I know I’m reading a great essay when it gets itself into motion quickly—and keeps moving, investigating the uncharted, the unplanned (“early and frequent verbal events,” says Stephen Dunn of great poems). A great essay will promise itself to the ambiguities of reality, not eddy around in comfortable wisdom. Great essays find emotional registers that are both responsive to the task at hand and agile enough to shift and accommodate much “gyration and discord,” as Montaigne would say. Much has been made of “voice” as a driving element in an essay—and a strong voice is a powerful idea-delivery system. Voice, whether helplessly inhabited or more consciously constructed, manifests one’s philosophy, ethos, history, emotional state, and way of thinking; nuances of tone sharpen the experience of reading; and a fully inhabited voice understands the difference between mere performance and revelation, skilled arrangement and active vulnerabilty. But here’s my proposition: talking about voice an awful lot as a creator, and too early on in the process, may put pressure on the writer to compose in a certain way, that is, to be led by attitude, to foreground a personality, at the expense of recognizing other generative gestures. If the roots of the essay form have something to do with an interesting mind musing on an interesting subject or, maybe better, an interesting mind making anything at all interesting by the quality of its musing, then it might be helpful to consider the various ways one can be interesting: not by voice alone, and, I’d add, not by story or subject alone, and not by form alone. To get closer to the moment of mystery, that flash of thought or image occurring to you (you might call the flash the subconscious, even the uncanny), it may be productive to train yourself to catch what’s happening to you as a thinker —the impingements of thought, the resistances to thought, the in-rush of new angles, the way sound and cadence can lead. It may be helpful to be more alert to the qualities and increments of an idea forming and less conscious of a personality telling a story. Absolutely, the qualities of narrating energy under discussion here—an “I” (the internal self) and an “Eye” (the observing self)—are vital elements to attend to, but perhaps later on in the process and in relation to other “verbal events.” Early on in the process, receiving the stray impression, recognizing visitations of form, listening to the sounds and sensing the shapes of an idea may produce more surprise and reduce pressure on “voice” as a primary method of composition.
In this context, I looked at three essays from Rough Likeness, my latest collection, and reviewed the “thought events” of each. While I’m not at all suggesting that these “thought events” will work for you (God help us, as “prompts,” what an awful word), I hope they clarify my idea here and illustrate some ways to work past the self-consciousness that can attend the representation or construction of one’s own “voice,” as well as offer ways to counter the overwhelm of “the big story” and instead lead toward the more open, airy “story of an idea.”
1. Here’s the first line of the essay titled “Advice”: “Dear, Why do some men wear such tight pants and why are they getting tighter these days?” What immediately followed the jotting of this question was the desire to respond to it—and the response almost immediately rerouted the minor subject of fashion and took up the more encompassing issue of imaginatively inhabiting other bodies. After this initial move from questioning stance to responsive stance, I found the event—the question and answer—happening again. Each answer seeded the next question, and in that way, new dimensions of inquiry developed. It was all very exciting, the feel of this dual mind at work, and because the question and answer form that emerged sidestepped the issue of “crafting a narrator,” it immediately allowed me to inhabit two stances—and the ensuing exploration was free to make a method (and not just a virtue) of uncertainties. So in this case, the issue of a “narrator” got overrun altogether by a felicity of form, by an early form event: the positing of a real question and the act of listening to a response.
2. My second example is drawn from an essay titled “The Lustres,” a piece that began in a more intentional place. I had known for a long time that I wanted to write about a certain metaphysical state I’d experienced often as a child, but I had kept putting it off—like for decades—because I was jittery about wearing it out or losing it. In returning to the essay to review it for this talk, I could see that the primary experience quickly nestled itself among the experiences of others: Ida Fink, Paul Celan, Whitman, Wordsworth—and thus my hard-to-pin sensation was buffered by the company of others’ attempts. While I didn’t set out to “rack up examples” of this state of being to “support my point,” discovering and including the thinking of others occurred as a natural “next gesture,” a response to the big “now what?” that we all face after the initial spark. Here’s a transition moment in the essay:
So many have come before me, come up against, come close to the task, hands in it, giving it their very best try. So many in their acute circumstances. The imperiled and delphic Ida Fink, writing after the war: “I want to talk about a certain time not measured in months and years. For so long I have wanted to talk about this time, and not is a way I will talk about it now, not just about this one scrap of time, I wanted to, but I couldn’t, I didn’t know how . . .”
My essay evolved into more of a meditation on, a reckoning with, the partiality of language, the fragility of language, the vital imperfections of the word, the good-faith efforts of language—in short, an ars poetica—and not, as I feared, something that might gut the original sensation. Another total surprise. And another case where I found myself leaning away from writing an experience solely from the perspective of a singular I. So, again, an essay can be a space in which it’s possible, in the course of illustrating your own experience, to inhabit both I (interior) and Eye (exterior) stances, if you pay attention to the gestures called forth by the essay itself.
3. Here’s my last, brief example: The immediate event that began the essay titled “There Are Things Awry Here” was a walk I took around the perimeter of a hotel parking lot, surrounded by big box stores. It was an ugly, unnerving space, and while walking, I kept trying to reimagine the scene into goodness and normalcy—or at least some kind of natural coherence that I could understand. Once that attempt played itself out, a core question surfaced: what was here before this destruction? And then a big gap of ignorance opened—an emptiness only the librarian of your dreams could fill . . . So the essay: “Ah, she said, disappearing into the back then returning with a stack of yellowing magazines. . . . Here, she said, try these. I find a clear table, spread the magazines out and turn the dry pages.” So the research began, which took me more deeply into my questions about both the present moment and the ruined environment, and opened into much larger questions about the past as well. Here again, I tried to listen to the problems as they arose rather than to how my voice would communicate “the concern.”
In short, I have no idea how to “craft a narrator appropriate to a situation,” but I do understand that the search for a stance toward an event, person, concept, or moment is the very reason I write. Paying attention to the unexpected moves language (or the situation) suggests is, for me, the only adventure worth having. The essay, as a form, most generously escorts me away from the country of myself. When I’m less conscious of how I sound, I can lean more actively toward emerging questions, traveling companions, experiments—the “gyrations” of mind, surprisingly shy little movements—that come forth when the sound track of the known self is turned way down.
I wanted that to be the end of this piece, but I’m nagged by this hovering paradox: I move through everything I write as, well, me. There’s no denying that there’s a ring to me. And while the sidelong, the backdoor, the skirting of self is my angle, my dodge, let me confess here to much active swooning over prose driven by loud and clear, or highly distinct, vocals: the work of Natalie Ginzburg, David Foster Wallace, M.F.K. Fisher. James Baldwin. Anything by Nabokov. Anything by Woolf. Those who get dramatically rankled, misty, revelational, petulant—the ranters, cajolers, the drama hounds and operatics, the strict self-correcters. The righteous. The weary. The curmudgeons. Those whose risks of tone find an edge and sometimes fall over it. I love the falling-over part. But always I come back to the quality of mind, the quality of attention paid—attention as a form of patience, a form of internal time asserted, a way of straying past recognizable responses into the open field of awe. However you dress or inflect it, color or perform it—it’s the awe that gets me.