Defining the Ideal Essay

October 1, 2014 § 9 Comments

Samantha Tucker Iacovetto

A guest post from Samantha Tucker Iacovetto:

There is this leaning in that happens when I read an ideal essay. It’s like peering over the gilded edge of the Grand Canyon; like stepping on tip-toe to secret out the scent of my husband’s glorious beard; like pressing my nose to the glass at the zoo’s lion exhibit, his breath and mine steaming the opposite sides of the barrier.

When an essayist like, say, Lia Purpura drops the reader into a space like that—a space that is a precipice, a tipping point, a long and unblinking gaze into an unassuming sugar egg—I lean in, and succumb to the vertigo.

“Lean in!” My mother barks through the phone when I lament the stresses of graduate school, of teaching college composition, of finding time to write something that beckons. She is full of handy and irritating blue-collar colloquialisms: “Self-responsibility!” “You better look at the man in the mirror!” “Don’t put all those eggs in one basket!” Now I find myself weaving her philosophies in and out of the classes I teach, where I insist rhetoric and composition is not just a mandatory class on writing, but instead, a conduit for social activism. Her philosophies demanded me a place in academia, accompany the family histories I record, and guided me away from the manifest destinies of a small town upbringing, a food-stamped childhood, a drug-addicted father.

I once read not to lean towards something but, instead, away from everything else. The library in Fountain, Colorado, insists on metaphor: it waits between the two sets of railroad tracks that dissect my town into “rich” and “poor.” Reading was the one-way ticket out.

Now that I’m gone, I find myself constantly looking, leaning back in the other direction.

Joan Didion says to “keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be.” I nod in autoethnographic ways; I situate the history of a family—from a military town with a crumbling red, white and blue façade—in a universal, cultural context. Throughout my search for causalities, I keep on nodding terms in this way: wherever I’ve lived in the past ten years, I have put up a large National Geographic map. I pinpoint our latitudes and longitudes. At once we are—were—global, my family and I: my mother in Fountain, my sister at a Naval base in Spain, me and my husband teaching in South Korea, my brother—then, now, forever—in Iraq.

An ideal essay is hard to define, but easy to point to. An ideal essay mines the “I” in efforts of high exposition. It is driven by a need to testify or witness, and demands the same of its reader. It is a glimpse of something uncomfortably recognizable, a requiem for the quotidian, a look over the newly-gilded edge.

And so, I read—I write: to keep on nodding terms, to examine the arc of my, of our, leanings.

Samantha Tucker Iacovetto is a nonfiction MFA candidate at (The!) Ohio State University. She has written for the Colorado Review blog, Show Business Weekly, and Springs Magazine. Sam’s first collection of essays, The American Dream Starts Here, is nearly finished—and in need of a publisher.


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