Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Kirk Wisland on the Essayist's Conundrum: A 3-Sided Coin Flip...

Are we obligated to be good people? Is good writing tethered to good intention?

NO, I would have argued vehemently in the certainty of my youth, in my black-clad art-major days, splattered with plaster or acrylic, welding steel to steel. The beauty of the work, its power—these the only guiding factors. We’re artists, we’re writers. Was Bukowski a “good” person? Hemingway, that rampant slayer of lions? Does William S. Burroughs shooting his wife negate his brilliant work on the page? How about my first writer-idol, Hunter S. Thompson—an exemplar of how to be in the world?

Surely the artist is libertarian. Or libertine? Given liberties to live a little outside the lines in pursuit of the muse. The madness of genius, creative chaos, everybody knows that writers drink too much. Choose your catchphrase. The artist owes us nothing beyond devotion to the form, the writer unbound except by diligence to the word, the line, the paragraph. Art for art’s sake—the “purist” argument.
Write like everyone you know is dead! This blast of bravado was my perpetual refrain of advice discharged in the early stages of my life as aspiring writer. Lay it all out there, get it written RAW, worry about the rest later.

I cringe slightly thinking of that easy, unearned certainty of the up-and-coming striver. How easy to make such declarations from the safe anonymity of pre-publication. I cringe even more thinking about one of those pieces I wrote in the last fading ebb of that certainty, and the full-body nausea that swept over me when I realized my parents—who are very much alive, and who I very much did not tell about this particular publication—stumbled across it online. Damn you Google! (note to self—trademark that phrase).

In my initial forays into writing nonfiction I made the most obvious beginner’s error—I mistook exposure for bravery. In Rawness We Trust. I continue my cringe-fest thinking of those early slices of memoir—the passion on those pages! How I reveled in the tales of previous debaucheries—the sex, drugs and rock-n-roll of my early adulthood! And my certainty that I was just the Gonzo-stylist to bring these epic blasts to the page.
Except I wasn’t saying anything. I was just narrating, dictating my greatest hits collection. I bored into the past like a termite, getting the details just right. I polished sentences, flipped words, edited and re-edited and re-edited until each page was pristine perfection of prose—diamond-sharp, glossy, slick. But I wasn’t thinking about what it meant, the “it” of the essay. I was just telling a story, these little slices of memoir repackaged as showy big-budget productions starring flat, two-dimensional characters—and a star narrator incapable of introspection.
This lingered on even into my MFA, where I had for the most part (hopefully) stopped gratuitousness for its own sake. But still I was afraid of full immersion into the “it.” More often than not I was leaving these interior monologues off the page, the “meaning” hinted at in the blank spaces just past the punctuation.

It was easy to get a laugh, or a wince, at my own expense—the Word-formatted humiliations on the page not that different from my oratory performance of these tales at parties and late-night campfires. But it isn’t enough—no matter how well-constructed the prose—to just regurgitate events. Capturing the weird moments for a child growing up with a gay father in the 1980s isn’t worthy of space on the page until I force myself to answer the question of what that meant, how it changed me, how those moments relate to a bigger historical narrative, something beyond the particulars of detailed scene. Writing about my early-adulthood penchant for infidelity isn’t interesting without self-dissection, without a willingness to confront my lifelong fear of rejection and consider how the anti-monogamy of my twenties was really just a preemptive defense. No, I bomb YOU first…

Wait—do I have to answer the question? Okay…

YES. Let’s say yes we, as essayists, are obligated to be good people. If the essay is the writer’s mind on the page, then it would follow that the lives we lead are the basis of those mental gymnastics. As writers, as people who have a penchant for the word, aren’t we obligated to use that talent to some higher calling? The journalist, the documentarian, the Bono—aren’t we all, particularly we noble Nonfictioneers (essayists, memoirists, et al)—obligated to apply our art to something more than entertainment?

Ah, but here my fears, my superstitions, gets the best of me. I worry about being pedantic or preachy, that my essay will inevitably morph into didactic Internet screed, just another weary word-warrior in the virtual army—read this and click the link to tell your senator to stop being a douche-bag! I worry that a need to write “to the point,” to focus my literary goal—much like the dreaded “argumentative essay” of our freshman composition drudgery—will kill my art. Because I still harbor a silly superstition that the words coming from this pen at this very moment are somehow magical, that I am merely channeling some ethereal energy, riding a wave that is not mine to control. This of course might be the true problem—maybe I’m letting myself off the hook, avoiding the hard work by imagining my pen as planchette on the Ouija board.
Part of this reticence is standard intellectual insecurity—a fear of stepping into a ring I’m not yet ready for, of getting caught trying to punch above my weight. When reading some fantastic essay by a current or past master of the genre, I can’t stop myself from raising my gloves and assuming a defensive crouch: not only can you not touch that—but don’t embarrass yourself trying.

