The Blue Sweater: Learning the Difference Between the Things I Say Are True and the Things I Just Want To Be True
September 12, 2018 § 37 Comments
By Loree Griffin Burns
I thought I would bring a blue sweater home with me from Ireland. I mentioned the sweater in the final sentence of a short essay I wrote for a workshop during Bay Path University’s 2018 Summer Creative Writing Seminar in Dingle. The sentence read: Then I’ll walk back to my rented bed by way of the Dingle Strand woolen shop, where I’ve promised myself the slate blue wool sweater in the back corner, the one with the hood and the pockets, the one that felt like a hug when I tried it on, the one I am certain would never wrinkle, never, ever, amen.
But interesting things, hard things, happened after I wrote that essay. The workshop instructor told us to look for heartbeat lines in our pieces, and I knew that the blue sweater was not that. The heartbeat of that little essay was my grandmother and our relationship. And an important facet of our relationship was the early death of my mother, her oldest daughter.
Guided by that idea, I wrote a new draft, and then somehow found myself sitting across from Irish novelist Mia Gallagher in the Writer’s Lounge of the Bambury Guest House, watching her read my work. She said lovely things about the images that resonated with her most. She gave me time to ask her some questions. And then she asked me a few questions of her own.
Including this one, “Tell me about forgiveness as it relates to this line: ‘I forgave my grandmother the moment she uttered the words.’”
I told her about anesthesia and its side effects in elderly patients. I told her about doctors and paranoia and how a patient, while under the influence of anesthesia, might say things one might never have said otherwise. I went on telling her about all sorts of things for a very long time.
When I finally stopped, Mia said, “I don’t believe you’ve forgiven your grandmother at all.”
And when she said those words I lost my grip on the things I know and the things I don’t, the things I call true and the things I just want to be true, the things I try to avoid writing and the things I need to write, the stories I’ve always known would or could or should be told and the fist-clenching fear that keeps me from telling them.
I’m beginning to see, thanks to that hour with Mia Gallagher and the hours spent in workshop during the Bay Path MFA seminar in Ireland that I’ve been doing a fine job of setting off small fireworks here and again in my essays, quiet fireworks that I hope will go unnoticed but that, at the very same time, I long for people to see. I’ve worked very hard at not writing the story of my life and how its early challenges shaped everything that came after.
That week in Dingle, I learned that I’m not very good at avoiding these stories. Which begs certain hard questions: Would I be any good at writing them instead? Is it time to start trying?
When I wrote the essay for workshop, I planned to buy the blue sweater. But I passed the store a dozen times, and didn’t go in. I armed myself up with reasons: it was late, too near closing time, raining, I was tired, had to go write, needed to rest, would do it another day. I didn’t even need a sweater. Didn’t need a hug, either.
I didn’t need anything at all, because mostly I was perfectly fine, am perfectly fine, so long as I am not writing about my mother.
Loree Griffin Burns has avoided writing memoir by beachcombing both American coasts, cruising the Pacific in search of plastic, surveying birds in Central Park, stinging herself with honey bees, visiting the Mexican wintering grounds of the monarch butterfly on horseback, and living for a week on an uninhabited volcanic island in Iceland. She’s turned these adventures into award-winning books for children and teenagers, which you can learn more about at loreeburns.com.
March 2, 2017 § 4 Comments
David Naimon, host of “Between the Covers” on Portland, Oregon’s KBOO 90.7 FM, spoke recently with Ursula K. Le Guin about her collection of nonfiction, Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000-2016.
“It is quite rare,” Naimon explains, “that Le Guin talks about her approach to writing nonfiction (essays, literary criticism, book reviews). We also talk about the risks and rewards of writing across difference (writing as a different race, gender, species), about the four strategies used to keep women writers out of the canon or diminished in the literary conversation, about America’s fear of the imagination, and of science, as well as talking about the work of Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, Chang-rae Lee, and Jose Saramago.”
