Finding a Form Before a Form Finds You

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

My natural tendency is to write from defaults and find small variations in form driven by my sinuous writing choices. At a glance, most of my essays look like most of the essays people have been writing for four hundred years: a bunch of paragraphs, sometimes broken into sections.

In fact, I have elsewhere argued  that despite writing from factual events and known results, essayists should try to write without intention or conclusion, to let their prose drive them to unexpected connections and discoveries, as Virginia Woolf describes in “A Sketch of the Past”: “So without stopping to choose my way, in the sure and certain knowledge that it will find itself—or if not it will not matter—I begin the first memory.”

I have had several interesting conversations on this very idea, because so many writers enjoy the way writing can surprise us.

And while I’d be glad to share a few more words on this favorite method of mine, I also appreciate the value of subversion and of challenging myself, so instead I will write about the obverse method of composition: choosing or borrowing a form, then writing under constraint, with and against expectation, to force yourself into thinking new ways.

You could trace borrowed forms in essays back at least to Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal,” but for my purposes here, I’ve marshaled the wisdom of several living formalists who’ve written some of my favorite essays, all in gleefully borrowed forms.

What would you say if I told you about an essay that looks like a local phonebook? Or an eBay auction? Or a Google map? Or a college syllabus? Or a Harvard outline? Or a final exam? Or a Trivial Pursuit card? Or a doctor’s pain scale? Or a series of contributors' notes?

You might be interested even before reading a word. That’s one of the easy appeals of writing in borrowed forms: people who’re used to the defaults perk up when they see something different.

I asked the authors of these essays to tell me something about their process, the challenges and rewards, and I learned that most of them found their form before they began writing, which, as I’ve said, is quite different from what I usually do. Here are some of their responses: 

Cassie Keller Cole, “Kuna Phonebook” (Hotel Amerika, 2009)
Cassie Keller Cole, for instance, began her phonebook essay, “Kuna Phonebook,” after thinking about different forms of communication and noting how people seem to rely less and less on the physical phone book: “There is something about the thin pages, the texture and distinct smell of a phone book, the way they plop on your front step that made me feel a small loss . . . Thinking about the form helped me recognize a bit of nostalgia for the town I grew up in; how it was never mine and how I’m even more distant from it now.”

You notice, I hope, that the form gave space for the idea of the essay.

Desirae Matherly, “Final: Comprehensive, Roughly” (Fourth Genre, 2007)
As you might expect for writers in academia, the joys and pressures of school life refuse to stay in their separate containers and wind up spilling over into our writing. Desirae Matherly took the pressures of preparing for her doctoral comprehensive exams and formed an essay that looked very much like an exam, with matching and multiple choice and long, multi-part “essay” questions.

The form … sprang from the anxiety of having to study for and take my comprehensive doctoral exams. I thought, what I’m feeling right now is fear about answering my comp questions and completing my degree. There was so much self-doubt. Then I wondered what comprehensive even meant, because to my line of thinking, nothing could be that comprehensive. And then I wondered, why don’t professors ever ask students the really hard questions, the ones that truly mean something and push one to learn and reflect? So I guess the form and the idea arose together.

As you might expect, what begins rather playfully with song lyrics and obvious right answers crescendoes into a barrage of existential questions for which there are no answers.

Jill Talbot, “The Professor of Longing” (Diagram 13, no. 3 [2013])
While preparing to teach a course on the New American West, Jill Talbot found her personal life inflecting her choice of readings and ways of teaching, and so designed a mirror syllabus for her course that not only listed readings and traditional critical perspectives, but honestly revealed her own investments with the literature.

That semester, my daughter had just turned nine and was beginning to ask questions about her father, Kenny, the man who ran off for different roads and different women when she was an infant, and for the first time, I read On the Road not in admiration of the crazed search for “It,” but as one of the women that men like Sal and Dean leave behind. It changed the way I taught the novel—not as a nonconformist, manic, road-as-life manifesto, but as a glimpse into the doorways where women waited for men to come back, already knowing they wouldn’t.

Dinty Moore, “Mr. Plimpton’s Revenge” (Normal School, 2009)
And sometimes, it’s the happy interactions of academia that inspire us to find new/old forms, as in the case of Dinty Moore’s well-known Google Maps essay, “Mr. Plimpton’s Revenge,” which was inspired by my now-colleague Joey Franklin’s misfortune:

A brilliant graduate student, Joey Franklin, had his car stolen . . . and when the car was recovered, he sent around an e-mail to friends including a Google map itinerary of the car’s journey from his front door to various 7-11s across southern Ohio and finally 90 minutes away in Columbus. It was hilarious, and snazzy, and I thought, “Wow, what story can I tell that fits into Google Maps.”

It’s worth noting that both Dinty’s essay and Joey’s essay, called “Grand Theft Auto” (Normal School 7 [Fall 2011]), appeared in the same magazine.

