Essayist Of Essays

“There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman,” writes Lena Dunham in the introduction to her essays-cum-memoir Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned.” But does simply announcing one has a story automatically legitimize its telling? Surely there needs to be some kind of discerning critical judgment involved? Writing a good essay involves a process akin to alchemy; the base metal of intimate, individual experience is transmuted into a shining nugget of universal truth, the meaning of which resonates with a larger audience. “I never sit down to write anything personal unless I know the subject is going to go beyond my own experience and address something larger and more universal,” explains essayist and columnist Megan Daum in a recent interview in the New Yorker.

In a piece published in the New York Times last year under the title “The Essayification of Everything,” Christy Wampole takes her readers through a brief history of the form—from Michel de Montaigne’s Essais from 1580; Francis Bacon’s appropriation of the term from French to English for his 16th century work; Robert Musil’s use of the term “essayism” (Essayismus in the original German) for the “leakage” of the essay, “when it cannot be contained by its generic borders;” through Adorno’s quote about the “essay’s groping intention.”

“The essayist,” Wampole then goes on to explain, “is interested in thinking about himself thinking about things.” Note her use of the male pronoun at a point in her essay that deals entirely with the genre’s male progenitors. But only a few paragraphs later, where she’s describing the work of the figure she calls the “true essayist,” there’s a switch in gender and the “he” becomes a “she”:

“Our often unreflective quickness means that little time is spent interrogating things we’ve touched upon. The experiences are simply had and then abandoned. The true essayist prefers a more cumulative approach; nothing is ever really left behind, only put aside temporarily untilher digressive mind summons it up again, turning it this way and that in a different light, seeing what sense it makes. She offers a model of humanism that isn’t about profit or progress and does not propose a solution to life but rather puts endless questions to it.”

I might well be reading too much into this slippage, but I like the idea of “the essayist” as a figure subject to the same gender vacillations as Woolf’s Orlando; and one who, at this particular moment in time, is proudly embodying the female gender. From cultural critic Susan Sontag and journalist-turned-screenwriter-turned-novelist (and Dunham’s mentor) Nora Ephron, and on through to the host of talented female essayists writing today, this is clearly a flourishing genre that the following women writers—in my mind some of the best writing today—are very much making their own; as Carol Hanisch famously declared in 1969, the personal is political; if, that is, one’s personal experience is mined eloquently and intelligently enough.

Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)

It would be impossible to talk about female essayists without beginning with Joan Didion, not least because she pioneered the emotional engagement we’ve come to expect from all essay writers today, male or female. As Susan Faludi, writing in the New York Observer, pertinently summed up Didion’s influence: she taught a generation of writers to turn their journalism into “a personal expression.” Though, as fellow writer Katie Roiphe argues, the conversion of the masses to this “emotionally charged and coolly intellectual” way of writing, has rendered the original voice oddly derivative. “Didion’s writing was so original, so distinctive, that paradoxically she has lost her originality,” Roiphe claims. “She has become mundane, traces of her sharp personal lyricism scattered through newspapers and magazines.” All the same, it’s still worth reading anything and everything Didion writes, particularly her first, and probably most famous collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem; works inspired, for the most part, by Didion’s life in California that together paint a vivid portrait of American life in the ’60s, all crystalized through Didion’s unflinching eyes.

Janet Malcolm, Forty-One False Starts (2013)

Another grande dame of American letters, Janet Malcolm is a staff writer at the New Yorker who’s famous for her rigorously intellectual and intelligent reportage. As well as eight non-fiction books—the subjects of which range from biography, literary criticism, and psychoanalysis, to her infamous meditation on the ethics of her own profession, The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), which begins what must be one of the most incendiary, and most quoted opening lines in non-fiction: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible”—she’s the author of three collections of essays. The most recent, Forty-One False Starts, contains one of the best pieces of writing on the Bloomsbury Group I’ve ever read, “A House of One’s Own;” while other particular noteworthy inclusions are her 1986 profile of Artforum magazine’s editor Ingrid Sischy, “A Girl of the Zeitgeist,” as well as the stylistically innovative profile of the artist David Salle from which the collection takes its title. Malcolm has the last word on any subject she writes about, from the marriage of poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath to the very art of biography. Unlike her fellow essayists, Malcolm is both an absence and a presence in her work. Yet the pieces of hers that delight the most often feature a moment of Malcolmian self-reflection—the instance when she realizes that although she’s been claiming that she brought her own work to Salle while interviewing him in order to simply illustrate the difference between that of an amateur and a professional, she had secretly been hoping for his praise; or, a year after the fact, when she realizes that something Sischy once said to her was in fact a “covert commentary” on their relationship. Hers is a particular brand of essay: writing at its most crystal clear, subject matter at its most slippery and interesting.