You can listen here:
February 15, 2017 § Leave a comment
An interview conducted by Jeanette Luise Eberhardy:
I return to books that invite me to be “the reader as artist” which Toni Morrison described in her essay by the same title. When I read like an artist, I can almost feel the opening of my imagination with the language of story where heart and mind join together. For me, this experience with imagination is particularly strong when a writer explores the connection between story and nature, including the nature of family. In Riding on Comets: A Memoir by Cat Pleska, I listen for the sound when she writes “thunder’s timbre deepened and boomed and rattled the glass in the windows.” And when Pleska describes an underground spring flowing towards a creek, I can see how it “stains the grass like tears on a cheek.” I trust this storyteller who expresses such a deep understanding of our place in nature. I join her when she begins to build a home within herself from what memoirist Mary Karr calls “a passion for the watery element of memory.” Understanding this passion is how I am able to take the leaps of imagination with little knowledge of the storytelling traditions in Pleska’s Appalachian culture.
Last week, I caught up with Cat Pleska at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Washington DC. At this writer’s conference, we were invited to open our perspectives on storytelling by “braiding subgenres into a coherent whole” and “experiencing broad ranges of cultural and artistic events.” I asked Pleska to share with us some of her perspectives on language and story and culture.
Jeanette: When you wrote your memoir, what were you hoping for?
Cat: I wanted to bring forward the language of story from my culture. In my memoir, the glue that held a rambunctious, challenging family together was our stories and our habit of gathering on a hot summer night as we watched fireflies light up the ground and trees to mirror the millions of stars in the night sky. We told stories all night long.
Jeanette: Language of story from your culture?
Cat: In my family storytelling tradition, we bring you to the edge of the moment, forgoing the traditional setting of backstory, so the lesson, the meaning, is embedded in the listener’s psyche sooner, without giving away the surprise at the end. We deliver the scene quickly so the listener may “see” the setting for the lesson and “feel” what’s about to happen. Embedded in this approach to story is the cultural understanding of our way of learning from each other. Today we often call this type of storytelling memoir.
Jeanette: What is memoir to you?
Cat: Memoir is asking yourself the right question that helps both the writer and reader connect at the level of the heart. Asking the right question allows you to explore the experience in a curious way, that may bring to light the deeper meaning of it.
Jeanette: What was one of your underlying questions?
Cat: One of the most pressing questions I faced was how to express navigating my relationship with fear.
Jeanette: Like in your story “Devil’s Seat” where you challenge yourself as an eight-year-old to climb out on a rock formation?
Cat: Yes, I climbed out, facing a perilous drop below the rock outcropping, but when I scooted back from the edge, I saw my father’s and my grandfather’s initials carved in the rock surface. Every child who undertook that challenge of fear took a small rock and carved their initials into the surface. I carved mine larger than theirs.
Jeanette: Is there a connection between the larger initials you carved in the rocks and your interest in evolving the stories in your culture?
Cat: The men in my culture embraced the unexpected and were therefore seen as brave and courageous. The women were the keepers of stories on how we survived. In my memoir, I am integrating both of these types of stories. As I wrote, I felt that I had no choice. I was driven to combine the courage one needed to face the unexpected with the courage needed for survival. That is to say, a larger story than the one told by men alone or by women alone.
Jeanette: Your comments remind me of what Edwidge Danticat said: “When you have no choice, when it haunts you…that’s the time to tell your story.”
Cat: For us, storytelling was all entertainment and connection and shared knowledge and a bonding with relatives so that when daylight dawned, the family remained together. The way in which we wove our stories was unique to our, one could say, mini-culture within the larger Appalachian culture. The way we told stories developed into a style that denoted our methods, our techniques which involved an almost unconscious word selection and syntax development, that to this day I rarely hear from any other culture. That weaving of particular language and style further helped me bring together my stories of the men and women I write about.
Jeanette: We enter another culture’s stories in a variety of ways. For me, I may begin by sensing the writer’s connection to nature. For others, they may appreciate the use of humor. And still for others there is this deep recognition of Pleska’s instinct to explore the use of language of story in her culture. Whatever our way into stories that are different from our own, we can enlarge our sense for living in our beloved communities on this precious planet and transcend what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the danger of a single story.”
