Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Katherine Dykstra: An Essay Like Mousetrap

The Editor-in-Chief of Guernica likes to say that there are “Katie” pieces and “Jina” pieces. Jina [Moore], Guernica’s other senior nonfiction editor, leans toward pieces that are heavily reported, that take place in far-flung locales, that expose current injustice. I gravitate toward pieces that are experiential, interior, timeless as opposed to timely.

The Grease Devil Is Not Real," about a Sri Lankan urban legend and its relationship to that country’s civil war, is a Jina piece. “It Doesn’t Mean We’re Wasting Our Time,” on David Foster Wallace and the futility of writing, is one of mine. As is “Un-bearing,” about the decision to end a pregnancy after discovering a severe fetal anomaly. But so is an essay about the trial of Liberia’s president for war crimes, and one about the Turkish government’s actions in the wake of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict. Just as an essay on the meaning of a writer’s own name is one of Jina’s. I like to think that, despite our overt tastes, the pieces each of us chooses to publish come as surprises, sometimes even to ourselves.

This variability I believe has less to do with what we’re reading than when. Occasionally when rereading a book, I’ll find a passage underlined and highlighted, exclamation points in the margins. The handwriting is mine, but try as I might, I won’t be able to figure out what so moved me. The moment of clarity lost. Which is only to point out how subjective the whole process is. A sort of alchemy between what is happening at that precise moment in my own life and a piece of writing. A matter of timing, like so much else.

I’m of the Vivian Gornick school of essay, in that I believe a successful essay doesn’t just convey experience — be it day-to-day, reported or of the mind — but works to make sense of that experience. This sense is in no way absolute. In life there are no answers, only suppositions, guesses and stabs. But it’s this attempt that makes the essay worth reading in the first place, there being a possibility that the reader will discover new light under which to look at some experience of his own.

At its best this meaning-making puts into perspective the enormity of existence. That’s not to say the events need be enormous. Perspective can come just as easily in the form of a postcard from a dead icon, from the aging of one’s parents, from watching one’s child navigate the world, and has (see below).

Generally I tend toward pieces that act as conversation starters, that give voice to undercurrents, that grapple with tough, often awkward, questions. Such as Debra Monroe’s essay about what she, a white woman, learned about race in America after adopting a black baby.

The most difficult moments occur when I wonder but don’t know for sure if race is the reason a situation plays out poorly. If I think [my daughter] didn’t get to go to a party because the parents are uneasy with interracial friendships, am I suspicious, obsessed? But if I don’t consider this and monitor her friendship with that child, am I one of those people who sees the glass forever half-full as a way of avoiding unpleasant realities? There’s no easy answer, no readymade politesse, no etiquette for talking about race or—given the fact that perceptions about how American institutions serve us are so segregated—talking across race.

I like essays that use action laced with deft exposition in order to convey emotion. Like in this scene from John Fischer’s “The Last Place You Ever Live,” an essay about his shopping for retirement homes with his aging parents:

We struggle with the stirrups. I’ve never helped my father—or anyone else—into a wheelchair. The series of hinges proves more complicated than it looks. Finally the sales associate intervenes, lifting his bad foot onto the platform with startling efficiency.
“Let’s please not get used to this,” I say.
My father smiles a half-smile I’ve never seen before. Maybe it’s one of sadness or sympathy. I can’t tell. With his velcro New Balance shoes and an oversized Baltimore Inner Harbor cap to keep the sun off his head, his smile has become that of an old man, grateful for the kindness of others. At which point I realize the stupid, obvious thing I should’ve seen the moment our trip started: The purpose of these places with their beautiful vistas and their endless amenities is not to make my parents young again. It’s to make them comfortable being old.
My mother agrees to start the tour with a visit to the woodshop. I ask the sales associate for directions. Then I instruct my father to keep his hands inside the ride and begin running.
I push the black rubber handles as hard as I possibly can, committing the full force of my legs to forward motion. Past a certain speed the wheelchair takes on a violent shimmy. When we round a turn, I make cartoon race car noises. Collington’s perplexed residents stare as we rush by in a blur of father and man-child.

I like essays whose inner workings are on full display, essays that don’t skip steps or make assumptions, essays that are logical, which is different from predictable. I am all for ideas that tangent and spiral but I want to be walked through these wrong turns, realizations and back steps.

The piece has to be like a game of Mousetrap, or like a Rube Goldberg machine. One sentence leading inevitably into the next. Each sentence completely dependent on the one before it. Every word clear, precise, considered.

In Frank Cassese’s piece about writing and David Foster Wallace, he goes from disappointment and disillusionment at a correspondence he received from the great writer, to a slow parsing and heartened understanding of DFW’s message. Near the end of the piece, having backtracked completely, he finds himself here:

The world has never been the best judge. It has never equitably distributed recognition to all those deserving. It sometimes gets it right, as I think it did with Wallace, but more often than not it fails us. So what he was telling me was not that publishing is not a good thing, but that it isn’t everything. It does not bestow value or worth on one’s work or on one’s self. It does not make a published book better or worse than an unpublished one. And while the failure to achieve it may be no cause for despair, its attainment is certainly no cure. He was telling me what I already knew but had forgotten during my struggle for acceptance and societal validation, that creation is its own reward, that the project of writing is its own gift, provides its own consolation. Half a century before in The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus claimed that despite the absurdly futile and hopeless task with which the condemned king was punished by the gods, “the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

As an essayist myself, I am aware how difficult this all is, how thrilling when it works. Which is one reason I’m willing to go far for some pieces. All of the nonfiction published in Guernica, which comes out biweekly, goes through an edit process. But occasionally when I find an essay that’s broken yet beautiful, that has something that glitters, an idea, a style, I will, if the writer is up for it, work with him or her on an extensive edit to get the essay to a publishable place. These are the pieces I enjoy working on the most.


Katherine Dykstra is a senior editor at Guernica. Her essays have appeared in Gulf Coast, Poets and Writers and the anthology 20-Something Essays by 20-Something Writers. She won first place in the 2012 Waterman Fund Essay Contest and third place in the 2013 Real Simple Essay Contest. A section from her memoir-in-progress is forthcoming from Crab Orchard Review where it was one of three finalists for this year’s John Guyon Literary Nonfiction Prize. She teaches narrative nonfiction at NYU/SCPS and lives in Brooklyn with her husband and son.

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