There are two kinds of surprises I’ve found in the essay, both as a writer and as a teacher. To begin, there is the matter of finding something to write about. I’ve noticed that so much has changed from the days when I was a student writing for a workshop, to the present, when I work only if I’m inclined to. A more recent development in my writing life has been the solicitation. Being asked to write is an instant motivator. Rarely do I know, when I first agree to give a reading or write an essay, what I’m going to write about. But as my deadline approaches, I become attuned to my personal experiences in ways I am normally not aware of. Conversations with friends, thoughts while driving or walking, and my reactions to the media I consume are mined for material. Everything could potentially make its way into an essay, and I am always reminded that all subjects are indeed connected, as Montaigne showed us.
The “aha” moment is perhaps the most exciting part of the writing process, when the originating idea for an essay presents itself. Usually I’m not in a position to write when that moment comes. I’m hiking in the woods, or commuting to and from the campus where I teach. Or I’m in the throes of a discussion with a friend and have to snag spare moments to jot my thoughts down on a napkin or in a notebook, if I’m sufficiently prepared to do so. Or I grab my phone and record a voice memo or compose an email to myself. Any writer can relate to the surprise of a fresh idea, or of a solution to a problem that comes at an unexpected juncture between experience and reflection.
When we, as teachers of writing, ask our students to write, we are asking them to find that process by which they are surprised by the urge to write. It’s slightly synthetic, and in the past, when I’ve asked students about the “occasion” behind particular essays, the reason they give sometimes flounders into, “I had to write something for class.” I’m not ruling out the possibility that sometimes any of us, our student writers included, sit down before our computer screens and free-associate our way into new essays. But aren’t those essays surprising, too?
I’ve also noticed that whatever leads us into writing an essay may not be the ultimate subject or theme we work to resolve, once we are into the thick of the process. This leads me to that other surprise I often encounter when essaying: the matter of subtext, which for me is synonymous with the deeper reason behind a piece of writing. It is the repressed anxiety, the epiphany of realization, or the grim mortal insight that underlies whatever surface story we relate. Subtext can be the dirty secret we wish we could keep with ourselves, or it might be the anger we struggle to remove from our lives, only to discover it again unexpectedly when exploring a memory or digressing into a seemingly unrelated theme.
Here’s the uncomfortable fact of writing: Left unexamined, the subtext in an essay can exist without our awareness or recognition of it. A reader can know a writer better than the writer knows him- or herself. But if our role is to reflect on our own experience, then having someone know us better than we know ourselves is not desirable. Provided we give ourselves enough time for revision and editing, and open our minds to the possibility that an essay writes us, even as we imagine ourselves to be in control of our composition process, our deeper impulses and motivations are revealed. We can exert greater discipline with regard to the art we create if we know what our submerged selves are up to. It’s the surprise we want to examine as editors of our work, in advance of our readers and critics. However uncomfortable the experience is, it is always better for that ulterior meaning in an essay to be explored openly in workshop, as opposed to allowing a reader to make a discovery that the writer remained blind to.
Often, the real work for me as a teacher in a workshop involves encouraging my students to see the essays they write as windows into their unconscious minds. Over the years, I have come to believe that there’s a minimum page length for finding subtext. It’s often the case that the sixth page brings material to the surface that does not frequently appear as the ostensible occasion of an essay. In paragraph two on page one, a student may write about a trip to the lake. But by the middle of page six, the essay verges toward a remembered conversation with a parent, which the rest of the essay bends to resolve. What, then, do we say the student is really writing about?
As practitioners of the essay, we are familiar with the vocabulary—occasion, digression, and subtext. So it is both surprising and unsurprising when an essay begins in one place and ends up in another. This is perhaps one of the more important lessons we, as teachers, impart to students: how to recognize and work with the unexpected material in an essay, which emerges from the writing process itself.
For me, then, surprise in the essay exists both in the moment of idea generation and in the revision process. This, in addition to the process itself, of moving from moment to moment in an essay, advancing it, which can also be surprising. The better metaphor may be the spectrum of what we don’t expect from an essay, beginning with its origin and concluding in the revised form, enlightened by our unconscious motives, our underlying anxieties, the resolution of consciousness brought about through reflection.
An example may be helpful here. Recently I was asked to write a guest blog post for Superstition Review. Determined not to spend too much time on the piece, I found that my idea for the essay came unexpectedly when walking my son to the bus stop on an especially cold day. Our conversation that morning was mundane, but my mind was off and running, and after a few hours I had written a short piece that I felt was done.
I wrote a thousand words or so on the weather, a theme that I often gravitate toward when I feel there’s nothing more important to write about. Weather as a theme always seems sufficiently safe to me—an idea I’ve explored in another essay, which ended up being about control and my inability to allow myself to lose control. You would think that the process I went through with that essay would warn me from writing about the weather as a way of avoiding any subject relating to my emotional life. And yet, I certainly fall into the common trap of repeating my mistakes.
So I wrote this brief essay on how cold it was that morning, and how cold it had been when I lived in Chicago, before digressing into Robert Frost’s well-known poem “Fire and Ice,” and remembering an especially cold walk through Boston, which connects to Frost, since he lived in Cambridge but died in Boston, two cities separated only by a river, and something I didn’t exactly know until midway through the essay, when I looked at a map. Up until the moment I discovered that the Charles River separates Boston from Cambridge, I had felt that the blog post would never be anything more than a brief exercise. But I still had not discovered my real reasons for writing about the cold and about ice, other than my walk to the bus stop with my son that morning.
Initially, the idea of ice as a subject was a surprise. It was serendipity that the morning was so cold, and I had to encounter that cold by venturing into it. As I began to write about ice and the cold, I was surprised by my memories of living in Chicago and Ohio. I ended up researching record winter temperatures, and adjusting my writing to eliminate inaccuracies and exaggerations.
I was surprised to learn that my hometown in Tennessee had a record low temperature of 21 degrees below zero, differing by only six degrees from Chicago’s lowest temperature (27 below) in the same year, 1985. I learned that Robert Frost moved to New England from California right after the death of his father, when he was the age of my son, eleven years old. For him, the winter must have come to mean something larger than just the months between fall and spring. These were the surprises I came to through writing the essay.
But it was days later, after I had submitted my essay, that it struck me. Whatever cold I described in the essay was really about an emotional winter that I had entered into after the holidays. I had been recovering from a heartbreak for months, but had only recently decided that there was no chance of remaining friends with the man I had been in love with the previous year. A silence had fallen between us at the end of the year, which coincided with the Arctic cold that visited much of the middle and eastern United States in January.
Words can be cold. Silence is like a frozen river in winter. Separation is like the frozen river between two cities, or the road running through the mountains to the city where my ex-lover lived, an hour away. A road not traveled is like a frozen river between two cities, bearing the name of the man I had loved. The river dividing Boston from Cambridge, never explicitly named in the essay, was the invisible link between the essay I thought I’d finished and the one I know I still need to write. Such is the power of subtext, to show us the subjects we are avoiding, and the places in us that require exploration.
As a writer and as a teacher of writing, I can’t always see the hidden valence between text and subtext, but I know what allows me to find it. Through revision, through re-seeing a piece after I think it is done, I find the treasures of consciousness. That’s why the most practical suggestion I can make for any writer is that we give ourselves enough time, and enough separate readings of our work, to see and work through the emergent themes, the unexpected eruptions of our deeper selves that so trouble the surface of what we claim to write about in any essay, regardless of subject. To not be taken in by finality, and to see every moment in the fuller field of our life experiences, is an opportunity to be surprised by knowledge of ourselves that extends past what we expect.