Cat Pleska, MFA, is an educator, author, editor, publisher, and storyteller. She is a frequent writing workshop leader and is an essayist for West Virginia Public Radio and is a book reviewer for West Virginia University Press. She edited the anthology Fed from the Blade: Tales and Poems from the Mountains, and her first book, Riding on Comets: A Memoir was published by West Virginia University Press May 2015 and short-listed for the 2015 book of the year in the memoir category by Foreword Magazine. Cat is the 2016 recipient of the Governor’s Arts Award for Support of the Arts. Her cookbook One Foot in the Gravy—Hooked on the Sauce: Recipes you’ll Relish was just published by Mountain State Press. She teaches in the humanities program for Marshall University and is a full time instructor for Arizona State University’s Master of Liberal Studies Program.
Jeanette Luise Eberhardy, PhD, MFA, is a teacher, writer, and storyteller. Eberhardy serves as Program Director, 1st Year Writing and Assistant Professor at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. At the 17th Annual Women’s International Conference in Berlin, Eberhardy gave the opening address Your Story Matters to 800 women business leaders. She has delivered her Storyforth seminars in Egypt, Sweden, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and the U.S. Eberhardy is the recipient of the 2016 MassArt Faculty Fellowship Grant for her project: Global Meaningful Work. She publishes on the craft of writing and she is currently working on the book Why I Write. Why I Create: Global art students show how they express themselves. Eberhardy can be reached at WivInc.com.
July 14, 2016 § 9 Comments
A guest post from Kim Steutermann Rogers:
Today, I tell myself, I will not scroll Facebook as if I were cram-reading War and Peace. I will not say yes when the wildlife volunteer coordinator asks if I’ll go to the beach to check on a cute new seal born just that morning. I will not slip out when a text alerts me that the Laysan albatross chick I’ve been watching since it hatched five months ago is standing on bluff above the sea, flapping its wings, about to fly off over the horizon, not to be seen again for three to five years. Today, I tell myself, I will get some writing done. Yes, I will.
As I write this by hand in my notebook, a cheap DECOMPOSITION BOOK with line drawings of safari animals on the cover, I look up. Staring at me from across the room is the free-floating head of Joan Didion printed on an oval piece of cardboard that is glued to a flat tongue-depressor-like stick. A hand fan. I picked it up at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) annual conference in Los Angeles this past April after a particularly heated session—the room, not the conversation—because, well, I am a woman of a certain age.
AWP: Think 15,000 academics and creative types crammed into the Los Convention Center. Think tweed jackets with suede elbow patches. And yoga pants. Think purple hair and tattoos, ripped tights, and Chuck Taylor Converse throwback basketball shoes. Think apple-cheeked children with crispy clean MFAs. And puffy-eyed, word veterans in need of coffee and, later in the afternoon, beer—or something stronger—from the beverage vendor at the south end of the book fair. Think best-selling authors, award-winning poets, and top journalists from around the country. Think the rest of us—with stories and books and essays and poems and clouds in our eyes and on the tips of our tongues, eager to share with anyone who will listen. I may be a woman of a certain age, but I fall in the last category.
Joan Didion is staring at me from across the room where I stuck her in a coffee-mug-cum-pencil-holder after a vigorous use of fanning one spring day when spring winds stalled in their tracks, replaced by summer’s stagnant-dog’s-breath-hot-air. A few degrees change in temperature does not go unnoticed, because you know, I am that age, that effing age.
Joan Didion’s visage sits just to the left of my computer screen. When I am sitting at my desk, presumably writing, I can see the Grande Dame of Literary Journalism out of the corner of my eye, her mouth set in a line and her makeup-free eyes narrowed on me. Damn. It’s the eyes.
Dame Didion is the toast of nonfiction writers across the United States. She was required reading during my MFA studies. She’s one of the first to be named when calls go out for lists of great essayists. Hardly an AWP—if any—goes by without her name prominent in a panel title.
I first read Didion as I was trying to craft my own writerly voice, and I fell hard. Major writer crush. Here was a wordsmith with whom I felt a kinship. A journalist. But not. A memoirist. But not. A personal essayist. But not.
