We live in a time when essays are often bullied into being articles, when the marketplace and the Internet, both ever-hungry for action, serve to cattle-prod the lounging essayist out of his or her natural ambling pace and into something closer to a march.
Meanwhile, the opposite is true within the monastery walls of MFA programs, where essays have become little subjective tingly things, tiny animals afraid of the world that take as their topics deeply personal matters and eschew form in favor of vaguely lyric spasms.
As you can perhaps gather from my language, I’m a fan of neither (with exceptions). The one has lost the spirit that first pulled me into the essay form, the ramble and contradiction, the personal showing of warts and all, but the personal with a purpose. The other has forgotten the world and only remembers the self, and often waves the banner of Montaigne in justification, forgetting that the only reason we read that first essayist is that the things he said of himself are true for all of us, to the point where, to paraphrase Emerson, we sometimes feel like we are reading our own thoughts. To oversimplify, you could say that in the first the world is too much with us, and in the second the world has all but disappeared.
I do not write about this dilemma from above it, but as someone at once pushed by outer forces and pulled by inner vision. I know I’m not alone here. A few years ago I invited the writer David Quammen to speak at the university where I teach, and the night before his talk we drank martinis in a local bar and discussed, among other things, the way that literary careers evolve. He told the story of his early love of Faulkner and how he spent his twenties working as a fishing guide in Montana while trying to write Faulknerian novels. He was accomplished enough at the former that when two editors for a new outdoor magazine went looking for a guide for a week of fishing, they hired him. In the course of the trip they became friends, and by week’s end the editors had offered their guide the chance to write a regular column in their magazine. The magazine was Outside and the column was “Natural Acts,” and so one of our best nonfiction writers was born.
As for me, I spent my twenties writing bad, clunky novels in which the characters quoted Thoreau to each other, until a professor of mine suggested that I cut to the chase and write nonfiction instead. Why not quote Thoreau directly? In both my case and Quammen’s, the self had one idea, the world another.
My wife, Nina de Gramont, is also a writer, and not long ago, the world came knocking at her door. Marvel Comics hired her to write a sort of new origin story for the X-Men character Rogue, and she did so under the pseudonym Christine Woodward. She took the job for the obvious reason, the one Samuel Johnson said we all write for: We needed the money. While this may sound crass, we both learned something from the experience. She wrote what she thought was an action-packed draft, trying to follow the dictates of genre. The editors liked what she came up with but reduced the length considerably, explaining to her that they had “cut out all the mooning about.” Mooning about! We laughed long and hard at that one. I suggested that it could have been the title of any of my early books. It has since become a watchword in our house for when either of us does too much lyric lounging in our work. And it goes without saying that much of what I read as a writing professor could go by that title. But before we bare our cutting knives, we should remember that this quality is something we also need to protect in our work, something threatened by the bullies of mammon, word count, and blogs.
A final illustration, one you can regard as self-indulgent if you like. A few years back I was trying to sell a book out in the world (that scary place where frightened little animals seldom go). The book had a subject, of course, as books in the world often do, and in the end I had to decide whether I would publish it with a small independent press that I loved, or a larger New York press that I deeply respected. The advice from the smaller press was this: “We love the subject, but make sure there’s still some David Gessner in it.” The unspoken advice from the larger press was the opposite: “Keep your eye on the subject and make sure there’s not too much David Gessner in it.”
It may come as no big surprise that, as someone who founded a literary journal called Ecotone, what interests me most is the place in between these two landscapes. In many ways I have spent my own career moving between the poles of the internal and external, and while this movement made me feel nervous and uncertain as a young writer, it has released creative energies in me in ways I did not expect or even know existed. In the animal world, movement follows opportunity, and why should the creative world be different?
If I am a migratory writer, then I am also a migratory reader, drawn compulsively to the personal and the close, while curious about the workings of culture, science, and nature. I believe, naively perhaps, that a mythic place still exists where the two overlap. I want a place between New York City and, say, Bluff, Utah. Between the New York Super Mag and the Fancy Fancy Lit Journal. It is a place between what editors think will sell and what readers are really hungry for. While I am wary of an essay that is really an article, there are things—often factual and educational things—that I love about articles. And while I am also wary of self-indulgent spew, if there is no you in the piece then I grow bored because there is no me either. As a reader I want to eat my cake and have it too.
