On Transparency of Thought in the Essay
October 21, 2011 § 14 Comments
Whispered Wills and Words That Bleed: On Transparency of Thought in the Essay, a Brevity craft essay by Jennifer Bowen Hicks
Let me preface what I’m about to say with this: I’ve never taken my clothes off in public and I’m not a particularly close talker. If I have boundary issues, no one has ever told me so and I’ve never asked, a fact that, itself, should exonerate me. Bear this in mind as I tell you that I admire Terry Tempest Williams’ aim to write as though she “whispers in the ear of the one [she] loves.” Such a whisper, to such a love, would be, above all else—intimate, wouldn’t it? Intimacy, I think, must presuppose honesty as honesty presupposes vulnerability. Williams, then, must write as though she’s exposing her barest self.
An earnest whisper in another’s ear—how brave. Put away thoughts of black lace and sordid secrets. The sort of whisper I mean can be about hummingbirds or athlete’s foot, an aging parent or eggplant. Its very purpose is not to show, but to say, and by saying to connect. You to me. Arthur Schopenhauer notes that when human language began it resembled animal sounds and marked not concepts but feelings and “agitations of the will.” Imagine homo habilis’ moan as she held her first blood-smeared newborn—a guttural utterance that might have conveyed: Beautiful. Scared. Wow.
When a writer voices the agitations of her will through words, I feel my own blood moving inside my veins, transfused and transformed by the essay’s greatest potential gift: full access to another human’s thinking, feeling, core—that place where our truest feelings and agitations live. In writing, is there any other point?
One of many ways I’ve felt invited into a writer’s “core” is when reading his transparent, winding thoughts. Seneca’s essay, On Noise, for instance, ancient though it may be, subtly welcomes the reader into his fluid stream of consciousness. Seneca, who was said to have influenced Montaigne, expresses his thoughts, ideas and rebuttals in such an organic way that it would be hard to believe the words didn’t flow directly from his head to his pen.
On Noise opens with Seneca obsessing over external noises that are distracting him:
“Someone starting up a brawl… the man who likes the sound of his voice in the bath, the people who leap into the pool with a strenuous splash.”
We hear every noise Seneca hears. Soon the writer takes a substantive shift from external noise—carriages, carpenters, the coxswain’s strident tone—to internal stillness. In that moment it feels that Seneca himself took a U-turn in his mind and rounded the bend to a different path. The effect is one of intimacy, for certainly it’s compelling to be inside another’s mind. In fact, it is exhilarating to watch the birth of an idea. You can see it unfold in this passage:
I force my mind to become self-absorbed and not let outside things distract it. There can be absolute bedlam without so long as there is no commotion within, so long as fear and desire are not at loggerheads, so long as meanness and extravagance are not at odds and harassing each other. For what is the good of having silence throughout the neighborhood if one’s emotions are in turmoil?
After this passage Seneca considers internal peace. In the end, he convinces himself that we are “lulled to rest” only when our temperament is such that we can remain detached to all grievances and distractions. Yes, he’s sure of this. Yes. Yet, he wonders…isn’t it easier to remove oneself from distraction than struggle? Yes, come to think of it, it certainly is. He’ll be leaving to do just that. He was only giving himself a little practice. And in the end, it’s just as compelling to have watched the birth of a contradiction to his ideas.
This type of writing has a certain generosity of spirit. It’s human. It’s vulnerable. Readers are almost co-creators of the new ideas. If not that, then we’re godparents of sorts. Is that too strong? Maybe. The point is, we’re invested.
It’s easy to see Seneca’s influence on Montaigne’s writing. We follow Montaigne’s thoughts, too, swerving though they may be. They flow from one concrete idea to another, even to the thought process itself. Consider Montaigne’s essay Upon Some Verses of Virgil. It has what today’s business leaders might call—transparency:
We should take the whip to a young man who spent his time discriminating between the taste of wines and sauces. There is nothing I ever knew less or valued less than this. At present I am learning it. I am much ashamed of it, but what should I do? I am still more ashamed and vexed at the circumstances that drive me to it. It is for us to trifle and play the fool, and for the young to stand on their reputation and in the best place.
