I want powerful, I want lyrical, I want the unexpected,
I want under-the-surface, dive-beneath subtext.
The new essay baffles and delights.
It’s not like fiction: cause and effect, narrative arc, character development. Or like journalism: who, what, how, where, when. Both want answers.
Essay circles, questions, sometimes doesn’t know and–how refreshing!–admits it. And then the braided essay can run along two tracks at once, each unrelated. Or so it seems.
What’s cutting edge today? The essay! (David Shields says so. See Reality Hunger, an eye-popping read.)
The giants of new essay have attempted to define it: Lee Gutkin, Phillip Lopate, Dinty Moore, John D’Agata. And before you attempt to write it, you read the masters: Brenda Miller, Robert Vivian, Jo Ann Beard, Annie Dillard, Joan Didion, Eula Biss. The lyrical, the ethereal, the frank, the spiritual, the whiny, the take-no-prisoners, respectively. And you pick their essays apart, attempt to demystify each sentence, and ask, How did she do that?
Once relegated to the grave and to dusty stacks–along with Montaigne–the essay is back, breathing fire in all its forms, and with it, the central question: What’s this about? To find out, you write and write and write and write. Then you take out more than you leave in.
What I wrote is this:
Ignited by those kitchen matches, the fuel catches fire and lifts me, pulling hard against gravity, into blue-black space. Wonder Woman flies co-pilot. Kepler provides the trajectory. Escape velocity reached—a persuasive 25,000 miles per hour—and me strapped down to a wooden box by a red cincher belt, me heading toward my storied place, me breaking free. Magical thinking zips my ship across the space between my backyard and the bright and friendly planet rising above the piney woods beyond tobacco fields. Upon landing, those things that have been missing—what they are, exactly, I can’t say —will show up, provided by whom, exactly, I don’t know.
So far, so good … at least for a third draft. I want powerful, I want lyrical, I want the unexpected, I want under-the-surface, dive-beneath subtext. But as a Southern writer friend said to me, “Wantin’ ain’t gettin’.”
In case that paragraph was too much about me–I agree: personal essay can get too “me-me-me”, and readers’ eyes begin to roll back–here’s another from this frustrating work in progress:
From our speck of Earth, the Kepler Telescope peers three thousand light years into space, a narrow cone of questions. If I extend my arm into black night, its target is a fist-wide ten degrees of arc. NASA’s photometer probes the Orion Spur of the Milky Way, but a bit off center so as to avoid the sweaty crowd. Its gaze pierces The Lyre, tossed into the river by Orpheus’s enemies, and a gauzy wing of Cygnus, The Swan, who in the ancients’ myths is forever the flyaway avian transformation of one god or another. This mission: find habitable exo-planets, find other life. And get ready to be astonished. To sacrifice what you think you know.
And then when this further paragraph is added, the question arises What is this about? Where’s the thread?
See how this whelk has been pushed and pulled by the sea, pitted by the hunger of those creatures that attached to it. How it collided with a stronger force that opened its frightful scar. How the spiral turns outward, how the bruised heart might open to include others. It’s not just that. How, too, the spiral turns inward, how its mother-of-pearl path plunges beneath the surface and gathers around a silent center of mass where a small, developing being anchored its short life.
My point is this: Jam two or three disparate writings together–really force it–and see what happens. Given time, relaxed pondering, and some uncoupling at the glue-points of too much thinking, connections arise, new diggings tunnel underneath the obvious. Your pickaxe drives a wedge into a new vein. And what appears on the page will be surprising and entirely unique. Resist the urge to serve it under-baked or over-cooked.
So, what’s this essay about? The thread appears in the later drafts. Theme arises. The metaphors reveal themselves if the editor-in-the-head gets out of the way.