October 10, 2014 § 1 Comment
Amy Bernhard reviews an essay classic, Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage:
I met Geoff Dyer in the fall of 2012, when he was the visiting writer at my MFA program. On the first day of class he strode into the English building wearing jeans and a plaid button down shirt, still creased from the suitcase he’d unpacked only twelve hours before. It was late August, one of the hottest summers the Midwest had ever seen, and the campus was damp with sweat and first day jitters. We watched in silence as Geoff took his place at the front of the room, lowering his tall, rakish frame into one of the stiff plastic chairs. Rummaging in his pocket for a handkerchief, he lifted his eyes to peer out at our wet faces. “This place,” he said, in his deadpan English accent, “is a miserable hell.”
Nervous giggles. Geoff cocked his head, his lips curling into a wide, slow smile. “I guess this is the part where I’m supposed to talk about the seminar and the work we’ll do,” he said, as around me notebooks fell open and pens clicked into action. Geoff arched his eyebrows, amused. He continued, “But since there’s nothing I hate more than work, we’ll be reading simply for the sake of reading—for the pure pleasure and experience of it.” He paused, a tiny grin playing across his mouth. “Consider the point of this seminar as endeavoring to have no point at all.”
It’s this same leisurely attitude that both frustrates and delights in his 1997 memoir, Out Of Sheer Rage. On the surface, the book is about Dyer’s thwarted attempts to write an academic study of D.H. Lawrence. First, he’s uncertain whether or not he should begin his project on Lawrence, or work on his novel: “Although I had made up my mind to write a book about Lawrence I had also made up my mind to write a novel, and while the decision to write the book about Lawrence was made later it had not entirely superseded that earlier decision. At first I’d had an overwhelming urge to write both books but these two desires had worn each other down to the point where I had no urge to write either.”
Then, there’s the question of where to write—or rather, fail to write—the book on Lawrence: “One of the reasons, in fact, that it was impossible to get started on either the Lawrence book or the novel was because I was so preoccupied with where to live. I could live anywhere, all I had to do was choose—but it was impossible to choose because I could live anywhere.”
Though Dyer, in other reviews, has been called “one of the whiniest writers on the planet,” I can’t help but be charmed by the prose’s lackadaisical frenzy—the lengthy diversions and maddeningly diffusive sentences—because D.H. Lawrence isn’t really who Dyer’s wrestling with; it’s himself. Without chapters or section breaks, we follow Dyer wherever he leads us as he circles his subject like a carefree teenager on a bike. Along the way, his frank, yet funny assessments of his various agitations—from Do-It-Yourself projects, literary criticism, and a shortage of doughnuts in the local bakery—are surprisingly insightful, and cross the borders of memoir into a more essayistic study of distraction, inertia, and disappointment. “I may hate disappointment,” Dyer writes, “but perhaps I also long for it. Perhaps it is not luxury doughnuts I want but the experience of being denied these things I think I want. Perhaps what I want, in other words, is actually not a luxury doughnut but the chance to consummate my disappointment, to experience what I most dread…which is, precisely, experiencing disappointment.” Like a nesting doll, one digression reveals another, and then another, until it becomes clear that diversion itself is the book—the essay within the essay, the point within the point.
While the lack of a concrete plot is sometimes frustrating, it’s also what has made Out Of Sheer Rage so important for me as a writer. In graduate school, we devoted hours each day to evaluating and debating an essay’s worth. “What’s the point?” one of my professors liked to ask before each workshop, his eyes searching the room as we ducked our heads, scribbling down themes and symbols in the margins of our notebooks. It wasn’t long before his question took on a constant refrain in my head. Sitting at my desk, fingers curled over my keyboard, I stared at the blank page before me and waited for the words to come. What’s the point? I asked the walls, the computer screen, the drained mug I’d been unknowingly gripping for hours in my hand. What’s the point? What’s the point?