It’s messy. And it does get a little exhausting. It requires trust on the part of the reader. (Phillip Lopate acknowledges: “Finally one just has to surrender to Montaigne, dive into the ocean of his thoughts and bob around in that undulating, fascinating mind for the sheer line by line reward of it.”)
The flipside, though, is that it places an additional burden on writer and reader. To follow this person’s mind through thickets and brambles over brooks and into what could be a sunrise but may be a ditch—this writer must be interesting. Not just the writing—the personality of the writer. (A writing teacher of mine once disagreed: not interesting, he said, just interested. I now wonder if we’re both right, if those two things aren’t one and the same.) Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his essay, Montaigne; or, the Skeptic, says this of Montaigne:
The sincerity and marrow of the man reaches to his sentences. I know not anywhere the book that seems less written. It is the language of conversation transferred to a book. Cut these words, and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive.
Emerson responds not just to the words, he responds to Montaigne, himself. The gift and gamble of Montaigne’s writing is that we are not merely reading his words—we are exploring his raw mind.
Contrast that to reading a tightly crafted persona. The effect is less vulnerable and the essayist becomes, in some ways, a tour guide, taking us on a journey, yes, but one in which we will see no back alleys of the mind. Granted, we see plenty of beauty when the essayist is in control; we are in good, often skilled hands. We are meant to see the essayist’s idea/proposition/persona laid out cleverly and clearly. We are meant to chuckle at the turns of phrases and awe at the neatness of the metaphor. Mind you, I do all of these things. Often I do them with gratitude and delight. Indeed, sometimes it is nice to have a competent tour guide in a new land. But I do something else, too. I find I am less forgiving of the essayist in some ways. This writer hasn’t allowed me to see the creation unfolding, to witness inevitable human contradictions. So I find myself asking for them. I can become less an unconditional reader, more a skeptical consumer.
A.A. Milne’s essay, The Cupboard, for example, gives the illusion of wandering and of self-exploration, but it isn’t a presentation in which the thought process feels organic. The essay’s narrator is renting a place that, to his joy, has a fine cupboard. He needs the cupboard because he doesn’t have a garden like married men do, who grow plants only for pretense. You see, the garden is where married men bury things they don’t want: broken cups, old shoes, etc. But Milne, pitiful bachelor that he is, has only a cupboard. So he tours us through this cupboard, item by item.
The cupboard is nearly full. I don’t usually open it to visitors, but perhaps you would care to look inside for a moment? That was my first top-hat.…That is a really good pair of boots…All that paper over there? Manuscript….Well, you see, it might be valuable one day…
The final object Milne shows his reader is a letter, which he coyly instructs us to look away from, surmising that perhaps if things had been handled differently with the object of his correspondence, then, perhaps he’d have a marriage garden, too.
Milne’s essay is fun to read. But he is not transparent in thought the way Montaigne and Seneca are. Cut these words and they will not bleed because they are not Milne but a crafted representation of him, his character: dejected, wistful bachelor.
In the service of Milne’s persona, the essay reaches a sweet ending, which is meant to be self-deprecating but winds up feeling a little tidy. I smile, but I also wonder: What kept Milne from securing his love? What’s in his heart, his head? What’s happening along the dark, potholed road that connects the two? That’s the path I most want to travel down. I don’t care what mess I discover along the way; it’s the access that I crave. Instead of whispering in my ear, Milne tours me through a quaint cupboard of remorse. And that tour is enjoyable; it is pleasant and it’s economical. But as the tourist in Milne’s essay, I leave having missed the local haunts, the most memorable places, those raw spots ripe with character that only a few locals know of, those very real corners that distinguish this “country” from every other place on earth.
Jennifer Bowen Hicks writes essays and stories, a few of which can be found at Connotation Press and Defunct. She’s the assistant nonfiction editor for Hunger Mountain, a contributing editor for Defunct, and a 2011 Loft Mentor Finalist in Creative Prose. She teaches creative writing to prisoners and lives in St. Paul, Minn. Her MFA is from Vermont College of Fine Arts.
I love the beginning where you say you’re not a close talker. This brings to mind one of the main differences between speaking your mind versus writing it. The social conventions of listening are entirely different than reading. Readers want intimacy and are willing to sit still for hours. Listeners want dialog, courtesy, give and take. The two media lend themselves to entirely different types of content and forms of expression. As a result, writers have more options to share our inner world with others, which is the opposite of the common expectatation that writers are remote. On the contrary we aim to offer our intimacy through a different medium. It’s one of the healthiest reasons to become an essayist, and also a reason why it’s fun to get to know them.