Katie Roiphe, In Praise of Messy Lives (2012)

The essays in Katie Roiphe’s In Praise of Messy Lives were described by Dwight Garner in his New York Times review as “lean and literate”, a description so good, I don’t see how I can improve on it. With pieces on the giants who precede her (that on Didion quoted above, and Sontag), those in which she wades around in the territory of gender politics in which she made her name (her first book The Morning After: Fear, Sex and Feminism [1994] explored the culpability of women in the rise of suspected campus date rape incidents, inspiring, unsurprisingly, some hostile critical responses), musings on literature (from the figure of Shakespeare’s wife, Ann Hathaway, to the modern incest scene in fiction), and the problems of the contemporary child-centric middle-class world, to name but a smattering of Roiphe’s topics, it’s a collection that both celebrates and questions our messy, modern lives and the way we live them.

Rebecca Solnit, Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness (2014)

Solnit is one of the most prolific writers on my list—the author of 15 books and countless essays—and one of the most far-reaching in terms of the subjects with which she concerns herself, too. Apt then that her next book parades this scope so proudly. The 29 essays that make up Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness (due for publication in November) are global in their reach, combining meditations on history, politics, science, art, literature, climate change and natural disasters, and take us from the snowy tundra of the Arctic to the carnival-filled streets of New Orleans. She’s also a writer who pushes the already pliable boundaries of the essay form—The Faraway Nearby (2013), ostensibly a memoir, but actually a book that covers its own near exhaustive encyclopedia of topics, was eloquently described by writer Leslie Jamison as “an experiment in applying the associative liberties of the essay genre to an entire book.”

Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams (2014)

Jamison’s keen eye for the magic of Solnit’s work can be accounted for in part by the fact that she is an intrepid practitioner of the confessional form herself. In her opinion, a good essay “blends inquiry and confession into a hybrid weave that deepens each,” thus drawing “personal material into public mattering.” The Empathy Exams, Jamison’s first collection (though two further compendia: Archive Lush, which has been described as a “radical reinvention of the addiction memoir,” and Ghost Essays: On Love and Loneliness, on haunting and obsession, have already been acquired by both Granta in the U.K. and Little, Brown in the U.S.), concerned itself with the realm of distinctly intimate experience—her heart surgery, an abortion, and the time a stranger punched her in the face—but, as the title suggests, these are essays that don’t simply turn the private into the communal, they explore the very notion of the act that lies at the heart of good essay writing: of aligning one’s experience with that of others, and vice versa. “Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us—a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain—it’s also a choice we make,” Jamison explains: “to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It’s made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse. Sometimes we care for another because we know we should, or because it’s asked for, but this doesn’t make our caring hollow. The act of choosing simply means we’ve committed ourselves to a state of behaviors greater than the sum of our individual inclinations: I will listen to his sadness, even when I’m deep in my own. To say going through the motions—this isn’t reduction so much as acknowledgement of the effort—the labor, the motions, the dance—of getting inside another person’s state of heart or mind.”

Meghan Daum, The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion (2014)

By comparison to Jamison, Daum has always been eager to point out that the pieces she writes are “not confessionals.” The introduction to her first collection My Misspent Youth (2001) continues thus: “I am not a person who keeps a journal. Instead, I’m inclined to catalog my experiences and turn them over in my head until some kind of theme emerges and I feel I can link the personal banalities to something larger and worth telling.” Despite their apparent differences of opinion, this actually sounds decidedly familiar to Jamison (and Wampole’s) description of the genre, but one in which Daum—“for all my ambivalence about mining my own life for material, I can’t seem to quit for very long,” she admits in the introduction to her forthcoming volume The Unspeakable—is well aware she’s treading a tightrope. As she explains in a recent interview with the New Yorker: “To me, having ‘material’ for an essay means not only having something to write about but also having something interesting and original to say about whatever that might be.” Fundamentally, the subjects of her new essays are deeply and intimately personal—the death of her mother, the grief she feels when her dog dies, the time she nearly died herself, her decision to not have children, one made at the same time she was working as a court appointed mediator for children in the foster care system—but as she explains, “I wasn’t going to just write about my mother dying or my dog dying or me getting sick and almost dying. I wanted to offer readers some fresh or provocative interpretations of those events.”