It was only during my second year in graduate school, when I became a teacher myself that I realized how alienating this question can be for students. Opening my workshops the same way—“What’s the point of the essay?”—I watched brows furrow and shoulders slump. Mistaking silence for disinterest, I spent the remaining ninety minutes firing off question after question, watching the clock out of the corner of my eye until my students rose, silently gathered their books, and slouched out the door to their other classes.
I was frustrated. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong until Rachel, one of my brightest students, came to my office for her midterm conference. Together we sat and talked about her goals, her writing, the essays we were reading in class. As she stood to leave half an hour later, pulling a messenger bag across her shoulders, she turned to me and said, “Why do you always ask us what the point is?”
I didn’t know what to say. A new teacher, I’d simply been modeling the classroom techniques used by my own professors.
“It makes me feel like I don’t have anything to write about,” she confessed, a faint blush rising in her cheeks. “Like if I don’t say something profound, then no one will care.”
Her words resonated with me. I began encouraging students to focus first on the micro details of an essay—sights, sounds, smells—before worrying about macro-level concerns like theme and meaning. As a result, one wrote a devastating piece about the contents of her refrigerator for her final portfolio, while another reflected on a surprisingly enjoyable afternoon spent in traffic. Both writers, in their embrace of what might at first seem to be mundane or ordinary subjects produced essays that celebrate the human condition in all its neuroses and trivialities, arriving at deep, difficult truths. Maybe this is what D.H. Lawrence meant when he wrote, “Let a man go to the bottom of what he is, and believe in that.” Like my students, I feared that my experiences weren’t big or loud enough to really matter, to fulfill that capital-P point we were always fretting over in graduate school. But now I wonder if it’s actually in our smaller moments—in all of the traffic jams, half-eaten sandwiches, and luxury donut shortages that make up our days—when, as D.H. Lawrence suggests, we are most deeply human, and maybe most profound.
Which brings me to the end—the point, if you will—of this essay: to tell you what Geoff Dyer has taught me about writing. I could praise again his unbridled sense of humor (a four-page seduction fantasy about his girlfriend’s best friend), or his loose, improvisational prose style, both of which draw us closer to our hidden desires and anxieties. I could marvel at his keen psychological insight (as when he observes that “To be interested in something is to be involved in what is essentially a stressful relationship with that thing, to suffer anxiety on its behalf”), confronting us with our own neuroses, peeling back the deepest layers of our humanity. Or I could emphasize his belief—which I now share—that idleness gives birth to insight; that as essayists, we should follow our digressions wherever they lead us, and trust that the point will be waiting there.
I could try to tell you how much I’ve learned from Geoff Dyer, and yet I have a confession to make: I only attended one of his classes. The very first one, in fact. I was too worried about my own class that I had to teach later that same evening, distracted by deadlines, grading, and unfinished essays for workshop. Besides, I assumed Geoff wouldn’t care—“Consider the point of this seminar as endeavoring to have no point at all,” he’d declared that first day, dismissing us without even a syllabus. Why bother? I’d think when Thursday mornings rolled around, hitting the snooze button and burrowing deeper into my blankets.
It’s only now, two months out of graduate school and a professor myself that I think I understand what Geoff was trying to teach us. It’s the same lesson I hope to impart to my own students: we can only arrive at an essay’s point later, when we’re ready. As writers, we need to trust that meaning will creep up on us even—or maybe especially—during our idle hours, as Geoff Dyer and Out Of Sheer Rage have, post-MFA, snuck up on me. Dog-eared and worn, his book is lying open on my desk as I write this, the only item in my otherwise empty study that has not yet been packed into boxes. I’m moving in a few weeks, unsure what comes next, but rather than fixate on the future I think I’m going to try to force myself to enjoy experience of getting there for once—to endeavor, as I’ve learned from Geoff Dyer, to have no plan at all.
Amy Bernhard is a graduate of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. Her essays appear or are forthcoming in Ninth Letter, The Colorado Review, The South Loop Review, and The Toast, among others. She lives and teaches in Iowa City.