Essay as Terrarium
October 9, 2014 § 1 Comment
Gretchen VanWormer discusses the origins of her recent Brevity essay, “Extinctions:”
My geology professor used to be a ballerina. A ballerina. So she had sympathy for us—we “non majors including non-scientists” taking her course to check off a distribution requirement. She herself had only become entranced by strata after hanging up her pointe shoes. “It will be fine,” she said, “if you’re not that into rocks.”
Her story was like a Greek myth. Apparently you could wake up a ballerina and fall asleep a geologist. Surprise! “Bedding” means something far nerdier to you now.
My writing process is similar to this in that:
1. I want to learn stuff, and
2. I want to be surprised.
In the case of “Extinctions,” while the emotional origin of the essay is Theresa’s death, I really didn’t have anything until I’d read Alan Weisman’s book The World Without Us. It was more of a recreational read: a science-laden thought experiment about what would happen to the Earth if the entire human race decamped. I was guessing she’d say, Phew. I was mostly right, but it was more complex than that.
Chapter 5, “The Lost Menagerie,” covers a mass extinction, and that’s where I saw Theresa’s mother—a woman I hadn’t given much thought to as a child or an adult. I asked my own mom what she remembered, and she said she’d never seen anything as sad in her life as Theresa’s mother crossing the street, carrying those stuffed animals. So that turned into the first line, and the essay itself became a lot about mothers.
I sometimes picture an essay as a terrarium, and will sit there for a while, trying to figure out which species of words to plant together. The World Without Us helped with that as well, because now I wanted the language of creatures and a bit of a hunting vibe. Before reading the book, I wouldn’t necessarily have thought to populate an essay about Theresa with those words.
Weisman’s acknowledgments end with the line: “Without us, Earth will abide and endure; without her, however, we could not even be.” It seems obvious now that a book about mother Earth would spin me away from my own experience of Theresa’s death and point me toward her mom, but it surprised me, and I learned stuff.
Gretchen VanWormer’s chapbook of essays, How I See The Humans, is forthcoming from CutBank Books. She teaches writing at American University.