Thursday, July 28, 2011

Between Song and Story: Essays for the Twenty-first Century

Like my friend and co-editor, Sheryl St. Germain, I’m very pleased Ander asked us to write something about our anthology, Between Song and Story: Essays for the Twenty-First Century, because it gives me a chance to write about me. (I’m not entirely kidding, but please continue reading anyway.)

As a recent MFA graduate I brought a student’s perspective to the challenge of editing our collection. I wanted the essays selected to nurture my own writing by challenging my ideas about the form and encouraging experimentation. In short, I wanted teachers from whom I could learn. Think of the anthology as a kind of portable writing workshop on the craft of the contemporary essay.

We chose to use the word essays in our title instead of the term creative nonfiction because we felt the word essay, from the Old French essai, (meaning a trial or an attempt) best reflected the kind of adventurous spirit readers will find celebrated in the anthology. And it is that sense of possibility that most attracts me to the genre. The essay’s malleability allows a writer to shape the form as she wishes.

Ander suggested that Sheryl and I each comment on our favorite essays. What a great idea, and yet I find it difficult to do, because each essay in the collection moves me in some way. Nevertheless, I have chosen a few I wish to highlight: Joy Castro’s “Grip,” Linda Hogan’s “The Bats,” BK Loren’s “Trends of Nature,” Dinty W. Moore’s “Son of Mr. Green Jeans: An Essay on Fatherhood, Alphabetically Arranged,” and the three very brief essays we included from Lawrence Sutin’s A Postcard Memoir. I focus on these pieces, not necessarily because I love them best, but because in each I find something interesting to learn and qualities I wish to emulate in my own work.

In “Grip” Joy Castro opens her essay with a description of the torn “bullet-holed paper target” hanging over her son’s crib. The object is both tangible and symbolic and serves as the departure point for Castro’s exploration of the lengths to which a mother will go to protect her child. She organizes her essay into five discrete sections separated by white spaces. Her choice creates a kind of staccato rhythm for the piece, reminiscent of the sharp sound a gun makes. The essay’s power resides in its brevity and restraint, and the lyricism of her language.

Linda Hogan brings a poet’s sensibility and a naturalist’s appreciation to her beautiful essay, “The Bats.” Her title strikes one immediately because of her choice of article; “The” makes a difference. She conveys in her first words that her interest in these creatures that “live in double worlds of many kinds,” is specific and personal. Her essay moves between a narrative about two encounters with bats, one in a park in frigid Minneapolis and another in a cave in Germany, and the lyric. In the end, it is the beauty of her language I find so compelling. Imagine perceiving the world through sound, as bats do. Imagine a world where “Everything answers, the corner of a house, the shaking of leaves on a wind-blown tree, the solid voice of bricks.”

BK Loren’s poignant narrative “Trends of Nature” is published for the first time in our anthology. I find much to admire in this piece, but most of all, I appreciate what is true of the best personal essays: the writer’s honesty and the bravery such candor frequently requires. We trust Loren’s observations of coyotes, because she is willing to scrutinize her own behavior with the same degree of insight.

I keep returning to Dinty W. Moore’s “Son of Mr. Green Jeans: An Essay on Fatherhood, Alphabetically Arranged,” in part because I’m fascinated by the way his capacious mind works. Moore uses the alphabet as the organizing principle for his essay. His ingenious choice creates a framework in which he is free to consider a range of apparently unrelated subjects without losing sight of the essay’s central theme. His exploration of fatherhood is humorous, touching, and surprisingly informative.

From Lawrence Sutin’s A Postcard Memoir, we included three flash essays, each of which is paired with an image: “Pissed Off at Three Years and Four Months,” “Tower of Silence,” and “Young Man with Rifle, Black Dog and Dead Ducks.” Each essay is but a paragraph long, its shape on the page mirroring that of the related image. Sutin’s choice to use postcards as writing prompts creates a unifying structure for his memoir, while allowing each entry to stand alone. The pairing of photograph and prose serves to enhance our appreciation of each and provides Sutin with the necessary distance he needs to explore his complex past.

I believe our anthology tells a compelling story about the wealth of experimentation and multi-faceted character of the contemporary essay. I encourage you to read that story yourselves. I trust you will be challenged, inspired, and entertained.

Margaret L. Whitford

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