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I am one who would rather be coy about cupboards. It is terrifying to leave only the words that are vascular and alive, but your essay has made me want (again) to be brave. Thank you.
Excellent essay, Jennifer. This is one that invites me to read it again and again. Well done!
Lovely essay, fellow Jennifer. I second that, this is a good encouragement for those timid of leaving the bleeding words out for anyone to cut. Thank you!
Beautiful thought about essays and feelings. Sometimes I read essays and I feel like I’m reading some sort of technical manual written in a foreign language and translated into English.
Lovely essay–and one that I will return to. Interesting to think about the difference between transparency of thought and feeling and the creation of persona. I wonder if it’s possible to have both, if the persona might provide a conduit through which transparent thought might flow? I ask, because I think that many times what seems to be transparency actually is persona.
Thanks for reading and thanks for your kind words, everyone.
Jerry, your observation made me laugh and wonder if the flip side of sharing our inner world suggests we essayists have a hankering for a captive audience.
Donna, I love your questions. I’m a little obsessed with the concept of persona right now. For my own wrestling and your questions, I wonder if the answers depend on how you define persona. Roughly, the dictionary says persona is either an aspect of a person’s character or a role adopted by an author or actor. If I think of persona as one slice of a person’s genuine character, I can see how the persona could provide a conduit for transparent thought (or vice versa). If persona is “adopted,” then the conduit, the thought, the whole package seems more like a performance than an utterance. We need a governing body to tell us which definition we mean when we say “persona!” Or more essays on the subject…
Fascinating topic. I guess I think anytime one attempts to “capture” the flow of thought in a coherent way, a persona or “character” is created. We order and chose our thoughts to make a point, to make sense. Sometimes we do so in a way that feels organic–feels being the operative word. I’m thinking of memoirs that seem to capture the flow of thought, when in essence the writer is creating a facsimile of thought. Ah, well. I hope you write for us again, Jen. Well done.
I wonder if there can be comparisons drawn between acting and improv? Probably not. Thanks, at any rate, for the conversation, Donna.
A lovely essay, thanks, Jennifer. I wonder about the idea that we see in Montaigne his true “raw” character. I would have to guess that what we’re seeing in this rambling and raw prose is just as much a persona as Milne’s… it’s just one that captivates us more because he has come closer to writing the way the mind thinks. We know that Montaigne revised and revised his essays over many years. I loved, in Karl Klaus’s book “The Made-Up Self,” when Klaus shows us how E.B. White’s persona, which feels so incredibly conversational, is actually artfully crafted. I don’t think creating persona detracts from White or Montaigne’s work. On the contrary, if either of them were simply dumping thoughts on the page, that wouldn’t be art.
Thanks for reading and for your thoughts, Amy. I’m going to dig around for a copy of “The Made-Up Self” right away–sounds terrific. When I talk about persona and/or transparency of thought, I’m not suggesting a lack of craft (or revision, or intention) but referring, instead, to sincere layers we do or don’t tunnel through as we write. When I use use the word “raw” I’m talking about the impulse and the exploration at the keyboard, not the final product. If E.B. White, for instance, at the end of all that crafting, doesn’t much resemble E.B. White, then why not call what he’s crafted fiction?
Thanks for this interesting and interested essay, Jen. I’ve been wrestling with one of my essays lately, one that I’ve been told reads very much like I’m “thinking on the page.” I had one mentor tell me he liked this quality about it, while another suggested that I move away from that style. I’ve been torn between those two poles, but I know something is “off” with the piece. Your essay here has me rethinking my approach, wondering about the ways I can keep the thinking on the page while making it feel more organic, alive, and seamless — pulling readers into my mind and internal journey instead of making them feel like they’re merely reading an account of my thoughts.
Thanks so much for reading. I struggle with that balance, too. I write “I think…” a lot and I delete “I think…” a lot. Let me know how it turns out. Good luck!
[…] a personal story that resonates on a universal level.” And I like Jennifer Bowen Hicks’ argument that an essay should be like “an earnest whisper in another’s ear—how brave. Put away […]