I also worry that my desire to write “bigger” can lead to a kind of trauma wish-fulfillment—the subconscious desire to have some meaty topic to stew on. The war correspondent’s disdain for peace. When a close friend of mine drank himself to death a couple years back, I found myself composing that story almost immediately. Even in the midst of near-debilitating grief, the writer in me was paying attention, taking notes. Talking to the paramedics, the landlady, calling the dead man’s parents across two time zones, packing my things, driving from California to Texas, visiting friends in my old desert MFA town—at nearly every moment of those first few days, a small portion of my mental capacity was held in reserve, silently ruminating. Even while chatting amiably poolside, that part of me was composing my private monsoon on the horizon, a far-off rumble of dark clouds and encroaching lightning, anticipating being lashed by that storm.

Because a part of me was relieved. That part of me that had been struggling for meaning in my writing, that was struggling to pick up the pen, questioning whether I wanted to keep putting myself forward for further literary and academic rejections—that part of me was silently thankful for the inspiration. For feeling like I had a reason to write again—a story worth telling.

When I first heard that the recent shooting in California had been perpetrated by a former student of Santa Barbara City College—where I myself toiled two years back—I had a perverse desire to have a connection to the gunman, to recognize his face, to be able to say that I sat next to him or maybe even tutored him, that I was lucky, as a writer, to have been in touch with evil. Just another war correspondent looking for a story.

Flip again.

Maybe. Maybe part of it is that I don’t have children—something I’ve thought about a lot more in the last couple years observing the baby-boom among my friends and colleagues. Sans children, it is easy to feel un-tethered from the future. What would I write if I thought my children might read it in fifty years? What would I write about, if I thought I might have descendants living is this world I’m going to leave them?

Or to turn again to the other end of the life spectrum, maybe I’m stuck on this question because I’ve been writing so much about death. Other people’s deaths—the friend, and then in 2013 a young man to whom I’d been a temporary step-dad some fifteen years back. (And now, weirdly enough, I have just this month moved into the immediate wake of another young man’s suicide—the balcony of my carriage house apartment the theater-box from which I watch the subtle fluctuations of family grief play out in the carport below, all the while feeling guilty for being unable to turn off my instinctual observation).

How do we write the dead? Maybe that is the true crux of where I’m at, the reason that my interrogators of goodness and intent have been banging around like inner-cranial woodpeckers. Write like everyone you know the one you are writing about is dead. I used to worry about writing the living—how would the costars of this theater react to my interpretation of them? At least the living have the opportunity for interaction—commentary, collaboration, correction. The dead—barring their reemergence as chain-laden Jacob Marleys to confront us—have no say, their existence at the mercy of the writer’s discretion. Maybe even as I type this up I am subconsciously hoping for backlash, to be admonished, to be told that yes, in writing about these dead men I’ve known, I am committing an act of betrayal, hovering like opportunistic voyeur-vulture. Maybe I’m just looking for an excuse to not push through to the difficult finish line of these literary slogs. A pass to go back to writing about junior high traumas. Did I tell you the one about my alcoholic band teacher? How about the martial fury of the choir director? The Break Dancers vs. Punks lunchroom brawl of 1986..?
Maybe it’s the maybe. The questioning. Maybe by constantly interrogating our motives, engaging in self-dissection, keeping the rock-tumbler in perpetual motion, we polish some integral component. Maybe in the act of living as a writer, of being an essayist, we reorient and redefine ourselves.
And maybe, in one final slap to the face of all my previous certainties, I will break my longstanding ban on epigraphs and end-quotes to finish here with the words of Montaigne, who first elucidated the idea—and far better than I might—of how we craft ourselves in our essais: “I have had to fashion and compose myself so often to bring myself out, that the model itself has to some extent grown firm and taken shape…I have no more made my book than my book has made me.”

Kirk Wisland's wordsmith-ery can be found in other places, helpfully compiled here. He currently writes and teaches in the Creative Writing PhD program at Ohio University, in lovely (at least this time of year) Athens, Ohio.


  1. Really wonderful. Thank you for writing about this. It is difficult to find someone who is willing to acknowledge the ethical implications of making the work public. I also appreciate the exploration of meaning in the work. It has to be more than technically great. It does have to be about something that offers some revelation of your truth.

    This writing thing . . . can be difficult.

  2. Yes (No!)...and Yes (Yes!)...and Yes (Maybe!) - thank you for spelling it out so eloquently.