Essay advice from Franz Kafka

When it comes to fiction, Franz Kafka is amazing. He was ahead of his time, and in some respects, is ahead of ours. However, he wasn’t that much of an essayist, according to some personal reflections in Franz Kafka: Diaries, 1910-1923.

In his journalKafka comments on some lines from Goethe, saying:

The difficulties of bringing to an end even a short essay lie not in the fact that we feel the end of the piece demands a fire which the actual content up to that point has not been able to produce out of itself, they arise from the fact that even the shortest essay demands of the author a degree of self-satisfaction and of being lost in himself out of which it is difficult to step into everyday air without great determination and an external incentive, so that, before the essay is rounded to a close and one might quietly slip away, one bolts, driven by unrest, and then the end must be completed from the outside with hands which must not only do the work but hold on as well.

Writing personal, memoir-style essays is not my thing either. It’s not that I haven’t tried it. It’s just that I always think it’s boring, that no one would want to read about my life. I feel like there’s no great, didactic point to be made of my own mundane experiences.

I feel sort of like Joaquin Phoenix on Fresh Air. In the middle of telling Terry Gross about his acting method, he stopped himself and complained:

It’s not interesting. It’s just so stupid. … If I was driving and I heard this, I’d be – I’d change the channel. … I’d be like, why – can you shut up?

 I have the same anxiety. But I’m not a movie star—or anything else important or interesting. So on the rare occasion when I sit down to write something personal or introspective, I choke. But I’m going to think about Kafka from now on and try not to bolt at the end. Instead of leaving it up to outside hands, I’ll do the work and try to keep holding on.


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