Some Musings on the Essay: Guest post by Bill Sherwonit

Nature writer, author and essayist Bill Sherwonit will teach an eight-week class, “Adventures in Creative-Nonfiction: The Art of the Personal Essay,” beginning Oct. 4. He promises that participants can write about anything they choose, without any reference to larger nature or what we humans like to call “the natural world.”

When people ask what I do, or how I make my living, I almost always answer in one of two ways. Depending on the circumstances (and the person asking the question), I will either say “writer” or “nature writer.” If probed further, I will eventually add that I’m an author. But hardly ever, if at all, will I describe myself as an essayist. And that’s a curious thing, for a couple of reasons: first, I began writing essays long before I knew there was a literary animal called nature writing and also years before I wrote my first book; second, I love essays. They are, in fact, what I love most to write.

If I could afford to do so, I would spend the rest of my literary life simply writing essays (once I finish the book project with which I am currently obsessed, a story in itself in more ways than one). Being a freelance writer who’s largely unknown beyond Alaska – and maybe the greater Anchorage area – I can’t yet afford to do that.

I began writing essays while working as a newspaper sports reporter in the early to mid-1980s. Back then I didn’t even know they were essays; they were simply one type of column I wrote. When I moved from the sports beat to outdoors while at The Anchorage Times, I continued to write the occasional essay, masquerading as a column. And I remained blissfully unaware that I was part of a long tradition that reaches back to the late sixteenth century and the French Renaissance writer Michel de Montaigne. Generally recognized as the “father” of the essay form, Montaigne put together a collection of 107 essays in a book appropriately titled Essais – or Essays, as it’s known in English.

As many authorities on the essay have noted, “essai” when translated into English means an attempt or trial (or, as a verb, to try or undertake or attempt). Check the dictionary, as I’ve just done, and those are also given as secondary meanings of the English “essay.”

Here, a confession: I have not read Montaigne’s Essays, nor even more than an excerpt of any essay in his groundbreaking book. Another confession: until recently, I had never dug into – or, perhaps better put in the context of this posting, attempted – any of the Best American Essays collections that have been compiled annually since 1986. Because I’m going to be teaching a class on the personal essay, I figured it was about time I did. So I have. Sometime in August, I wandered into Title Wave Books and (with some assistance) found my way over to the store’s section on essays. There I got myself a copy of The Best American Essays 2008 (the most recent edition I could find) and, even better, The Best American Essays of the Century. The twentieth, that is.

Though I’ve read a couple of pieces in the 2008 collection, I have focused my efforts on the past century’s 55 best, as chosen by editor Joyce Carol Oates and her co-editor (and Best American Essays series founder), Robert Atwan.

I have to tell you, my initial essay to read and comprehend those fab 55 has been an eye opener. This is not an undertaking for the faint of heart or someone expecting an easy read.

Accepting that I’ve brought my own literary prejudices and predilections into this effort, as well as my ignorance, I have still been somewhat – well, more than that, I have been downright shocked by what Atwan and Oates have decided are the past century’s best of the best. Not all of the choices, of course. But at least some of the essays I’ve read so far (as I write this, I have read less than half the pieces, though I intend to read them all).

I should perhaps clarify that I’m not shocked by the writers collected here; many are considered literary giants, from Mark Twain to John Muir, T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Frost, E.B White, Rachel Carson, James Baldwin, Loren Eiseley, Maya Angelou, John McPhee, Alice Walker, Annie Dillard, John Updike, Ms. Oates herself (included at Atwan’s insistence) and others. Of course many of these giants are better known for their brilliance in other forms – poetry or fiction, for example – than the essay. Nonetheless, they are here because of the purported excellence of their essaying.

I make no claims to either brilliance or creative genius, but I’m a reasonably intelligent and perceptive guy, and I find myself struggling to understand the reason(s) that some of these pieces are in a “best of” collection. Friend and fellow writer Kathy Tarr points out that I shouldn’t judge essays written up to a century ago by the tastes and styles of today; but has the essay changed that much? Maybe so.

Let me give a example or four of essays I found difficult to digest or even hard to swallow. For all of Mark Twain’s writing ability, I found his “Corn-pone Opinions” to be remarkably repetitive and, after a while, boring. About halfway through, I felt like shouting, “all right, I get the point.” And this was only a five-page story.

