I wish I had a river; or, On Letting Writing Flow

Unusually for me, I find myself 8 handwritten pages into…well, what it is I can’t yet say, but I’ll loosely term it at this point an essay. I decided to start with a geographic point and then try to get myself to spin out from there, writing in whatever direction consciousness, or subconsciousness, or unconsciousness took me. I’m bemused at this, and am trying to still the anxiety I always feel to conclude a piece of writing, to tie it off, like a scarf from a knitting needle.

The urge to end is, well, urgent. What more could I have to say? How will I ever make all this work together? I’m trying just to keep knitting. What if it never ends? Well, won’t that be something?

Anyway, I found this quote from the ever-enjoyable essays of Olivia Laing, this from her engaging To the River: A Journey Beneath Surfaces, which traces the river Ouse, the same river that swallowed Virginia Woolf. Laing wrote:

“A river passing through a landscape catches the world and gives it back redoubled: a shifting, glinting world more mysterious than the one we customarily inhabit. Rivers run through our civilisations like strings through beads, and there’s hardly an age I can think of that’s not associated with its own great waterway. The lands of the Middle East have dried to tinder now, but once they were fertile, fed by the fruitful Euphrates and the Tigris, from which rose flowering Sumer and Babylonia. The riches of Ancient Egypt stemmed from the Nile, which was believed to mark the causeway between life and death, and which was twinned in the heavens by the spill of stars we now call the Milky Way. The Indus Valley, the Yellow River: these are the places where civilisations began, fed by sweet waters that in their flooding enriched the land. The art of writing was independently born in these four regions and I do not think it a coincidence that the advent of the written word was nourished by river water.”

Here ice is just catching the edges of the rivers and streams. I watched today a small eddy surge up through the hole it had created in the thin ice. I persevere.

Great Balls of Fire; or, A Spillage of Essays

I’ve been reading to expansive anthologies of essays, How We Speak to One Another, edited by Ander Monson and Craig Reinbold, and Waveform: Twenty-first Century Essays by Women, edited by Marcia Aldrich. I pick them up, open them at random, and read the essay that appears, with varying degrees of interest. I keep wearying of all the essays and putting the books aside, determined to take them back to the library. But then I’ll find something particularly intriguing and keep them a while longer. This is the challenge, I find, of anthologies — they’re often too much of a good thing, interlaced with other stuff, and too much of that too.

I admire the impulse behind anthologies, and from far off, admire the many ways writers creatively tackle a subject and form. But just like department stores, fabric stores, bookstores, and library shelves, I get easily overwhelmed. A collection of essays by one person, or a book of poems, has that authorial eye/voice to connect them all. An anthology is a flower collection, one of those massive English gardens, or the gardens at Versailles where we finally flung ourselves to the ground near the little lake and watched, slack-mouthed from overstimulation, the clouds pass by.

Many essays in How We Speak are essays written in response to other essays. These can fall short if the reader isn’t familiar with the originating essay, or if the response essay insufficiently captures it. But often the dissection of how the originating essay worked on the writer is worth the read. Other essays in that anthology consider the essay itself, the nature of time, memory, “truth,” in the form.

Waveform represents the ways in which women are exploring the form. It too contains a graphic essay (by the same author/illustrator as the one in How We Speak, which suggest that, no offense intended to her, but maybe there are others out there, or it’s a form asking for more people to jump in), as well as braided things, meanderings.

My biggest mistake was probably to take both volumes out of the library at the same time. Piggish. But I wanted to get a sense of what essays were doing these days. And that I accomplished: graphic essays, lists, analyses, weavings of memory and fact, almost-random delineations, litanies, rants, letters, real and imagined. I am drunk with essay, and staggering under a list of new writers whose work I need to explore. (The other problem with anthologies — so much more to read.)

What can’t an essay do? Even an arcane topic that should only interest a few can be engrossing with a captivating narrative voice, an intriguing through-line of narrative, or a clever device that keeps things snappy. One essay in Waveform illustrates through fake letters a variety of rejections in the author’s life. Brenda Miller manages, in “We Regret to Inform You,” to show-without-telling her young ambitions as an artist, her attempts to find a boy to go to the junior high dance with, her experience dropping out of college, miscarriage — and does so with both poignance and hilarity.

Aisha Sabatini Sloan has this to say in her essay “On Collage, Chris Kraus, and Misremembered Didion,” in How We Speak: “Maybe what I’m trying to say is that I like essays that remind me of traveling. They lie low. They don’t try quite so hard to prevent me from being bored. They are confident enough to admit that they are nothing more than a rug, and in doing so, have the ability to take it out from under me.”