Emily Gould, And the Heart Says Whatever (2009)

Earlier this summer the New York Times argued that “a case could be made that Ms. Gould’s warts-and-all brand of self-exposure anticipated a wave of confessional writing that paved the way for Girls” (and thus by extension, Not That Kind of Girl). They’re referring predominantly, of course, to Gould’s prolific blogging (including the pieces she wrote for Gawker during the time she worked for the New York-based gossip blog site). But Gould also authored her own book of essays-cum-memoir, And the Heart Says Whatever, a collection of elegantly written, melancholy-tinged accounts of her life in New York, which preceded Dunham’s adoption of the same structure for her book.

Marina Keegan, The Opposite of Loneliness (2014)

I’m breaking my own rules here as this wasn’t just a collection of essays, (it also featured Keegan’s short stories), but with good reason. Published posthumously after Keegan was tragically killed in a car accident just five days after she graduated from Yale in 2012, The Opposite of Loneliness showcases the small but perfectly formed body of work Keegan left behind. Despite her youth, her writing already demonstrated a talent and skill beyond her years; essays such as “Even Artichokes Have Hearts,” in which she laments the fact that 25 percent of her peers would be lured into working for corporate consulting and finance firms, initially published in the Yale Daily News before being picked up by the New York Times; the piece she wrote for the graduation issue of the same Yale paper (and from which the published collection takes its name), which went viral on the Internet after her death; “Stability in Motion,” a piece about her first car that now can’t help but take on a darker undertone; and a surprisingly moving profile of a bug and rodent exterminator, “I Kill For Money.” To return to the question I posed at the beginning of this piece, if not every story is automatically worth telling, the flipside of this is that if Keegan’s work proves anything it’s that sometimes the briefest of experiences can fuel the best writing.

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The Essayist in Search of the Essay

At the beginning of the fall semester, my department chair sent an e-mail inviting faculty members to sign up for a date to visit her graduate Research Methods class and “talk about [our] research.” Although the majority of the research I conduct as a personal essayist and memoirist involves investigating the recesses of my memory, the work I’m drawn to as a reader most often involves essays infused with research. So as my turn to visit the class approached in October, I kept thinking about four books I read this year.

In preparation for my visit, I e-mailed those four essayists, whose work had truly stunned me, and asked if they’d be willing to write a one- to two-hundred word explanation of their research methods so that when I discussed their books with the class, I could project their words onto the screen and allow them to speak for themselves. Matthew Gavin Frank, B.J. Hollars, Peggy Shinner, and Nicole Walker all readily agreed. Considered together, their responses demonstrate a fascinating range of research strategies.

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In Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer (Liveright, 2014), Matthew Gavin Frank weaves in playful forays about his research trip to Moses’s Newfoundland home, Frank’s own childhood and family history, and a catalog of bizarre facts and lists that recall Melville’s story of obsession with another deep-sea-dwelling leviathan. Though Frank is armed with impressive research, what he can’t know about Harvey he fictionalizes, quite explicitly, as a way of both illuminating the scene and exploring his central theme: the big, beautiful human impulse to obsess.