Perhaps because they present a poet’s perspective (I’m still healing from a decades-long dysfunctional relationship with poetry), I found both Robert Frost’s “The Figure a Poem Makes” and T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” to be largely impenetrable, though portions of each ring with clarity and, yes, brilliance. It hasn’t helped my ego that Oates describes those two pieces as “The two most influential literary essays of the twentieth century.”

“YIKES!” I wrote in the margin of my book. I don’t get it. Eliot of course was also a renowned critic, so perhaps that worked as a double-whammy against me. The biographical notes for Eliot proclaim his piece “quite possibly the most widely anthologized literary essay of the twentieth century.” So what do I know?

Then there’s Gertrude Stein’s “What Are Master-pieces and Why Are There So Few of Them.” Double YIKES! I found her stream-of-consciousness style (if that’s what it is supposed to be) almost impossible to follow. And she, too, seemed overly repetitive.

Some other essays were disappointing, I think, simply because my expectations were so high. A prime example: I’d heard and read so much across the years about Gretel Ehrlich’s widely acclaimed book The Solace of Open Spaces, that her same-titled essay was a bit of a letdown. It is mostly her style, I think, but I didn’t come away from the piece inspired or enthused, as I expected.

On the other hand, I have discovered some wonderfully engaging, insightful, and in some instances provocative essays I never would have encountered on my own. McPhee’s “The Search for Marvin Gardens” (first published in 1972) is superb, I think. John Jay Chapman’s “Coatsville” (1912), Langston Hughes’ “Bop” (1949), N. Scott Momaday’s “The Way to Rainy Mountain” (1967), Lewis Thomas’ “Lives of a Cell” (1971), John Updike’s “The Disposable Rocket” (1993), and Oates’ own “They All Just Went Away” (1995) also proved powerful to me, while moving me in different ways. I’ve included their initial dates of publication to show that, yes, I have relished essays from all parts of the century. I also put a “very good” notation by Hemingway’s “Pamplona in July.” Back in my twenties, I was a huge Hemingway fan; he remains among my favorite novelists, but, rightly or wrongly, I grew less interested in his work as I matured into middle age (and now beyond) and less comfortable with his machismo.

I loved Loren Eiseley’s “The Brown Wasps,” but that was no surprise because he is among my favorite essayists. Still, it’s not the essay of his I would have chosen. My favorites of his – and at or near the top of my all-time favorite essays list – are “The Judgment of the Birds” and “The Bird and the Machine,” both of them in The Immense Journey, first published in 1946.

And so I come, in something of a roundabout way, to this point: Atwan and Oates neglected to include essays by many of the twentieth century’s most accomplished essayists, notably John Burroughs, Wendell Berry, Edward Abbey, Barry Lopez, Wallace Stegner, John Haines, Scott Russell Sanders, Terry Tempest Williams, and David Quammen (no doubt I’m forgetting others). What links these writers/essayists is that all of them have written extensively about our species’ relationship with the Earth and its other inhabitants. I guess I grow weary of essays that are so completely focused on us humans and “the human condition” that they ignore the larger world of which we’re simply a part.

To her credit, Oates in her introduction writes, “There is a rich subcategory of American essays, the confrontation of nature by a refined, fastidiously observing consciousness, that has descended to us from [Henry David] Thoreau; I would have dearly liked to include more practitioners of this sort, but had room for only John Muir, Rachel Carson, Loren Eiseley, Annie Dillard, and Gretel Ehrlich.” And, I might add, she does include most of the overlooked nature essayists in her long, back-of-the-book list of “Notable Twentieth-Century American Literary Nonfiction.”

I wonder, if someone put together The Best American Essays of the Decade, 2001-2010, how many of the people who do nature writing (even if they deny or protest the label “nature writer”) would be included. Besides those I’ve listed above, I think of David James Duncan, Kathleen Dean Moore, Brian Doyle, David Gessner, Chet Raymo, or Alaska’s own Sherry Simpson, Nancy Lord, Nick Jans, Eva Saulitis, and Seth Kantner (the latter claims to hate writing essays, but he’s very good at it, even if a novelist at heart).

The point of all this, I suppose, is that these “best of” choices, like so many other things, are highly subjective. But more than that, this collection shows the incredible range of approaches, styles, subjects, and forms that the essay can take. This is one of its great appeals, I think.

