Monday, October 6, 2014

It's a Wonder: Jacqueline Doyle on Sara Levine & the Touchstone Anthology

It's a Wonder

Jacqueline Doyle

The essay is like a coat of fur, or Proteus in chains, or a syllable-filled spirit, and has more in common with the German cockroach than the Tennessee snail darter. The essay is like a journey they say, or a walkabout, or a loose sally of the mind. Because my grandmother wears her blouses unbuttoned, and her name is Sally, this last has always been my favorite definition. 
—Sara Levine, "The Essayist is Sorry for Your Loss"
My husband gave a keynote address at a writing conference last weekend, and I went along with him, a two and a half hour drive. It was a warm day in Sacramento. The community college campus where the conference took place was leafy and green. The sun shone. A breeze rustled through the trees.

The large cafeteria inside was a sea of animated, gray-haired writers and aspiring writers. It was billed as a "cross-generational conference," and there were some college students there, but mostly recent retirees. Not so very old. Young 60-somethings is how you might describe them. Or how I might describe them, a young 60-something myself, still working, not gray, feeling a bit younger than them. Or so I'd like to think. After my husband's opening address, there was time before lunch, so I sat in on a workshop and the workshop leader told us that the first person essay centers on an experience about which we have a different understanding than we had when we had the experience. She worded it better than I have. I thought it was a good definition, but here I am writing yet another personal essay about an experience that I don't understand at all. Which means that I can't really have a different understanding of it than I did when I had the experience, since I didn't exactly understand it then and don't exactly understand it now. Maybe I should just stop here. But the essayist in me feels compelled to continue.

My husband and I enjoyed the lunch buffet in the cafeteria after the morning workshops, especially the cheesecake at the end, and made our goodbyes before the afternoon workshops started, lingering at the door. Several women clustered around Steve. "Are you waiting to talk to him?" a gray-haired woman asked me. "No, I'm going home with him," I answered. And since that made me sound like a groupie, I added, "I'm his wife." I didn't feel comfortable with that definition of myself, and I was going to say, "I'm a writer," or "I'm a writer too," but that seemed silly, and also irrelevant, so I didn't. I smiled politely. She said, "I have something I want to give to him." And when it was her turn to talk to him, she pressed an index card into his hand and said, "I just wanted to give this to you," and was gone.

She had short gray hair, as many women at the conference did. Didn't seem especially old. Didn't seem young either. Over sixty, which to the college students would seem very old, so it's all relative, I guess. Not fat, not skinny. I can't remember what she was wearing. Maybe denim pants with an elastic waist and a flowered blouse? I looked at her, even talked to her briefly, but I couldn't pick her out in a lineup. Not that I'll need to. I'm just saying.

Anyway this is what she had written on the card. Centered at the top: "It's a wonder we can read your words as your sense of humor is so dry." Then "or" centered in the middle, and just below that: "It's a wonder your pen makes marks on paper as your sense of humor is so dry." And on the next line: "Thanks for coming."

That struck me as a very peculiar message. I couldn't decide whether it was simply eccentric, or deranged, even stalkerish. At least she didn't leave a name or telephone number or email address, though of course she might still contact him. He's easy enough to find. His keynote address was funny at times, but I'm not sure I would call his humor dry. I've realized I'm not sure what dry humor is, exactly, but I would have thought it was subtle, even almost undetectable in some way. Maybe a bit tongue-in-cheek (which has me thinking about groupies again). Not arid (which would be extra dry— a strange slogan for a deodorant, the arid part, like an underarm desert). Right about now I should be coming to a point, or at least an understanding quite different from what I understood as my husband handed me the card and we climbed into his Ford Focus in the parking lot and buckled our seatbelts. I'm prepared to have some understanding descend on me, like the Holy Ghost on the disciples. At least to experience an unexpected discovery, if not some larger insight. But really, I have no idea what she was talking about.

It's strange how things come together, or seem like they might. At lunch we'd sat with a charming woman from Ireland whose name was Dynphna. Dynphna, she explained, is the patron saint of women with mental disorders, so maybe there's some larger pattern emerging. St. Dynphna wasn't mad herself, however. Her father, who had incestuous designs on her, and followed her from Ireland to Belgium, where he beheaded her, was the crazy one. The gray-haired woman with the card looked sane enough. No unusual affect. So this is probably another false lead, a wild goose chase for meaning. Maybe I'm the one who's lost her marbles. Who's running around like a chicken with its head cut off, seeking focus. Or, since the chicken is already dead at that point, beating a dead horse instead of resurrecting it and allowing it to gallop on the page.

I enjoy the satisfying click at the end of an essay when suddenly all the pieces lock together like a jigsaw puzzle. Complete. Sometimes forming a picture you didn't even expect. There are other essays that aren't like that, and I enjoy them too. Often they digress. They conclude in uncertainty. Perhaps a profusion of similes, like a bag of marbles emptied in a loud clatter onto the floor. All different colors and sizes, the marbles bounce and roll and sparkle in the sun. And you think and even say aloud: "the world is overflowing with inexplicable wonders today."