In “On Keeping a Notebook,” Didion writes, “The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself. I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle.”
I have more than a few notebooks lined up across my desk, packed in plastic boxes in my closet, all to be thrown away upon my death, as I’ve made my best friend take a blood sister pact with me.
“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
Amen, Dame Didion.
“What I most appreciate about Didion’s writing is that she witnesses her world. Her writing may be about her, but it is anything but confessional,” I wrote in an essay after reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
But, now, some years later, the truth is I’m tired of Dame Didion. Oh, not her writing but of we writers who would bow on bended knee and kiss her writing ring, if her hand were ever proffered and if such a thing as a writing ring existed.
Wait. Does it?
I’m sick of the Didion worship that goes on in literary and MFA circles. Because I want her for myself. Because it seemed once my bright-eyed love for her blossomed, she went all Baader-Meinhof on me, and every other student of nonfiction writing adored her, as well. My secret, favorite writing mentor was mine no longer.
Joan Didion levels her steady gaze at me from across the room. She could have taken a pair of scissors to her hair and gave herself that haircut, I think, wispy bangs, and blunt, chin-length hair.
But here’s the thing about Didion: She got it done. Something like five novels, a dozen books of nonfiction, half-dozen screenplays, and a play. The woman wrote. She sat down and wrote. I can see it in her makeup-free eyes. The determination. The discipline. She’s a reminder to tap into my own determination and discipline. It’s there. Somewhere. I know it is.
Mentors. Muses. Inspiration. We tend to think it’s their words that help us. But at this time, apparently, it’s not the words but the face of Joan Didion I need. The bad haircut, thin set mouth, and those examining eyes remind me to just do it. Sit down, and write.
Freelance journalist, Kim Steutermann Rogers moved to Hawaii with her husband, two dogs, and twelve boxes of belongings in 1999. “We’ll stay for one year,” she told her family and friends. That was 17 years ago. Now, Kim shadows scientists into rain forests, volcanic craters, and throughout the uninhabited atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to learn more about Hawaii’s endemic—and often endangered—flora and fauna. But, most days, she sits on her bum and attempts to churn out words appropriate to the science and place and people of it all—and tells herself she should exercise more. Kim holds a Bachelor of Journalism from Missouri School of Journalism and a Master of Fine Arts in Nonfiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. She is at work on a book about Mark Twain’s Hawaii and the psychological concept of place attachment. You can read clips of her work and her blog at http://www.kimsrogers.com and follow her on Twitter at @kimsrogers.
May 17, 2016 § 2 Comments
By Anthony Michael Morena
The Voyager Record: A Transmission —my lyric essay on the music, images, sounds, and greetings that were sent into space mounted on the interstellar Voyager spacecrafts in 1977 — is just over 13,000 book-length words. And the pieces inside of it are each very short fragments, some no longer than a sentence or two long.
I used extreme brevity in The Voyager Record but not because it seemed cute to tell the story of the longest journey from Earth with short pieces. It was a style that even took me by surprise, and I was the one using it. Before I began The Voyager Record, I was strictly a writer of fiction: I had sworn off poetry and had never considered writing essays of any kind. But a succession of books written in nontraditional, short length formats changed all of that. These are the books that converted me.
Postcards to Donald Evans: Takashi Hiraide
Shortness was part of The Voyager Record from the very beginning. The initial writing I did for it—which appears in the book mostly intact as the second and third fragments in this selection—was inspired by the short prose fragments of Takashi Hiraide’s Postcards to Donald Evans. Donald Evans was an artist whose life was cut tragically short when he died in a fire while living in the Netherlands. His artistic work is based on creating stamps for pastiche European nations. Hiraide becomes obsessed—at first sarcastically, but then movingly—with Evans’ stamp paintings and life. The fragments in the book were short because Hiraide wrote them on postcards; actual postcards he addressed to Evans. Hiraide’s brevity was determined by the physical space of the mail. A reader can feel the rectangular, justified text blocks reaching across from one edge of the postcard to another. To emulate Hiraide, I kept my text within the size of the picture of the Pioneer plaque I was writing about, as if it were the verso side of a postcard.