• • •

Many writers, editors, and literary critics have discussed the nature of the essay, including Adam Gopnik, a staff writer for The New Yorker and guest editor of The Best American Essays 2008. But my favorite discussion of this literary form is to be found in the last chapter of Chris Anderson’s book Edge Effects: Notes from an Oregon Forest, a chapter titled “Life and the Essay Compared to a Forest.”

There is much to digest and discuss about this piece of writing (and we will do so in the class I’ll be teaching through the Writing Center), but for now I’ll simply share a few of Anderson’s insightful observations.

“The essay,” Anderson writes, “has the structure of an old-growth forest. It’s rough and jagged and variously textured, digressive, splintering, apparently unsystematic, a thickness of multiple layers and indistinct layers, its vertical structure spatially complex and hierarchical, its species – of words and sentences, of ideas – sometimes wildly diverse and always complexly interacting.”

Wow, there’s some food for thought. Later he writes, “The secret to the complexity and coherence of the forest is that even the apparently unimportant things are finally important. Everything matters, however small and ugly – the fungus, the owls, the voles. . . . Each place has its own spirit.

“And this is the strategy of the essay, too, and its philosophy to think small instead of large, to celebrate the small and insist on it. . . . [The essay] focuses on the concrete details, shows the writer in his or her own place and time, situated, trying to say what’s important, trying to describe what’s right outside the window. . . . It brings things home, exploring how the grand ideas are connected to our day-to-day lives and rejecting all the high-blown abstractions.”

More to ponder: “The kind of essay I mean is personal, a sharing of the writer’s own thoughts and experiences, here and now, directly, openly. ‘I want to be seen here in my simple, natural, ordinary fashion, without straining or artifice,’ Montaigne says in the preface to his Essays [where it all began]. “It is myself that I portray. . . . E.B. White says bluntly that the essayist is ‘congenitally self-centered, . . . sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest.’ ”

Yet for all their emphasis on the self and the particular, the small and day-to-day things, their “gestures toward unliterariness,” Anderson notes, “the great essays are great because of their literary power. Great poetry flows from its simplicity. Beneath the apparent randomness and digressiveness, complex patterns emerge. Important ideas ring out, profound and useful. [My emphasis.]”

This, I believe, is another of the personal essay’s great appeals: the best of them weave together the personal and universal, often in surprising ways. Through the telling of our own stories, we touch upon larger realities and truths. The ones I love most have some sort of “Ah-hah” moment and often (always?) present the reader an opportunity to view or consider life, and the world, in a new or different light.

One other thing I love about the personal essay: it’s a great “entry level” literary form. What can be a better starting place, than to write about one’s own experiences, ideas, inner life, and way of being in the world? At the same time, the most polished essayists can unveil many layers and depths of story, offer profound food for thought, and shock, delight or sadden readers (or all of the above) in sometimes life-transforming ways.

3 thoughts on “Some Musings on the Essay: Guest post by Bill Sherwonit”

  1. Love your essay on essays, Bill. I've only recently discovered the form, as if it were stealthy, hiding in non-fiction. I, also, associated the term with high school contests. I embraced it when I learned that it had dignity and the history that you point out. It became a term I could use for many bits of writing I had already done, and it poised me to write many more. Up to that point, the stuff of my mind had seemed outlaw – too self-centered, too personal – but, in fact, the form gives legitimacy to all this material – done with some thought to coherence and style. Good to see your criticism of certain essays in the collection of the last century's best. There is plenty of writing from early in the last century that is fabulously clear, such as that of Louise Bogan, as critic for the NEW YORKER. I hate to see some writers treated as sacred cows, simply because there is a tradition of uncritical homage.

  2. As always, great words on the essay Bill. Your musings have always inspired me to keep writing. Might I point out the introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay by Phillip Lopate as one of the best discussions on just what the personal essay can be. Thanks for keeping we past students "in the loop."

  3. Thanks for all the great food for thought. I love the essay form. "Best Of" anthologies are a pleasure of mine – essays, short stories etc. It's an education to read the forwards to these anthologies because you get insight from editors who have just culled thousands of works in a very brief time;works previously published and already run a tough gamut. So, you have the cream of the crop and these editors have to pare the thousands down to a couple dozen or so. Reading their take on the experience of editing is every bit worth reading as the works inside.
    Thanks for your essay, Bill.

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