When I first saw the carcass of the giant squid in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (in a room one floor beneath that which houses the profoundly boring Hope Diamond), stretched-out to its maximum length in its thermoplastic coffin—unimpressive, dead, and snotty—it did not strike me as particularly obsession-worthy. But when I saw the photograph on the wall above it—the one (as I learned from the 3-line caption) taken by Reverend Moses Harvey in St. John’s, Newfoundland in 1874; the first-ever photograph of the giant squid; the image that rescued the beast from the realm of mythology and finally proved its existence; the one in which the carcass is draped over Harvey’s bathtub curtain rod in order to showcase its full size—I became curious about the animal, and the ways in which we’ve variously engaged it over the years. I wanted to know what the giant squid, and our reactions to it, could tell us about ourselves. I wanted to know about the sorts of ancillary subjects I’d have to engage (which turned out to be ice cream, my long-dead saxophonist grandfather, various cultural expressions of pain, and—in an early draft—puppets and puppet parts) along the journey toward something that I was likely misperceiving as super-truth. I became compelled by Harvey’s compulsions, and the sacrifices he had to make in order to chase them toward some nebulous end. I wanted desperately to empathize, so I started chasing too. I started with Google, and then read everything I could about (and by) Harvey, and considered the squid, and considered the ways in which he considered the squid. I’ve long been prone to OCD-fueled flights of fancy, so for a good three years, instead of triple-checking all the locks each night before bed, this is what I did. Via a serpentine path, I got hooked up with Harvey’s great-great granddaughter, who just happens to run the non-traveling archives at the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial University in St. John’s. She sent me the coolest scans via email. Eventually, I hit a wall in the writing process, and so I lit out for Newfoundland in order to immerse myself in what the filmmaker Werner Herzog likes to call “the voodoo of place.” That, and also to hang out in those non-traveling archives, to whoop it up with Harvey’s descendants, and to stalk the current resident of the Harvey home. I needed to see that bathroom in which a giant squid once hung. Much of the writing process involved me trying to map my own ecstasy (in the face of uncovering and organizing all of this wonderful research) onto Harvey’s assured ecstasy in the face of the fateful specimen, and all of the beautiful and horrible ways that it changed his life.

For Dispatches from the Drownings: Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction (University of New Mexico Press, 2014), B. J. Hollars combed the archives of local newspapers only to discover vast discrepancies in articles about the deaths. In homage to Michael Lesy’s cult classic Wisconsin Death Trip, Hollars pairs reports from late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century journalists with fictional versions, creating a hybrid text complete with facts, lies, and a wide range of blurring in between.

Research, for me, takes on various forms depending on the subject, the project, and the resources. And so, when I'm in Alabama writing about civil rights, I hole up in the university archive, read the historical markers, interview everyone I can, and then head over to the microfiche where I read the daily newspaper of, say, 1964, the way most people read the daily papers. However, if I'm researching something more contemporary, I find myself spending less time in the archive and more time on the streets. When I'm writing about contemporary subjects, the key is to talk to as many folks as possible. To end each interview with a single question: “Who else might I talk to?” Having said all this, try not to search in the obvious places. I mean, you should search there, too, but then you should expand your search to look in places where no one else ever looks. And when I say “look” I mean “go there.” A few summers back I forced my family to take a 1000-mile road trip to a pet cemetery for a project I was working on. This spring break, I’ve persuaded them to join me in my search for a thought-to-be-extinct woodpecker in Arkansas for another project. And so, another good suggestion is to surround yourself with people who not only allow you your obsessions but come along for the ride. Finally, and most importantly, when you're researching you must live your research. Take the blinders off and see how the radio report on NPR dovetails with a headline in the paper. See how a university lecture syncs with the traveling art exhibit. Often, I've found, the world just throws you favors when you consider everything a clue.

In lauding Quench Your Thirst With Salt (Zone 3 Press, 2013) by Nicole Walker, Robin Hemley describes how she “investigates all that is contradictory and curious in the micro climate of her immediate family and the macro climate of Utah to create not a dry treatise, not a windless flight of experimental prose, but a natural history of thirst in all its manifestations.”

I truly admire those who still leave their houses to do research. I like the idea that research comes first, then writing, but that's not quite how it works with me. I like to bring information and the outside world into my essays but I almost always begin with a short, personal anecdote that leads to something I need to qualify or quantify. For instance, I was writing an essay yesterday about microorganisms and how I wish I had defensive microorganisms in my brain like the ones I have in my stomach. Although I knew the names of the bad bacteria, E. coli, salmonella, I had to use Google to find the names of good bacteria (lactobacilli, which I realized I did know but couldn't spell, was one of them). What microorganisms fight E. coli, I asked. I have a lot of faith in the Internet that if I ask the question just right, it will lead—even though I may have to scan through fifty sites—to the answer. It's the open-ended nature of the Internet search engine that I like. The name of the old browser ask.com matches my philosophy and my itinerant topics. What is the name of that one microorganism? How does whale poop sequester carbon? When was the dishwashing machine invented? How many pounds of plastic swirl in the ocean? If I could stick to one topic, another form of research might work for me, but my natural way of writing is to start typing down the main stalk of the story, ask a question that leads me to a branch over here, ask another question that leads me to a branch over there. As long as I always go back to the main stalk, I don't get lost, and, eventually, something organic takes shape.

