The Matter of My Book

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Over the course of entirely too long a career I’ve written in many guises. I’ve been a rhetorical-slash-literary academic, a composition-slash-creative nonfiction teacher, a radio commentator, an en plein air essayist, a memoirist. Drawing on ideas like ethos, pathos, and logos, and aims or functions of discourse, I think that both your prose style and the self you appear as on the page are largely determined by whom you’re speaking to and what you’re speaking about. In composition classes I’ve asked students to write three letters home about the past weekend: one to their best friend, one to their mother, one to a favorite teacher. Students recognize at once the changes in their prose and their persona in each of those letters; they may even feel uncertain about which one displays the “real” them. I certainly wondered that myself early on, when I would write relatively scholarly papers for conferences and also write more or less amiable essays for the radio. As an academic I felt I was never as profoundly abstract as my peers—the only polysyllabic word I know is polysyllabic—while as a creative nonfictionist I kept, and still keep, veering toward stuff I’ve looked up rather than only concocting stories.

In that period of writing both short essays for radio and potential academic articles, it took me awhile to realize I was presenting myself as two different people, one a more or less genial saunterer, the other a more or less earnest scholar. Sometimes, when I heard myself on the radio, I was dismayed to hear the scholar’s voice reading what had been meant to be the saunterer’s essay. Sometimes, as I scripted a talk for a conference, I would notice myself trying to sound like a professor and not like a person. Sometimes I confused the two identities: I was chastised by an editor for putting a deliberate joke into an academic article and also sneered at by a reviewer for using the word persona in my book on E. B. White. By then I was aware that virtually everything I’d written came out of some personal passion of mine—for the Restoration dramatist Thomas Southerne, for the rhetorics of popular culture, the composing processes of critics and columnists, E. B. White’s career as an essayist, the nature of the nonfiction of place, and so on. I also knew that the narrator or persona I felt most comfortable being was something that approximated my authentic self.

I don’t necessarily believe anyone has just one authentic self, but the figures I most often drew support from—Montaigne, Thoreau, E. B. White, Joan Didion, John McPhee, Annie Dillard, Nora Ephron, and, yes, Benny Hill—all were writers who, I felt, knew who they were. I knew the sounds of their voices and became more conscious of the sound of my own. When I recorded my radio essays, I would often play the tape back to myself and wonder how to make the person speaking seem more like the me I felt comfortable being in life. I’d often cited Montaigne’s declaration, “I am myself the matter of my book,” and I believed that was true of all of us, whether we wanted it to be or not—sometimes our disguises are more revealing than we know. I’d always repeated Thoreau’s assertion, in defense of his use of the first person singular, “We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking.” It’s the “after all” in that sentence that confirms the accuracy of that statement. I remembered how E. B. White, responding to criticism of his revision of The Elements of Style, once admitted, “The truth is I write by ear, always with difficulty and seldom with any exact notion of what is taking place under the hood.” When I wrote E. B. White: The Emergence of an Essayist, I saw the truth of that confession throughout his manuscripts, in revisions that shaped the language according to rhythm and pace and sound. Once, waiting for John McPhee to appear at a reading in the Tattered Cover Bookstore, I silently read the first ten pages of his book Uncommon Carriers. A few minutes later McPhee read the same ten pages aloud. I’ve never forgotten the thrill of recognizing the author speaking as the narrator I’d “heard” in my head. His prose on the page had given me the same pace, the same rhythms, the same intonations. Because McPhee never publishes anything he hasn’t read aloud to his wife, his writing always carries his authentic voice, if not his authentic self. As I wrestled with my split personality, these examples gave me hope.

McPhee writes often of subjects that are beyond his personal experience—oranges, the Swiss army, Alaska, the geological origins of North America—and he long ago convinced me that a writer who thoroughly inhabits a subject can thoroughly engage a reader with no interest in the subject. I hope he never writes a book about golf. As it happens, on a somewhat different scale, I too tend to write about subjects that are beyond my personal experience, or at least that enhance the personal experiences I go out of my way to have.

“Anasazi” was the first long essay I published, ostensibly a travel narrative about the Four Corners area and the ruins of Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon, but one that included research about the Anasazi and the landscape of the Southwest. It was a pivotal essay for me; in some ways I have been writing it again and again ever since. That is, my tendency has been to go somewhere, read some essays or memoirs or travel or nature narratives about the place, and, if something strikes me there that I don’t understand or can’t shake, I start to write about it. I am writing a first-person narrative as a participant, as the I, but simultaneously I’m writing as an observer, as the Eye, about subject matter I don’t already know about, something I feel the need to explain to a reader. I have to look things up and get new information and incorporate some of it into the text of what I’m writing. Often, like a student in a composition class, I will copy large chunks of scholarly prose and try to find a way to stitch them into the fabric of the essay, authoritative patches connecting impressionistic panels. All the essays I collected in Postscripts were like “Anasazi” in that way—essays about places that fascinated me and that research deepened and expanded; two earlier books, Recovering Ruth, about the Great Lakes, and Following Isabella, about Colorado, also wove together historical, ecological, and personal elements. I continually risk sounding like two or more different people on the page.

In books I’ve been working on lately, I’ve had to not simply record what I experience across various landscapes but also explain something of the nature of the geology that brought those landscapes into being. Sometimes, I read what I’ve written and run into a wall, the one that separates the participant from the observer, or worse, the one that separates me as a participant from someone else as an observer. I realize that I have only written what I’ve written with such extensive quotations because I don’t know what I’m talking about—I can only explain this in someone else’s words. Eventually, borrowing a tactic of McPhee’s, I will step away from the computer, go somewhere with a daybook or journal and a pen, and try to explain to myself what the hell I think that dense passage is about. I remember that it is always the first person who is speaking, even if the first person singular doesn’t appear on the page; I remind myself that until this information is a part of me, it can never sufficiently be the matter of my book. And then, as if I were writing a helpful note to myself, I explain how tropical Silurian seas formed the dolomite that makes up the Niagara Escarpment, how the Escarpment divided two lobes of the final Wisconsin Glaciation, how kames and kettles, moraines and eskers are formed, and I take it all back and put it in my manuscript.

Here’s what I’m driving at: In creative nonfiction of all kinds, we need to both show and tell—an argument Phillip Lopate has made well in a recent book. It’s not enough for me to show the narrator strolling across karst topography and witnessing mass wasting; I also have to tell the reader what karst topography and mass wasting are. That doesn’t mean I have to be two different narrators on the page, the saunterer here, then the academic here. In creative nonfiction, we have not only the freedom but also the necessity of being narrative and expository or experiential and reflective in the same work, to simultaneously be both the I and the Eye in the same essay, even in the same paragraph. For me, that involves listening to myself and being alert for signs of a split personality, making sure I am the first person who is speaking, keeping myself—even when I’m offstage—the matter of my book.