Monday, September 23, 2013

E-mail from Bonnie J. Rough

Ok Ander, I just accepted the Blogger invitation to post on Essay Daily and then I faced the fact that for a second embarrassing time in a row, I have to let the opportunity go to someone else. I have a rare opportunity to write for the month of September in Amsterdam, and I am going to accept it and focus intensely on my current book project. I realize you probably won't bother with inviting me anymore to contribute to Essay Daily, but when I have something, maybe I can just query you. I hope you won't mind my adding that I really am not a big flake, but I am a mom of young children with a delicate balance in my work life. I say no to things I want very much to do. Anyway, perhaps sometime, this very predicament itself could lend a fresh thought to Essay Daily, although I fear it wouldn't strike quite the right scholarly tone. But, for example: I'm right now in the Dordogne very close to Montaigne's chateau and library, and I confess I have found myself thinking of the father of the essay and how decadent it might have been for him to be the father of the essay instead of the caregiver of his daughter, because an essay waits patiently and never interrupts with anything but a gift. Sarah Bakewell's scholarship about Montaigne in How To Live: Or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer describes his distress at interruptions in the year of his riding accident (1569 or 1570): "He was thirty-six at this time, and felt he had a lot to escape from. Following his father's death, he had inherited full responsibility for the family chateau and estate in the Dordogne. It was beautiful land, in an area covered, then as now, by vineyards, soft hills, villages, and tracts of forest. But for Montaigne it represented the burden of duty. On the estate, someone was always plucking at his sleeve, wanting something or finding fault with things he had done. He was the seigneur; everything came back to him." 

This burden of duty explains why Montaigne's library and writing room stood in a tower separate from the chateau, and also why he loved to escape on horseback to find solitude in the vignobles and walnut groves. Would that little mouths crying for peaches and saucissons could wait as patiently as the servants, I thought grumpily after I read this, resenting neither my daughters nor my partner but the idea of Montaigne working--essaying--more or less as he pleased. 

Because I was jealous, I plunged into uglier thoughts: Western intellectuals worship too many bright personages who may in fact not have been particularly genius but only had extra time to ramble their brains. I even dared to think that the essay, inasmuch as it challenges the essayist to try, to attempt, really doesn't stretch one intellectually or existentially so much as parenthood. Maybe motherhood in particular. And so I had my own backward little insight, as I looked up from wiping tiny sticky hands to glance out over the green Dordogne just as our seigneur did those 450 years ago: I get more haughty about my status as a mother than about my identity as a writer, perhaps in the same way that a servant might privately disdain of the master of the house. Such coddling! I'll think, shaking my head, imagining my essayist self on the other side of the river, perched over bear rugs in a tower, surrounded by books and favored quotations, quill poised. In comparison, domestic work is harder and the pay is less (if you can imagine). And yet, one accomplishes the job rather honorably. It always both surprises and disappoints me to feel a strange frustrated pride in that, a small-minded sour-grapes kind of comfort. 

So those are my curmudgeonly thoughts on the essay at the moment, perhaps not in the right spirit for the blog, but you can decide. 

Warm wishes, 

Bonnie J. Rough is the author of the 2011 Minnesota Book Award-winning memoir Carrier: Untangling the Danger in My DNA. Her essays have appeared in numerous periodicals including The New York Times, Huffington Post, The Sun, The Iowa Review, Ninth LetterDefunctBrevityIdentity Theoryand Sweet: A Literary Confection, as well as anthologies including The Best Creative NonfictionThe Best American Science and Nature Writing, and Modern Love. She teaches in the Ashland University low-residency MFA program in creative writing, and she is a prose editor for Versal, an award-winning international journal of literature and art based in Amsterdam. Both abroad and at home in Seattle, she is at work on Mama Bare, her second nonfiction book. 


  1. Hey Bonnie-- Thanks so much for this post. I have had my own curmudgeonly mother thoughts toward Montaigne, even as I appreciate his legacy, from an essay up at the VIDA blog. (I don't know if the comments section will let me post a link, but it's called "Kidney Stone in My Shoe." I think part of the essayist's "swagger" is what is interesting about Montaigne but also what bothers me about his voice: "Montaigne, as a man of wealth and noble birth, had a life that predisposed him to think that his offerings were worthy."

    1. The link works! A great piece, Sonya. I love your intellectual sure-footedness and clear voice. Thank you!

  2. Dear Bonnie,
    I was just so excited to see your name on the byline! I think you are the coolest. I read Carrier on my belly in a Flagstaff pine forest and then recommended it to everyone I know.
    Kati Standefer

    1. Kati, thank you! I really appreciate your passing Carrier around. Shoot me an email sometime and tell me about your work.