Election 2016: On Experience vs. the Essay
October 19, 2016 § 6 Comments
By Samantha Tucker
Lately, my only urge is to rant. It may take a decade of psychic distance from this election to accurately essay, to try and understand each experience: the saturated realities of Facebook feeds, the talking heads and the buttons on lapels, the chalk messages on campus. I’m not experiencing this time with any nuance; my emotions roll like sea surges, rising, abrupt, cruel, from miles away, crashing down, unfurling shock and horror though I stayed and waited, long observed the tide gathering strength. It is not so unlike the moments after the news of a loved-one’s death, this build, this unavoidable torrent. You stand through it, or you do not, and hopefully after it resides you can be found on the ground, mostly intact.
I’ll be voting in Ohio this year because I’m currently a student and instructor at The Ohio State University. I’ve kept “The” at the beginning of the school name because 1. I am a creative nonfiction writer and teacher, thus I relish insignificant truths, and 2. It’s not insignificant. That capital “The” is not only an official word in the school name, it also signifies an essential Ohioan-ness, a common, endearing exceptionalism. This is a state full of corn-fed, routine-Americans turned Astronauts; Buckeye Beloveds become National Leaders; everyday voters predicting the future of a nation.
We’ve been discussing essays vs. events in the Intermediate Nonfiction class I teach, though I failed my students as I was mistaken: the phrase is actually essays vs. experiences. I learned this from Stephanie G’Schwind, a dear mentor and friend of mine, the commander-in-chief of Colorado Review. In an article with Essay Daily, Stephanie wrote, “I see this frequently in submissions to Colorado Review: truly interesting things—sometimes amazing things—happening to people, that don’t translate into very interesting essays. As many of us nonfiction editors have said, writers sometimes confuse experience with essay, rather than finding the essay in the experience.” But I’m even farther away, confusing event with experience, and so how far am I from the point of essay? It is not enough to capture, vividly, the moments essential to our lives. We must push farther—how do these moments resonate? In time, place, history? How do experiences add up to self? To community? And can you convince your reader your version must be recorded? I watch the first debate in an indie Columbus theatre with too many people who agree with me. We boo and hiss at the big screen. We cover our eyes with our hands, our shirts, our foaming glasses of beer. It may be difficult to know which one you’re writing, experience or essay, without a certain amount of distance, I tell my students. I call my parents after the debate, and my stepdad is weary, my mother resigned, exhausted. She has been since 30APRIL2008. What denotes an experience? I ask my students. I walk home after the debates, sob in the dark, clutching my phone like a buoy. How do we move from event to experience to essay?
If I gave into lack of nuance and time and distance, I’d stop every passerby and whisper: My brother was killed in Iraq in 2008. His name is Ronnie. I’d put my arm around their shoulder and treat them like an old friend. This experience is not precisely related to your right to vote, I’d tell them, though my mother may promise it is. Don’t you feel sorry for us now? Aren’t you interested in how I’m voting? Shouldn’t my opinion hold more sway than your blowhard uncle using memes incorrectly? Shouldn’t my rage push you farther than your Socialist undergrad roomie from Northwestern, shouting “LIVE BERN OR DIE”? I’d grip them tighter, or pull them face to face, beg their attention rather than their retreating back. Do you know someone looking to publish my tangential Op-Ed? It’s about a series of personal experiences loosely if undeniably linked to current experiences. My brother is dead, I’d remind them. Someone hear my voice.
My students are brilliant. They are intuitive, absurdly-gifted. They speak of the “I” and the “Eye” in essay, they beg for scene when it’s needed, and seek narrative interiority, the writer at the desk, when the detailed showing is weak or inadequate. They dutifully read Tell it Slant and Ta-Nehisi Coates and Eula Biss and Rachel Toliver. They are generous with each other in workshop, in peer feedback, in class discussion. This, above all else: they are generous. I am grateful for these inspiring Ohioans. Generosity is relative to hope. Hope is just the promise of more time.
In June, I went to Kansas City. I scored hundreds of AP exams with several thousand other composition instructors for eight hours a day in a concrete-floored event center. A man sat by me at breakfast. He wore a ball cap and snapped the New York Times. He was a retired prof from a small, private university in California. “You say you’re an essayist?” He seemed astonished. “Well, can you tell me what essay means?” I set down my banana and said, “Yes, I can. Because, as I said, I’m an essayist. It means to try.” This retired prof from a small, private university in California was truly delighted. “Oh my,” he exclaimed, or that’s what I want, right now, to say he did—exclaimed, oh my’d. “No one’s ever known that before! Wonderful! Enjoy your test scoring!” As he sauntered away, all pep in his step, I muse at how many people have experienced his low-key interrogations.
A student of mine keeps deleting her work. She feels embarrassed, like she overshared in one instance, or as if she has nothing important to say. Our nonfiction class is voice-focused, both in considering word choice and cadence and craft-related causalities, but also in “What does one have to offer? How does your perspective inform the world?” I tell my students the personal is political. I tell them the personal, at its best rendered, is universal. They take this to heart; they are desperately generous. I ask my student to stop deleting her work. I ask her to set, what she is unsure of, aside. I ask her to wait. Wait it out, I say. Distance is trying.
Samantha Tucker is a creative writing MFA candidate at (The!) Ohio State University. She has written for Guernica, The Toast, Bust Magazine, and has work forthcoming with Ecotone. Tucker’s first collection of essays, The American Dream Starts Here, is ready for a publisher.