For those of you who don’t know who Paul Graham is, here’s a quick primer:
He’s is a coder and he started and sold a Internet Startup company during the .com bubble and sold it for a handsome sum. He’s now a internet startup guru and the co-founder of Y Combinator , writer(Hackers and Painters), essayist and coder. Quick enough?
I’ve been an avid reader for 15 years now, enjoying mostly fiction (sci-fi, fantasy) and an odd smattering of non-fiction here and there (mainly science and related). To date I have yet to read a better essay writer than Paul Graham, although I must admit my experience is quite limited. I haven’t read his book, “Hackers and Painters“, yet, but his essays are really fantastic.
I’m a fan of short stories because the authors keep stories short and the plot very clean, but I think a requirement for a short story is a twist or just be extremely different, possibly exploring an unfamiliar writing style, basically anything to remove it from the category of unremarkable. Paul’s essays are non-fiction equivalent of short stories.
I’m not a schooled or practiced writer at all so my ability to judge these things rests squarely on my experience as a reader. Paul’s writing is definitely not bubble gum for the mind. It’s more like eating delicious vegetables, slightly harder chewing but infinitely more nourishing! His writing has inspired me to start writing myself and I thought what better way to start than to write about his writing and his ideas about writing.
I love Paul’s essay “The Age of the Essay“ and his insights into the history of essays. One of the things I got from it is best explained by a little paraphrasing: “In a real essay, you don’t take a position and defend it. You notice a door that’s ajar, you open it and walk in to see what’s inside.“ so you’re not tyring explaining yourself to the reader but thinking out loud on paper.
He speaks of surprises cropping up during the writing process. To quote again, “An essay doesn’t begin with a statement, but with a question”. I am blatantly not doing this is this essay but I’m getting there! One thing that struck me about this is that I often have thoughts that I think are interesting and one of two things will happen: 1. I will be busy doing something else at the time (something which is really unavoidable and needs to be done at that time – PG’s hint for dealing with this scenario is to carry a notebook with you) or 2. I gather speed while on a specific track or train of thought but then I just spin out of control, losing direction as other thoughts interrupt. I really got the idea that writing is controlled way of exploring ideas. So I’m adding writing as my third and more useful thing to happen when inspiration strikes.
PG writes about smart people, specifically how they relate to hacking or programming. I read somewhere that one aspect of IQ is not only the speed but rather the depth (only explored very superficially today with the proliferation of online IQ tests) of intellect or it’s ability to think “deep“.
Now these two factors (speed and depth) are definitely related and are proportional to a degree but they manifest differently. As time is the essential difference between these two measures of IQ and because it is out of the equation in the relatively static ‘writing space’ I am unable to say anything about his speed of intellect whilst I can say with great certainty that his ability to pierce deeply is profound.
I like to think of it as mental scaffolding. Writing helps to build scaffolding so you can think at greater heights or pierce deeper. Writing also serves to create permanent structures, so that thinking on related subjects is easier later on.
It’s like when you start watching a Shakespeare production for the first time; initially it’s difficult to understand but after a while it becomes second nature as the scaffolding for understanding Shakespearian English is built.
I think that’s the beauty of hacking or programming, the process of coding builds very strong scaffolding because they are so abstract and generic, about as abstract as one can build. They can used to think with with virtually any subject.
PG is a coder and hacker (amongst other things) and his extensive experience of these areas has allowed him to build some formidable structures which he climbs in his essays. With his writing style you can really see his thought process at work. The free flowing nature of which surprises me each time I read one of his essays. They truly are such a pleasure to read!
Another requirement to writing piercing pieces is domain knowledge. PG’s experience with coding, startups and companies is again extensive, so his smarts in combination with this knowledge is the reason his writing is so excellent. I think smart people can also draw parallels between seemingly dissimilar subjects (hacking and painting) and find fertile ground in between.
PG shows how the writing process can be really fun and rewarding (to oneself and to others) so I plan to try my hand at it and hopefully one day to be as good as him. Another point he makes is the ability to recognize the approach of an ending and to grab it when it arrives…so I’ll grab mine… if somewhat clumsily. :)
Thanks to Paul Robinson and Geoffrey Robson for helping me correct my somewhat bad grammar and only slightly better spelling.