Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Aaron Alford: Fussing Over Style

Don’t go looking for wisdom here—especially not wisdom that is not earned. At Arcadia Magazine, we’re not seeking essays that deliver epiphanies, advice, or words to live by. No brilliant thoughts on everyday household objects or clever insights into the quotidian. Do not try to reveal watertight truths for the betterment of all Humanity. (Note: We probably won’t be interested in your essay if you capitalize words like Humanity.) We receive a lot of these types of essays, ones whose titles usually begin with the dreadful “On…”

“On Friendship.”

“On the Paper Cut I Got Yesterday.”

“On Toilet Paper.”

On the head of my firstborn, I swear to eat a bag of nails if we ever publish one of those essays.

We are not too terribly interested in writers working within the Montaigne vein (or vain, if you will), mostly because so few writers do it well. We respect tradition, and we recognize Montaigne as the great-grandpappy of everything we do, yes, okay, we get it—but these days, there is too much piddly writing committed in that man's name. Incoherent ramblings. Unjustified meandering. Too many writers use the "Essay As Representation Of The Mind At Work" thing as an excuse to string together as many loose associations and insights as it takes to convince themselves (but rarely their readers) that they are wonderful writers.

Several years ago, my graduate program was lucky enough to be visited by a big-time essayist, a major name in our genre. He was a wonderful man, just as everyone said he would be. He graciously stood before an auditorium packed with sleepy undergraduates and read a couple of essays. As the reading went on, the undergrads grew sleepier. I also wasn’t turned on by what I heard that night, but this guy was a big-name writer, an important figure, someone I felt pressured to admire. So when he finished reading, I headed for the back of the auditorium, elbowed my way through the crowd of students stuffing their pockets with free cookies, and bought his book of selected essays. He signed it for me, and I carried it home with plans to read it and thereby be woken up to all that is wonderful and good about personal essays—a second chance to get whatever it was I missed during his reading.

I read the introduction, just four pages, and then I read those four pages again. And that was enough for me. I was done. Five years have passed since that night, and I still can't find it in myself to read another word of that writer’s large, influential body of work. I’m still angry at one particular paragraph from his introduction, the one where he comments on his prose style. It helped me realize why a lot of very traditional personal essayists working these days (a lot of whom seem to be influenced by this writer) put me to sleep. The writer confesses that style just ain’t important to him, and as far as I can tell, he suggests that style shouldn’t be very important to any writer—it's just not something we should fuss with. He laughs at Flaubert’s notion of le mot juste. Unlike Babel, he never tries to unleash a period with the force of a bullet. We should simply end one sentence and start the next one immediately, right now, go, go. That's what works for him. He says that taking himself or the art of prose too seriously goes against the grain of his being.

Listen. Arcadia only wants to publish essays from writers who take the art of prose seriously. We do not have to take ourselves too seriously in this life—we sure as hell don’t—but we should all be serious about our sentences. We're interested in essays whose success depends on precise language, essays that feel deliberate and chock-full of purpose. Clear eyes, full hearts . . . all of that. We want essays that grip us and refuse to let go. Everything should be tight, hardly any slack (which is kind of the definition of grip, right?).

None of us nails le mot juste all the livelong day. Not all of our periods land with .45-caliber force. We break ourselves over the wheel of the sentence, and we fail all the time, all of us. But we should still try. Style is something to fuss with. Try to make your punctuation draw blood, or else why are you even doing this?

Send us something that you just had to write, something from inside your bones. No intellectual exercises and no armchair philosophizing. Don’t go looking for wisdom—just go looking. And please, do it with style.

Aaron Alford is the nonfiction editor of Arcadia Magazine. His essays have appeared in or are forthcoming from Bellingham Review, Memoir, River Teeth, Hobart, The Los Angeles Review, Sonora Review, and elsewhere. He is a doctoral candidate in the creative writing program at Texas Tech University, where he teaches literature and creative writing.

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