Questions aren't enough. An essay has to come up with answers. They don't always, of course. Sometimes you start with a promising question and get nowhere. But those you don't publish. Those are like experiments that get inconclusive results. Something you publish ought to tell the reader something he didn't already know.

But what you tell him doesn't matter, so long as it's interesting. I'm sometimes accused of meandering. In defend-a-position writing that would be a flaw. There you're not concerned with truth. You already know where you're going, and you want to go straight there, blustering through obstacles, and hand-waving your way across swampy ground. But that's not what you're trying to do in an essay. An essay is supposed to be a search for truth. It would be suspicious if it didn't meander.

メアンダー川は小アジア(通称トルコ)の川だ。読者の予想するとおり、いたる所で曲がりくねっている。だが何も考えずに曲がりくねっているのだろうか? その正反対だ。すべての川と同じく、それは厳密に物理法則に従っている。メアンダー川の道のりは、いかに曲がりくねっていようと、海へ向かう最も経済的なルートなのだ。
The Meander is a river in Asia Minor (aka Turkey). As you might expect, it winds all over the place. But does it do this out of frivolity? Quite the opposite. Like all rivers, it's rigorously following the laws of physics. The path it has discovered, winding as it is, represents the most economical route to the sea.

The river's algorithm is simple. At each step, flow down. For the essayist this translates to: flow interesting. Of all the places to go next, choose whichever seems most interesting.

I'm pushing this metaphor a bit. An essayist can't have quite as little foresight as a river. In fact what you do (or what I do) is somewhere between a river and a roman road-builder. I have a general idea of the direction I want to go in, and I choose the next topic with that in mind. This essay is about writing, so I do occasionally yank it back in that direction, but it is not all the sort of essay I thought I was going to write about writing.

Note too that hill-climbing (which is what this algorithm is called) can get you in trouble. Sometimes, just like a river, you run up against a blank wall. What I do then is just what the river does: backtrack. At one point in this essay I found that after following a certain thread I ran out of ideas. I had to go back n paragraphs and start over in another direction. For illustrative purposes I've left the abandoned branch as a footnote.

Err on the side of the river. An essay is not a reference work. It's not something you read looking for a specific answer, and feel cheated if you don't find it. I'd much rather read an essay that went off in an unexpected but interesting direction than one that plodded dutifully along a prescribed course.

じゃあ面白さって何? 私にとっては面白さとは驚きのあることだ。まつもとゆきひろが述べたように、デザインは驚き最小の原則に従うべきだ。ボタンを押したら機械が止まるように見えたなら、機械はスピードアップするのではなく、止まらなくちゃいけない。エッセイはこの正反対をしなくちゃ。エッセイでは驚き最大を目指すべきなんだ。
So what's interesting? For me, interesting means surprise. Design, as Matz has said, should follow the principle of least surprise. A button that looks like it will make a machine stop should make it stop, not speed up. Essays should do the opposite. Essays should aim for maximum surprise.

私は飛行機に長時間乗るのが怖いので、旅行は人の話でしか楽しめない。友達が遠方から帰ると、私が彼らの旅行について話を聞くのは、つきあいでそうしてるんじゃない。本当に知りたいんだ。そして友達から情報を得る一番の方法は「何に一番驚いたの?」と尋ねることだということに気づいた。そこは予想とはどこが違った? これはたいへん有益な質問だ。すごくぼんやりとしていた人に対してでさえも、その質問はできるし、その質問によって、彼らが自分でさえ記憶していたと知らなかった情報を引き出せるだろう。
I was afraid of flying for a long time and could only travel vicariously. When friends came back from faraway places, it wasn't just out of politeness that I asked them about their trip. I really wanted to know. And I found that the best way to get information out of them was to ask what surprised them. How was the place different from what they expected? This is an extremely useful question. You can ask it of even the most unobservant people, and it will extract information they didn't even know they were recording.

Indeed, you can ask it in real time. Now when I go somewhere new, I make a note of what surprises me about it. Sometimes I even make a conscious effort to visualize the place beforehand, so I'll have a detailed image to diff with reality.

Surprises are facts you didn't already know. But they're more than that. They're facts that contradict things you thought you knew. And so they're the most valuable sort of fact you can get. They're like a food that's not merely healthy, but counteracts the unhealthy effects of things you've already eaten.