Ander Monson, “Outline toward a Theory of the Mine versus the Mind and the Harvard Outline” (Seneca Review 34, no. 1 [Spring 2004]; reprinted in Neck Deep and Other Predicaments [Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2007])
I asked these authors not only how they got to their forms but what challenges they found once they got there, and they all said something akin to what Ander Monson, author of many essays in varied forms, including “Outline toward a Theory of the Mine Versus the Mind and the Harvard Outline,” said: “Being constrained is the whole point! That’s why you choose a received form, to see what pressures present themselves and what architectures you have to work within or erect to keep the thing from collapsing.”

Eula Biss, “The Pain Scale” (Seneca Review 35, no. 1 [2005])
One notable exception to the typical order is Eula Biss’s essay “The Pain Scale,” which takes the form of, well, I’ll let her tell us:

I wasn’t happy with [my early draft] because I felt that it was meandering and that I wasn’t getting at what I really wanted to talk about—the nature of pain. I set it aside for several months and then one day as I was sitting in the doctor’s office staring at the pain scale on the wall, it occurred to me that I could write a page for each number on the scale, and use that system to structure my essay.

That revelation, plus a lot of research and shaping and cutting, got her to a much stronger essay (in her opinion).

Caitlin Horrocks, “The Six Answers on the Back of a Trivial Pursuit Card” (Normal School, 2010)
And somewhere in the middle of things lies Caitlin Horrocks’s “The Six Answers on the Back of a Trivial Pursuit Card,” whose title tells you its form: “The essay began when I was actually playing Trivial Pursuit and noticed that nearly all the answers on the card I was holding . . . were items I had some odd semi-personal connections to.” And then “the format of the essay happened pretty organically—I don’t recall a particular aha moment, just the process of slotting all the personal and factual trivia into the structure, and puzzling out the right rotation so that each answer appeared on each card in a different order.”

Failed Experiments

It’s worth mentioning, though not as a deterrent, that all the essayists I queried say they try more formal experiments than they publish. They’ve failed at crossword puzzles, sonnets, FAQs, and other forms, yet they all teach such activities to their students, unworried about failure. They believe that the benefits far outweigh the risks. Says Desirae Matherly: “Usually the experiment bears no resemblance to what a student has done in the past, and so they take greater risks. It’s the contact zone of the essay, perfect for exploring, and making mistakes. Or finding a path to lead one forward.”

“Garlic”  (Fourth Genre 9, no. 1 [2007]; reprinted in Quotidiana [Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010)
From my own experience, I can share two very different but ultimately successful stories about experimenting with form. The first illustrates what Jill Talbot says: “I think all writers begin with some form of scaffolding they eventually lose after understanding it helped the essay find its way.”

When I was in graduate school, I was struck by the highly footnoted essays of David Foster Wallace and John D’Agata, because of the way they enacted graphically the digressiveness inherent in essays. I set out to create a footnoted essay of my own. It didn’t really matter what about, but I was thinking then about my father-in-law, who traveled around Uruguay selling garlic, so I began to write his story from every direction I could think of. Whenever I found a spur away from the primary narrative, I’d create a footnote, about the president of Paraguay or the genetics of garlic or its mythical curative properties. My first draft was almost as much footnote as primary text. After a helpful workshop, though, I decided that many of my footnotes were nonessential and that the form itself was, for me, gimmicky. I refolded the pertinent notes back into the essay body, discarded the impertinent, and wound up with a traditional-looking but playfully digressive essay.

Writer Michael Martone’s Leftover Water” (Normal School, Fall 2010)
One last example I’ll cite influenced  me in several ways: Michael Martone’s series of contributor’s notes, which originally appeared only in the backs of literary magazines (though he had no stories or essays up front) and later formed his book Michael Martone. All took off from the straightforward phrase: “Michael Martone was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana . . . ” They then spun into amusing tall tales to cause you to question reality and textuality. Martone says, “I think of myself as a formalist. . . . To me there are only a variety of forms and frames. My jobs are to inhabit a form and then reframe the piece. So a contributor note becomes a fiction or nonfiction and a story or essay is framed as a contributor note.”

One of my favorites is the one in which he admits to drinking the water left over by visiting writers, hoping, he says, to imbibe some of their literary greatness (a true story, he assures me). After Martone gave a reading at Brigham Young University, I slipped up to the podium and grabbed his unfinished Dasani bottle. Feeling again the general desire to try out a different form, and imagining the price that this water, which included the processed backwash of so many great writers, might fetch, I decided to use eBay to both sell the water and write an essay. I listed it for a week-long auction and told a lot of my friends to “Ask the Seller a Question,” which I then answered, flippantly or seriously, and posted to the auction page. The end result was a few-thousand-word essay and a $20.50 profit.

“Michael Martone’s Leftover Water: Imbibe literary genius (dozens of authors) in one swig!” was later published by Normal School and remains one of my best-traveled essays, showing up in undergraduate classes around the country. Here I certainly led with form, though it was more than that: it was an experiment, and the choice of eBay as my medium was as much a practical decision as a whimsical one. There was an inherent relationship between what I was doing and what I was writing, and the virtual place I chose to host the essay. I sometimes have to assure people that this was a real auction with real money and a real product for sale. Just as I assure you that while the website and the Q&A format were somewhat artificial, they (including the unpredictability and the general goofiness of so many of the questions) were also the driving force behind the essay’s grace.