(Please see the Amazon “carousel” at the bottom of this post for links to all the books mentioned.)
When I tell people I’m a writer, I often hear back that they want to write. They say they might have a book in them. Of course, when they talk about this desire to write and this hypothetical book, they’re talking about fiction, and a novel.
A novel is the writing grail, and getting one published is the fulfillment of every writer’s dream. And I do like writing fiction—when it comes—and I have written a novel, and I would like to have a novel published. But I’m an essayist, too, and that doesn’t take a back seat to fiction.
Until recently—and when you’re my age, recently can mean ten years ago—I had always been a reader strictly of fiction. That’s not exactly true, because I could read non-fiction if it read like a novel. I liked case studies—for example, Final Cut, the story of the disastrous making of the movie Heaven’s Gate. (That one read like a fairy tale.) I didn’t know anything about essays as an art form; essays were something you wrote for school.
My first exposure to essays to read for fun was Dave Barry’s syndicated column that ran in the Boston Globe on Sundays. Often laugh-out-loud funny, poignant, and, at 750 words, concise, they were something I came to look forward to each week. Then someone gave me Naked, a book of essays by David Sedaris. Reading it was like eating candy: pure pleasure.
But I really began to understand the power of essays when I picked up the anthology, The Best American Magazine Writing, which featured an essay by Jonathan Franzen. I had (have) an intellectual crush on him, which was magnified by his hunky picture on the back of The Corrections, so I was anxious to read more by him. The featured essay was “My Father’s Brain,” which was, on a high level, about the progression of Franzen’s father’s Alzheimer’s Disease. It was multi-layered, though, and captured what it must have been like to grow up with that particular father—not that he was anything more than a normal father—and deal with that particular death. It was personal at the deepest level, without using the words “I feel” or “I think” to get to that place. I haven’t taken an inventory, but I believe that’s the best essay I’ve ever read, though some of Franzen’s other essays are also up there, as well as a few by David Foster Wallace.
That’s when I began to understand the beauty of the essay. Simultaneous to that discovery, I was developing my own writing, both fiction and non-fiction, and understanding the form gave me more freedom to explore it. I don’t know if I could have written one of my favorite pieces, My Anole’s Tail, about the life and death of my son’s lizard, without the inspiration I got from Franzen’s work. Franzen’s essay gave me permission to be personal, and to write until I’d covered the subject as I wanted to, without regard to length.
One thing I can do in an essay that is much harder to do in fiction is write on the same subject more than once. (Alice Munro can do this in fiction, but she is probably the most deeply intellectual and in-control short story writer ever.) The benefit is that I can approach a subject that means something to me from many angles, and not for the fun of it, but because I need to explore it in that way. I read Amy Tan’s memoir, The Opposite of Fate, and that’s what she did: she wrote about her mother and a few other formative experiences, each time packaging the same topics in a different wrapping. But it wasn’t like receiving last year’s socks again; instead each context provided more insight into who Amy Tan was, who her mother was, and how these experiences were formative for her.
Lately, I’ve written several pieces on The BetsyG-Spot about reconnecting with people. I find it profound that today I exchanged e-mails with the guy who sat behind me in 7th grade science class, the object of my affection from my 20s, and my best friend from camp in 1973, none of whom I’ve had contact with since those times until now. Talking with these old friends means a lot to me, and I’ve just scratched the surface in explaining why.
Every piece I write on the subject feels fresh to me for this reason, because it brings me one step closer to being able to communicate my experience fully to the reader. That’s important to me because I want you to feel what I’m feeling, and to experience the intellectual or emotional thrill that I do, whether it’s positive or negative. Why that’s important, I don’t know exactly, except that it increases my chances of being understood, and being understood makes me that much less alone.
I also learn more about the subject myself each time I write about it; today I wrote something about one of the reconnections in an e-mail to a friend, and I formed perfectly the thought that had been eluding me. The more I write about it, the more deeply I understand it. There is real joy in that discovery, and in finding the right words to express it.
Like other topics, I’ve not yet fully explored this one in the short essay form. It is…a start.