驚きはどうすれば見つかるだろうか? それこそエッセイを書く仕事の半分だ(残りの半分は自分の考えうまく表現することだ)。少なくとも自分自身を読者の代理として使える。熟考したことについてだけ書こう。その話題についてずっと考えてきた人でも驚くものなら、きっとほとんどの読者は驚くだろう。
How do you find surprises? Well, therein lies half the work of essay writing. (The other half is expressing yourself well.) You can at least use yourself as a proxy for the reader. You should only write about things you've thought about a lot. And anything you come across that surprises you, who've thought about the topic a lot, will probably surprise most readers.

For example, in a recent essay I pointed out that because you can only judge computer programmers by working with them, no one knows in programming who the heroes should be. I certainly didn't realize this when I started writing the essay, and even now I find it kind of weird. That's what you're looking for.

So if you want to write essays, you need two ingredients: you need a few topics that you think about a lot, and you need some ability to ferret out the unexpected.

何について考えればいいのだろう? 私の思うに、その問いは重要ではない。深く掘り下げれば、ほとんどすべてのことは面白くなり得る。ありそうなひとつの例外は、ファーストフード業界で働くみたいに、意図的に一様にされている物事だ。思い起こすに、サーティワンで働いてて何か面白いことってあっただろうか? だが客にとって色がどれほど重要かを知ったのは面白かった。ある年齢の子供はケースを指差し「黄色のアイスが欲しい」と言う。「欲しいのはバニラ? レモン?」 子供はポカンとこちらを見る。黄色のアイスが欲しいのだ。一年を通じていちばん売れるプローリンゼン・クリームは、なぜ客を引き寄せるのかという謎がある。今ではあれは塩味のように思えてくる。パッション・フルーツの味が最低だったという謎は? みんな名前に惹かれてそれを注文し、いつもがっかりしていた。流し台フルーツと呼べばよかった。子供にアイスを買うときの、父親と母親の行動の違いもある。父親は、気前のよく慈悲深い王様のような態度を取ることが多く、そして母親は自分たちが良いと考える判断に対する圧力に苦悩する官僚となることが多かった。そうだ、ファーストフード業界にさえエッセイのテーマとなるネタがあるぞ。
What should you think about? My guess is that it doesn't matter. Almost everything is interesting if you get deeply enough into it. The one possible exception are things like working in fast food, which have deliberately had all the variation sucked out of them. In retrospect, was there anything interesting about working in Baskin-Robbins? Well, it was interesting to notice how important color was to the customers. Kids a certain age would point into the case and say that they wanted yellow. Did they want French Vanilla or Lemon? They would just look at you blankly. They wanted yellow. And then there was the mystery of why the perennial favorite Pralines n' Cream was so appealing. I'm inclined now to think it was the salt. And the mystery of why Passion Fruit tasted so disgusting. People would order it because of the name, and were always disappointed. It should have been called In-sink-erator Fruit. And there was the difference in the way fathers and mothers bought ice cream for their kids. Fathers tended to adopt the attitude of benevolent kings bestowing largesse, and mothers that of harried bureaucrats, giving in to pressure against their better judgement. So, yes, there does seem to be material, even in fast food.

もう片方の、予期せぬものを探し出す能力はどうだろう? それには何らかの、天賦の才能が必要かもしれない。私はずっと前から、自分が病的なほど観察力が鋭いのに気付いていた。 ....
What about the other half, ferreting out the unexpected? That may require some natural ability. I've noticed for a long time that I'm pathologically observant. ....

[That was as far as I'd gotten at the time.]


[sh] シェークスピアの時代には、まじめな執筆とは神学論のことであり、ビール園と売春宿の中にある川の向こう岸で上演するみだらな劇のことではなかった。
[sh] In Shakespeare's own time, serious writing meant theological discourses, not the bawdy plays acted over on the other side of the river among the bear gardens and whorehouses.

その正反対が、ミルトンのように作られた瞬間から傑作と思える仕事(本当に最初から意図した) だ。アエネーイスと同様、失楽園はたまたま化石となった蝶のような石だ。サミュエル・ジョンソンさえ、これには困ったようで、伝記で長々と賛辞をミルトンに送っておきながら、失楽園については「これほど読む気が失せる本もない」と書いた。
The other extreme, the work that seems formidable from the moment it's created (indeed, is deliberately intended to be) is represented by Milton. Like the Aeneid, Paradise Lost is a rock imitating a butterfly that happened to get fossilized. Even Samuel Johnson seems to have balked at this, on the one hand paying Milton the compliment of an extensive biography, and on the other writing of Paradise Lost that "none who read it ever wished it longer."