In You Feel So Mortal: Essays on the Body (University of Chicago, 2014), Peggy Shinner offers a collection of twelve searing and witty essays about the body: her own body, female and Jewish; those of her parents, the bodies she came from; and the collective body, with all its historical, social, and political implications. According to Lambda Literary, “Her interests are wide-ranging, fueled by a deep curiosity and a talent for research.”

Research is like fishing, (which I've never done!). Drop the net in the water and see what turns up. I usually start with something personal: feet, posture, autopsies, shoplifting. But my next impulse, close behind, is to tether it to something else, to find the places of collision with the larger world. I like to think of digression as methodology, to be pursued rather than avoided. How far can I go and still stay connected? My flat feet, so like my father's; Jewish feet (Jewish feet?!), he-goat feet, according to the age-old denigrations; Jews in the military; Jewish athletes; the skein continues. I ask questions, go to Google, the library, bibliographies and endnotes, make phone calls, but in some ways it doesn't matter what I find. I draw the net up, sort through the contents, and then abandon the treasure for a while, never sure what I'm going to use and what I'm going to leave behind. The process is messy and organic and mystifying and wholly satisfying (when it's working). It's not research-driven, but the research is central. It's driven, instead, by a set of underlying pressures, some overt, others merely sensed. And by the sheer joy of curiosity. I dredged up Charlie Chaplin's Tramp at some point, and his iconic feet made an appearance too.

Reading these four essayists, I experience dual narratives—the ones they’ve created for me on the page and the ones I imagine. I follow behind Frank as he wanders through the fog of a Newfoundland cemetery. I pass by Hollars, hunched over the microfiche reader in the darkened basement of a university library. I stand behind Walker as she sits at her computer, click-click-clicking from one site to another, and I lean against the table in the special collections while Shinner sifts through letters. This, to me, is one of the most engaging and profound elements of the personal/research hybrid—the essayist in search of the essay.


Matthew Gavin Frank is the author of the nonfiction books, Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer, Pot Farm, and Barolo, the poetry books, The Morrow Plots, Warranty in Zulu, and Sagittarius Agitprop, and 2 chapbooks. His essay collection/cookbook, tentatively titled The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic State-by-State Tour Through America’s Food, is forthcoming in 2016 from W.W. Norton: Liveright. He teaches at Northern Michigan University, where he is the Nonfiction Editor of Passages North. This winter, he tempered his gin with two droplets (per 750ml) of tincture of odiferous whitefish liver. For health.

B.J. Hollars is the author of two award-winning nonfiction books—Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America and Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa—as well as a collection of stories, Sightings. His hybrid text, Dispatches from the Drownings: Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction was published in the fall of 2014. An assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, he lives a simple existence with his wife, their children, and their dog.

Peggy Shinner is the author of You Feel So Mortal / Essays on the Body (University of Chicago Press, April 2014), which Flavorwire included among its 25 Great Books You Might Have Missed in 2014. Her work has appeared in BOMB, The Southern Review, Colorado Review, TriQuarterly, Fourth Genre, Bloom, and most recently on Salon. Newcity, Chicago's cultural weekly, named her one of the Lit 50 2014: Who Really Books in Chicago, and she has been awarded two Illinois Arts Council Fellowships and a fellowship at Ausable Press. Currently, she teaches in the MFA program at Northwestern University. She's online here.

Nicole Walker’s Quench Your Thirst with Salt won the Zone 3 Award for Creative Nonfiction and was released in June 2013. She is the author of a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg (Barrow Street 2010) and edited, with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, (Bloomsbury, 2013) and, with Rebecca Campbell, 7 Artists, 7 Rings—an Artist’s Game of Telephone for the Huffington Post. A recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment from the Arts, she’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and Associate Professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona, where it rains like the Pacific Northwest, but only in July.

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