Michel de Montaigne has been called the inventor of the essay. But what American students call an essay (noun) is originally a French verb, essai. To essai is “to explore,” in particular the workings of the writer’s own thinking. In this sense the best writers see their work as a personal challenge, an opportunity to understand something different about themselves. In this sense, consider:
Avoid writing the obvious: If your essay only writes where you’ve been a thousand times before (your own cognitive “backyard”), then you are are hardly exploring. Remove these familiar paths and threads of thinking and strike out into unknown territory.
Accept that writing has risks. You may fail. You may get lost. You may be eaten by cannibals or get rickets. Well, perhaps not, but anything that could happen to true explorers is possible when thinking richly, including discovering great ideas and true beauty.
Find and accept challenge: Finding the challenge of a prompt or essay topic is really the most rewarding part–no good essay is a mere classroom “exercise” but always an opportunity to test one’s limits, to “exercise” the brain. Missing the challenge isn’t really writing, then, but just wasting time.
Write yourself: Montaigne said that the exploration is of our own minds. Therefore, write what you uniquely can say, never what anyone else might write. Your experience/perception must be the reason, the verb of exploration itself.