many variations of writing, particularly in the school environment, that to me it has become simply synonymous with “lots of words”, or even “stuff”. I have learned everything and nothing about it. I can define an essay with two dozen words across a sprawling blackboard, but I can never define it with one.

But – and this is the really interesting bit – is that a problem?

You see, the one thing about literature in general that I have learned with confidence in 16 years of my life is that “literature is a form of art”. And the one thing about art in general that I have learned with confidence in 16 years of my life is that “art is bonkers”. It is. It is completely absurd. There are no rules. It doesn’t have limits; it doesn’t have a beginning or an end; it doesn’t even have a definition. No, the best part is, we get to define it. It can be anything at all that we want it to be. With art, we have a license to change the world. With art, we can make the impossible possible.

So if literature is a form of art, and if the essay is a form of literature, is it actually anything at all? Are there any things that it needs to contain? Are there any things that it needs to avoid? Are there any structures to be followed, any styles to be adhered to, any content preset? I haven’t found a way to define it – but does a definition even exist?

I have reached a conclusion. It may not be correct for everyone. It may not be correct for anyone. But it certainly makes a lot of sense to me.

It’s not the conclusion I expected. It’s not the conclusion I had hoped for. It’s not even the conclusion I had feared. But, in my opinion, it’s better than all of that.

I will never know what an essay truly is and nobody else will either. And that’s not actually a bad thing, far from it. It is a good thing. It is the best thing. Because I get to make it all up. Perhaps, according to some of the greatest literary minds out there who have also attempted to put all of this in its neat little box, everything that I have just written and everything that you have just read constitutes an essay somehow. Perhaps it doesn’t constitute an essay at all. And perhaps, even according to myself, it wouldn’t have counted as an essay to the person I was yesterday, and it won’t count as an essay to the person I will be tomorrow. But to the person I am right here, right now, at this precise second, this is an essay, and it is the best one I could ever hope to write.