Here is the good news. I am typing this out in my writing shack on the edge of the marsh, and as it turns out I am surrounded by examples of just such writing. (The good thing about keeping the books out here is that they are close at hand, the bad that they grow warped by humidity and the occasional slanting rains.) From where I sit I can lay hold of essays where the world and self intermingle in ways that keep me wide awake. Though he is a neighbor here in Wilmington, there is no reason not to start with John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead. At first glance this collection, despite its fine subtitle, “Essays,” might seem to be on the far journalistic end of the spectrum, since almost all the pieces in it appeared in slick magazines. Next to it sits Ecotone contributor Amy Leach’s Things That Are, which, with its short non-narrative pieces and beautiful sentences, might seem to rest at the other end, a place where we can expect a whole lot of mooning about.
Neither is what it seems, and that is a wonderful thing. The subjects of John’s pieces include a Christian rock concert, Bunny Wailer, the TV shows The Real World and One Tree Hill, Axl Rose, and Michael Jackson. Most were published in magazines like GQ or Harper’s (though one, we brag, also appeared in Ecotone), and they treat subjects that readers of those magazines might like to read. But the miracle is that John has Trojan-horsed into these articles a true essayist’s voice and purpose, and that even when he is looking (astutely) outward, it is his own mind, its turns, insights, and unexpected jumps, that deepens the pieces and delights us. So that when he tucks the story of his religious youth into the middle of a piece about attending a Christian rock concert, or when he invites us along to explore, open-mindedly, the psyche of a Michael Jackson we think we already know, we feel the pleasure that readers of essays treasure, a one-on-one conversation with, and an exploration alongside, a companionable guide who, in this case, just happens to be brilliant.
Put down Pulphead and pick up Things That Are, and you might feel your prejudices start to tingle. Surely you are now entering the realm of a scared animal. But those prejudices will be dislodged by the first short essay, banished by the second. “Sometimes it avails to be a goat,” she writes directly, but then says of beavers: “What it takes for them to prepare a mansion for themselves, in the midst of gallivanting water, with nothing to wield but short arms and long teeth, is constant botheration; they chew and lug and wrestle logs, unless humans or wolverines visit.” Here is someone working more in the Emersonian tradition, a maker of sentences, sentences that are then arranged in a beautiful mosaic or woven into a web. I can imagine a grad student reading this, seeing only the words mosaic and web, and then attempting to either piece their feelings into a beautiful shape or spin a thin web held together by the sticky filaments of autobiography. But if they did, they would be missing the central point of Amy’s essays. They are not just full of the world, but stuffed with it: warblers and bears and beavers and goats and trees and sea cucumbers!
I don’t want to get carried away here—though I can feel it happening—but I need only reach behind me, on the side table next to the coyote skull, and there is Darling, Richard Rodriguez’s “spiritual autobiography,” as the subtitle puts it. It would not be a stretch to call Rodriguez our greatest living essayist, and I can open to any page in that rambling book and feel invited in. There has always been an intimacy to his work, a fineness, and his jump cuts, organic but never entirely logical, seem to me the perfect way to move through an essay. He is an inward writer who is always looking out toward issues of race, spirituality, sexuality, and heritage, things that sound dull when listed but are much more than mere issues when illuminated by his life.
And so it goes. On the shelf to my left is Rust Hills’s How to Do Things Right, which I would recommend to anyone who wants to get a sense of how a Montaignian sensibility might translate to the present. Nearby is Reg Saner’s The Dawn Collector, next to Scott Sanders’s Staying Put and Mary Oliver’s Winter Hours and Wendell Berry’s Recollected Essays. And these are just my living friends. Not quite willing to be left for dead are Woolf and Baldwin and Orwell, and even farther down the shelf sits the fat warped book by the granddaddy of them all, Michel de Montaigne.
Montaigne, of course, started this whole party by retreating from public life on the last day of February 1571. Retreat is in a way the essence of the essayist’s job, finding a place apart from the world where the world can be considered. Montaigne found new ground to explore, the whole untrod inscape, and since he was the first to roam it he was allowed to diddle and dawdle there in a way that few have since. I love his diddling, and his dawdling too, and love when I sense that same leisurely manner in those that have followed him. But I also love the world and the objects in it. And that is what I remind my students as I try to pull their heads from their self-focused pages and point their eyes out the window. There is a world to see. And whether we see a warbler or a sea cucumber or Axl Rose, it is in the act of looking outward that we best reveal the self within. Cultivate your tiny animal, to be sure, but don’t spoil him too much. And please, when he scratches at the door, make sure you let him out.