The Bricolage Novels: David Markson
After composing a dozen or so prose poem pieces, I realized that extreme brevity—the fragments that consist of only one or two sentences—could allow me to unite the loose material I had into a larger whole. These short fragments were directly influenced by David Markson’s bricolage novels Reader’s Block, This Is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point, and The Last Novel. In what he called a “personal genre,” Markson strung together one-line factoids about notable artists, writers, and historical figures, with occasional asides by his nearly featureless author-surrogates Reader, Author, Writer, and Novelist. Markson was someone whom I had met and talked with while I worked at The Strand bookstore in New York. He complained that he was no longer able to enjoy fiction, but found himself absorbed only in reading nonfiction. Before I wrote The Voyager Record I was coming to a version of the same opinion.
Reality Hunger: David Shields
A big influence on the about-face I made between fiction and nonfiction was David Shields. I had read his “manifesto” Reality Hunger about a year before I started to write The Voyager Record. In the short, numbered, *plagiarized* passages in that book, his argument won me over. Remixing nonfiction could create a whole new literary genre. One thing that Shields demonstrated, but didn’t explicitly state, is that remix culture depends on brevity. Like in music, sampled text should sound off and then fade away in snippets. I knew that using this kind of sample technique—with attribution, because I didn’t want to get sued—I could juxtapose facts from the story about Voyager’s creation with the more speculative, and downright fictional parts of the book. My “stealing” was always small scale: a quote from here, a list of scientific specs from there. What I got most from Shields was permission.
Varieties of Disturbance: Lydia Davis
By the time I was finished writing, I had prose poem-size pieces, and line-length pieces, and tidbits I found in different sources, and (at four pages) one relatively long story—a combination that I realized was heavily influenced by Lydia Davis’ Varieties of Disturbance. She could place a single-sentence fragment next to a page-length prose block then follow it up with a short story. The text layout of The Voyager Record definitely looks like Varieties of Disturbance, but Davis’s collection also had an impact on the content of The Voyager Record. Though technically fiction (and at 24 pages, definitely not very short), her story “We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders” is told in a nonfictional style: the “story” is a data-driven analysis of a grade school class’ artistic responses to an injured classmate’s stay in the hospital. The analysis in the story breaks down specific elements of the children’s letters—their penmanship, the salutations, sentence structure, word occurrence—a cold, calculated process I applied to the contents of the Voyager record.
Most importantly, the writers who I credit for influencing The Voyager Record were all exhilarating to read. By bucking conventional length and style restrictions, they taught me a way to write that felt more natural and honest than any traditional form ever had.
Anthony Michael Morena is a writer from New York who lives in Tel Aviv. In 2015 he received his MA in creative writing from Bar-Ilan University. His poetry and prose have appeared in The Normal School, Ninth Letter, Flapperhouse, and Queen Mob’s Tea House. He has also been a guest editor for The Ilanot Review and a regular reader for Gigantic Sequins, a good-looking, biannual, black & white literary arts journal. The Voyager Record: A Transmission (Rose Metal Press 2016) is his first book. Find him on Twitter @anphimimor and at anthonymichaelmorena.com.
March 21, 2016 § 8 Comments
By Heather Kirn Lanier
At sixteen, while other high school juniors were learning to drive, I was learning to read and write essays. That wasn’t what I expected when I signed up for Mr. Gearty’s Advanced Placement English course. I was not what you’d call “a reader.” I did not tend to finish books. But Advanced Placement courses required summer homework, so the July I turned sixteen, I found myself hunched over a desk with my task: read and take notes on a hardbound book. It looked like a hymnal, with its maroon cover and embossed title, which name escapes me today.
What I remember is my surprise. For the first time in my self-absorbed sixteen years, I was engrossed in reading a book. And not because I wanted to know what happened next and next and next. There were no fictional characters; there was no thick unfolding plot. There were only voices, embarking on whatever willy-nilly topics so moved them. Helen Keller wondered what she would do if she had three days to see. Ralph Waldo Emerson proclaimed (in a didactic tone I couldn’t help but heed) the awesomeness of one’s quirky individual truth.
