For many years I was not an animal person, but recently I adopted a kitten. Once skittish, he has warmed up—as I write, he trots across my keyboard and tries to type this essay for me. I was also not always an essayist, yet now I find myself the nonfiction editor at Sonora Review. In trying to figure out what I’ve gotten myself into, I turn more and more to Philip Lopate. He has a knack for putting the overwhelmed at ease. “The hallmark of the personal essay is its intimacy,” he writes in his introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay. “Through sharing thoughts, memories, desires, complaints, and whimsies, the personal essayist sets up a relationship with the reader, a dialogue—a friendship, if you will, based on identification, understanding, testiness, and companionship.” Good advice, I would argue, for how we approach both cat and essay.
I keep Lopate in mind as I read and write essays. I have my good and bad habits when it comes to these. A good habit I have is to look for a sense of wonder in an essay, to appreciate the moment it becomes puzzled. This is not the same as an essay’s puzzle exactly. It is not a code or structure one must either put together or break apart (though it can be that), but something slightly more ineffable: a puzzlement perhaps, if that weren’t such a vague term. I think of it as the moment an essay realizes it’s walking a strange and complicated terrain and asks itself, not with panic, but with wonder, with puzzlement, “How the hell did I get here and how do I get back out?”
A bad habit I more frequently have is to think of essays as stories. This is a common slip, I believe. Too often at Sonora Review I find myself reading a story calling itself an essay, a string of memories masquerading as memoir. We have a basic urge to tell stories, but this can consume our better sense: we comb our minds for the relatable and loudspeaker our individual experience so that it speaks for the general, but this does not necessarily mean we have hit on a collective truth (look no further than here for proof: see how I have made the I a We). Yes, we tell stories in order to live, but we also tell them in order to announce that we live. Or, rather, to announce that we suffer since life is often synonymous with suffering. Yet a litany of sufferings can devolve into a list of complaints. It is then I find myself plodding up or down that narrative hill, reading or writing a one-sided story of unfortunate events, each equally distasteful, each leading to the same predictable pit.
As a reader of submissions, I find I am inevitably self-involved. I ask that the writer sets up the relationship Lopate discusses, the “friendship based on identification, understanding, testiness, and companionship.” I desire this not so that the writer/friend can recite her problems, but so that I can see her suffering or her life as my own. Self-serving, indeed. The writer relates something not for me to see it as she would, but the opposite—so that she sees it as I would see it, so that she is able to speak for me, to beat me to the punch and puzzle out the very thing that was on my mind. Given this intimacy and anticipation between reader and writer, I am able to appreciate the puzzlement and wonder within the writer’s mind, what F. Scott Fitzgerald (via Lopate) calls “the test of a first-rate intelligence”: “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
Here are two essays in Sonora Review’s catalog that come to mind as embodying a sense of wonder and puzzlement. The first is Andrew Johnson’s “Two Crows”, which appears in the most recent issue, no. 63. In this essay, Johnson details (what else) two crows he encounters, except that neither is really a crow: the first is a figment of his young son’s imagination and the second actually just a crow’s head lying on the grass, an object Johnson nearly kicks on his walk across campus. A bizarre, if not potentially gimmicky juxtaposition, but one that Johnson pulls off. Here is the moment where I am sold, where I fall on board with his thinking:
“The next morning the first crow is back at breakfast, up on the shelf. My wife’s back is to the shelf, so she doesn’t see it. My son has moved on, thinking of other things. But I can still see it there, hovering over us, waiting for what, thinking of what? Watching this place where we eat breakfast and foolishly plan our days before they fully begin, the place where we try to get new starts. The place where in the evenings we sit again, tired, weary from the day’s needs, disappointed in our failed attempts. The crow might sense something of this.”
Now it is Johnson and not his son who sees the imaginary crow. Yet this transfer goes unstated. Rather, Johnson allows it to merely exist, a bit foggy and puzzled but pointing towards a poignancy and an undercurrent of suffering. Yes, this essay could develop that unspoken melancholy and disappointment more, but I find Johnson’s caginess and his essaying around the deeper subject renders me more sympathetic. I applaud the vagueness and cheekiness of the last line: the crow senses something of this, but only because Johnson has invented him to do so.
The second essay is Jean Rukkila’s “Walking Through the Long Relationship”. This is an oldie (issue 12, 1987, the DFW years), but a goodie. The essay begins conventionally enough. A run through the woods leads to the essay’s premise: how a trail that moves unexpectedly can be like an essay, how getting lost along a trail or essay can actually cause us to learn more about ourselves. But then the essay diverges, not spatially as one would expect given the analogy to the trail, but temporally. Here is the opening sentence of Rukkila’s next section:
“I’m moving from living alone to living with someone again.”
Her wording is calm and measured and slightly impersonal, but the jump in time, the way she has changed the frame with which we view this essay, is dramatic. She is not so much creating a puzzle as acknowledging that one exists.
This penchant for quiet drama continues in her other section openings:
“It doesn’t look like I’ll marry. What a shame. I’d like to think I have a character for it.”
“Taking my life out of cardboard boxes again has me standing back, looking at all the wallet photographs that have ever been inside my head.”
“I was walking alone in the Lake District in England one winter.”
I like the small word choices Rukkila makes here that draw out the smallness of her solitude: “what a shame,” “a character for it”, “cardboard boxes again,” “walking alone…one winter”. The action is minimal, yet the writer’s resigned melancholy links each section much in the same way that Johnson links his two crows.
It is comforting to find these two essays in dialogue with each other, even though they are spaced a quarter of a century apart. It is comforting as well to know that name of a journal binds them together. To know that over time a journal does not necessarily need to measure itself through narrative arc, but that it can create a wider template or aggregate of information, a puzzlement perhaps, what Rukkila might call “a photograph about photography, a faded image of a collection of individual images.”
Thomas Mira y Lopez is a second-year MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Arizona. There, he is an editor at Sonora Review and Fairy Tale Review and teaches as well. Read his work online at Green Briar Review and [PANK].