Looky Lou; or, Enjoying Lia Purpura’s Work and More on Form

I heard her read many years ago, and enjoyed it thoroughly, and thought I’d read her book On Looking. But I remembered nothing about it when I feel deeply into the fascinating essays of this writer’s deep gaze. I also picked up and am, based on how much I’m enjoying so much of On Looking, looking forward to her newest collection of essays All the Fierce Tethers.

Listen to this from “On Form” in On Looking (again I’m being drawn to discussions of form — for someone who stubbornly writes in free verse, this seems peculiar):

“Sketching, I consider the line: ‘These fragments I shore against my ruin’–from a time when so much felt to be coming apart. But no. My fragments I shore to reveal my ruin. And all the similarities my eye is drawn to: flaw. Torque. Skew. I make a little pile by the shore: cracked horseshoe crab, ripped clam, wet ragged wing with feathers. I look because a thing is off, to locate the unlocatable in its features, forged as they are, or blunted, or blown. I look because the counter flashes its surprising grin.”

The essays luxuriate in the odd things noticed, the lovingly catalogued deformities noticed in her fellow humankind, in herself, in the world.

In the wonderful “Glaciology,” she recalls a week in which she was waiting for the results from a cancer test as her area was wrapped in snow, school cancelled, the usual rhythms disrupted. She wrote: “Of all the names for snow considered, of all the shifts in tone it made, I found clamshell, bone, and pearl. That week I found lead in the white, mouse in it, and refracted granite. Talc with pepper. Layers of dried mud, zinc, and iron. Blown milkweed and ashy cinder. Silvered cornfield. Uncooked biscuit. Mummy, oatmeal, sand, and linen. Some morning glory. Some roadside aster.”

Her interest in similarities reminds me of Magritte’s interest in such things. Think of his painting of a bird cage containing an egg, the curve of the cage echoing the curve of the egg; the thing containing the thing containing the thing to be contained but not yet birthed.

Which is sort of the form of a good essay, it occurs to me.


Formtion, Functiorm; or On Navigating Form and Function

I had been working on a multipart essay when I wondered if it was really a sectioned poem. So I spent days and days easing, tapping, tweaking, clipping each segment into lineation, attention to rhythm, structures, and all the various things that poetic forms allow/require of us. And now I’m not sure it works. But the process has been interesting.

On the one hand, the poeming process helped me make the language and sentences more taut and efficient, catch repetitions, reorder thoughts. Creating lines allowed me to inject additional suggestions into the ideas, or even with a line break subvert what I was saying, or at least question it.

But too often, the lines gave gravitas to places I didn’t really want emphasized. It made some ideas too weighty, too self-important. Some ideas I wanted to slip in with more subtlety, subtlety that demands of lineation did not seem to allow.

So I’m going to take the newly taut language and spread it back out, give some good fat back to some of the sentences, allow a more languid pace.

But I also realized that one thing I was looking for in this poetic exercise was another layer of thinking, or a honing of direction. I am still in the process of finding that. I read a novel recently and thought, “Hm, that was a pretty interesting idea in search of a good story to find itself inside. This wasn’t it.” I fear that’s what I have on my hands right now.

Or maybe function will follow form. If I make it a play, maybe I’ll figure out what I’m trying to get at. Maybe an opera. Perhaps it’s best as a haiku.

I think I need to do more thinking work to distill what’s important about what I’ve written down. And I’m hoping this process of traveling back and forth between genres will help — the way you isolate an egg yolk by tipping it back and forth between pieces of egg shell, letting the egg white slop out.


Gimme Shelter: or, Finding the Emotional Center in Travel Writing

I am still wrestling with an essay I mentioned several blogposts ago. I can’t seem to get comfortable with it. Every time I walk away I come up with ideas of how to change it, then when I get back to the page, the ideas seem unworkable.

The essay is a meditation on how sometimes you can feel attachment to a place you’ve never seen before. You come upon a place and know it, impossibly. It haunts you when (if) you’ve left. Not everyone knows this feeling, but enough people do that I think it’s “a thing.” It’s certainly a thing I experience.

I keep putting myself into and taking myself out of the essay in some kind of editing hokey pokey. I’ve even tried shaking it all about. I keep trying to make it strange. It keeps staying conventional. I keep trying to make it thin. It keeps staying a bit corpulent.

The personal essay/memoir form is fraught with this question of “I.” To be truly effective as art, the essay has to transcend its own I’s story. It’s not enough to say what happened, nor what “I” felt about it. The authorial consciousness has to somehow rise above itself, with empathy, with insight, wonder, and generosity.

The best stories have an ah-ha in them somehow — not a lesson taught but a moment expressed so clearly that the reader/listener feels the frisson.

I can’t seem to balance the intellectual with the emotional in this essay, the descriptive with the so-what. There is a balance in any piece of art among the elements: the what, the why, the who cares. Until I figure out my own emotional stake in the piece, it will continue to be travel without a destination.