Who else was in that hardbound book? I don’t remember today, but I recall a host of pieces titled “Of this” and “On that,” so most likely I read some Montaigne and Francis Bacon and William Hazlitt. I studied syntax as convoluted as a fun house. I, the usually resistant reader, was determined to get into and out of maze-like sentences because the end-result was worth it. Juicy as a story, each essay’s intrigue was made, not by plot, but by the switchbacks of the author’s mind, like a convertible hugging the rocky California coast. I didn’t know where the road would take me: toward a hailstorm, a snake, a hitchhiker, hell, maybe a prophetic burning bush. I kept turning the page.
What were these things? They weren’t stories. They weren’t the essays I had learned to write thus far in school—five paragraph things that had their three points. They were, I now know, real essays.
Come fall, once the AP English students of Warminster, Pennsylvania actually landed in a classroom, we wrote essays. Fast and furious, sometimes three a week, always in forty-five-minute limits during class. Once assigned our prompt, we scattered around the room or we went into the hallway, lay belly-down on the blue industrial carpet, and we wrote. We wrote conformities. We wrote clichés. We wrote things our teachers had always told us to say. We wrote things we believed we ought to say. We wrote bad essays. We wrote them so hard our hands hurt.
Eventually we wrote so many essays that we started writing tangents. We started writing analogies. We started writing connections and curiosities and contradictions. We started writing things that nobody had told us to write.
We started writing real essays.
And we learned this, or at least I did: an essay is a room with taffy walls. The more I punched it, poked it, stretched it, the more interesting the thing it could house.
It’s been twenty-two years since Mr. Gearty’s AP English class. The longer I write essays, the more I see that my high school hunch is true: essays are rooms with taffy walls. They are nearly limitless in their possibility, though they must eventually contain. They can be amorphous a while, although they will eventually morph. A good essayist, a real essayist punches at those taffy walls, makes new shapes to house things never before housed, and in so doing, reinvents what it means to essay. Stephen Dunn prefers equine metaphors over taffy ones: “We build the corral as we reinvent the horse,” he says in “Little Essay on Form.” His is the littlest essay about essays, the teensiest corral for a bucking, millimeter-sized horse.
I have just finished a second book of nonfiction. I find myself bracing for the impending creative lull. What will come next? Gradually, I’ve found myself returning to the lessons from 1994. Each morning, like my sixteen-year-old self on the blue industrial carpet, I get myself a pen and a notebook, and I write by hand. I write myself into curiosities. I write myself into confusions. I write myself into intrigue and questions and discovery. I let myself create the taffy I might someday shape into another essay.
Heather Kirn Lanier is the author of the nonfiction book, Teaching in the Terrordome: Two Years in West Baltimore with Teach for America, as well as two award-winning poetry chapbooks, The Story You Tell Yourself, and Heart-Shaped Bed in Hiroshima. She teaches at Southern Vermont College and blogs about parenting a child with disabilities at starinhereye.wordpress.com.
February 23, 2016 § 6 Comments
By Scott Russell Morris
This semester in my introductory creative writing class, I am trying something new. I am not dividing the class units into genres, but instead, looking at “The Basics of Good Writing in Any Form” (as Miller and Paola’s excellent chapter in Tell It Slant says it.) Each class period, we’ll read about qualities of good writing, and then the students will choose structures and forms based on what best meets their projects’ needs. Though we’re only two weeks into the semester as I write this, I hope that a more fluid discussion structure will help students see the possibilities in their writing rather than the rules of certain genres.
I chose this format because my own feelings on genre’s boundaries have been slowly eroding, even quicker these last few weeks. The difference between a poem and an essay? I can’t really tell you anymore. My distrust of genre lines began a long time ago: starting, perhaps as an undergraduate, when Eduardo Galeano said during a reading that he didn’t believe in borders—national, literary, between life and death. Then, a few years later, my nonfiction class (led by Pat Madden) interviewed Dinty W. Moore. Amy Roper asked Moore what the difference between prose and poetry was, to which he said “To me there is no line. Well, except the line, obviously. When you break it at the lines it becomes poetry.” —Dinty, a confession: my one contribution to Brevity, “If We Had Been Allowed the Take Pictures” I wrote in lines before paragraphing it for submission.— Still, lines seem like a reasonable distinction, one most of us will agree on, even if we’re aware of outliers like Pope’s Essay on Man and Carson’s “The Glass Essay” (found online at the Poetry Foundation, I might add).
Until I discovered prose poetry, I was pretty content with the “lines” answer. But when I reviewed the interview transcript recently, I saw that Moore’s answer, obviously, wasn’t so simple, that I’d forgotten the rest of his answer. He says that, in regards to short essays and prose poems, the only difference is that we “really hope a very short essay is sticking with the facts, whereas a prose poem doesn’t have to. Other than that it reads exactly the same, the level of language should be exactly the same.”
Jump to two weeks ago, when with these thoughts in mind, I read John D’Agata’s The Lost Origins of the Essay, where D’Agata’s introduction and editor’s notes are an essay on the essay, with the sample pieces anthologized there almost working more like extended quotes inside D’Agata’s essay rather than separate works themselves.
Most interesting to me in D’Agata’s introduction was where he draws the lines between nonfiction and essay: Nonfiction is “information, literal, nothing about it mattering beyond the place it held for facts” (2), but the essay, is art. All art? Possibly, the claim seems hinted at if not directly said. He complicates his definition of essay throughout, giving some excellent, if not pinned down, definitions: “When we’re essaying we are in dialogue with the world” (9). “Essay…describes an activity, a fundamental human behavior” (467). Opposing Moore’s statement above, D’Agata says “We’re going to have to divorce our understanding of essaying from our understanding of the thing we’ll start to call ‘nonfiction’” (452).
If nonfiction can’t be our sure definition of essay, than what?
This is where I felt that D’Agata’s comments offer the biggest insight. In his introduction to William Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” he says:
Why is a text like William Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” a poem? Is it because it’s good? Is it because approximately 14 percent of it is in line, and therefore, by the rule of poetic association, all of it is in lines? Is it because it’s more flamboyantly engaged with the imagination than most eighteenth-century English prose, and therefore it cannot be prose? Let me ask another way: Why do I want to think that Blake’s ‘Marriage’ is an essay? Is it because it’s good? (265)
So, what I think D’Agata is asking all of us, really, is “Are our genre lines only determined by what we like?”
“The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” seems to argue exactly that point, not just by D’Agata’s inclusion of an imaginative poem as an essay, but in the vary content. At one point, the narrator is speaking to an angel:
Then I asked: “does a firm perswasion that a thing is so, make it so?”
He replied: “All poets believe that it does” (276)
So, while I kept writing in the margins of Lost Origins things like “This isn’t an essay,” or “Essay? Maybe…” D’Agata’s question made me hesitate in my tracks. Perhaps I didn’t agree with him on a lot of his selections, but maybe that was just because we didn’t like the same things? I was suddenly reminded of the many, many comments I’ve gotten from professors in my graduate work where—sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly—I argued that essays were the best art because they foregrounded a mind working. D’Agata makes the opposite claim: anything that shows the mind at work is an essay. Poets might say anything that highlights language is poetry. Perhaps anything with narrative or character is a story to a novelist.
I guess the question I keep coming back to is, What do we get for calling something a poem/essay/story? Perhaps we get what we’re expecting to get. Surely, there are good things coming from formal traditions, but when we look at the real world of literature out there, the lines exist perhaps only in writing classrooms. So maybe labels are just the editor’s or writer’s way of saying, Read it like this:
Scott Russell Morris has an MFA in Creative Writing from Brigham Young University and is currently an English PhD student at Texas Tech University, where he teaches nonfiction literature and creative writing. He is currently living in Cuenca, Ecuador and is working on a memoir in essays of food, family, and travel.