It's an insight I hope students take away from my creative nonfiction class after reading essays in the Touchstone Anthology. The students hand in reading journals each week and I can never predict how they will react. That is, there are more varied individual reactions than I might guess after a class discussion, where perhaps twelve of the thirty students chime in. I'm touched by the sons and daughters of immigrants (we have many) who find validation for their mothers' voices and their own writing in Amy Tan's "Mother Tongue," about the influence of her mother's "broken English" on her literary style. Astonished when the son of a gangbanger from Compton identifies so closely with Ted Kooser's "Small Rooms in Time," an essay about houses and Kooser's unease at learning that someone was murdered in an apartment he once lived in. Startled when a student who wrote about a marijuana buy gone scarily bad writes of Lauren Slater's "Black Swans," an account of her obsessive compulsive disorder and experiences with Prozac: "Well fuck. These essays keep getting better and better." I enjoy their confusion when we read Janet Burroway's "Embalming Mom" with its scrambled chronology and Lia Purpura's lyric "Autopsy Report" on her visit to the morgue and what she took away from it. Their excitement when we read Dinty Moore's "Son of Mr. Green Jeans," an alphabetically arranged meditation on fatherhood and fathers and sons in the entertainment and animal worlds. "Wow!" a student writes. "Are we allowed to do that?"

I save some essays about the essay for the end of the quarter, when we've seen a large sampling of what's possible. In "Return to Sender," Mark Doty articulates so beautifully what the point of this writing is: "I wanted to tell the story of my life in order, once again, to take control of it, to shape some comprehensible element of cause and effect, because the instability and complexity of experience mean that this sense of pattern is always slipping away from us." And then there's Sara Levine's "The Essayist is Sorry for Your Loss," a personal favorite of mine that leaves almost all of the students saying "Wuh?"

Sara Levine's essay defies definition, as do so many essays that I like. The essay really is "like a coat of fur, or Proteus in chains, or a syllable-filled spirit, and has more in common with the German cockroach than the Tennessee snail darter." Why not? It wanders, it grazes, it leaps, it hides. It's a "walkabout, or a loose sally of the mind" that speeds up and slows down according to the whims of the essayist.

Levine starts by questioning where she's arrived ("The essay and me?") and how she's arrived there. And then skateboards through college and grad school, especially the embarrassing bits, leaps the obstacle of the questionable relevance of these anecdotes to her subject at hand to land on the nature of the essay again, its tendency to dramatize process rather than announce conclusions, its contrary "refusal to decide the things it feels it cannot decide," trades her skateboard for a natty sports car (at least that's how it feels to me) and speeds along the freeway, observing the scenery that flies by, confiding her distrust of essays with "easy resolutions" and pat conclusions. The essayist delights in style and "sees all knowledge as provisional," while the academic embraces conformity and self-effacement. Which makes for a good note of condolence—straightforward, conventional. No literary "style-as-deviance" here.

"When you write a sympathy note you've got to deliver the sympathy in a solid way, without ambivalence, whole hog, or you're a jerk who shouldn't have written a note at all. O.K. Well, the essayist is a jerk. The essayist is tactless." She's made a quick lane change without using her blinker. A truck honks. The essayist is more likely to write something wacky and wildly inappropriate to the bereaved (something, in fact, like the conference-goer's thank-you card), and just when you think Levine's essay will wind up with a clear explanation of its title, she pulls into a parking lot with a screech and you're at the beach with her grandmother Sally and you remember what Levine said much earlier about endings. "Often an essay doesn't even push towards resolution. It thinks it is interesting without a big bang." The ocean sparkles, the gulls circle overhead, Sally strokes her shoulders and tells her she's lovely. "To a kid who wasn't used to being touched, her touch felt strange. 'Do I bristle? Do I purr?'" Levine writes, and concludes her essay, "I think, because I was young and dull, I acted casual."

"I turned the page to see what came next," said a student. "What kind of end is that?" another student asked. "Didn't it make you laugh?" I said. They looked at each other. Not really, they shrugged. Maybe someone in the back nodded. A future essayist.

I probably like Levine's essay because as a scholar-become-essayist I've also encountered the blank looks from fellow faculty in the English department that she describes. We'll be standing in the faculty mailroom, next to rows of identical mail slots, and someone will clear their throat. "You're writing essays?" A rhetorical question, voiced in a tone of disbelief, and not meant to be answered. Colleagues in my department are often annoyed by creative writers (though everyone they teach was a creative writer, of course), and openly sneer at the substandard scholarly skills of some of our creative writing students. So I've crossed over to the dark side. I'm amazed that it's taken me so many years to get here. I want to start each essay the way the gray-haired woman at the conference started her postcard: "It's a wonder that . . ." There are so many directions an essay can go, so many forms it can take. But I suppose however you look at it, the essayist starts in one place and ends up somewhere else, so the workshop leader was right.

I figured I'd ask Steve what he thought as we drove home. He's written some wacked-out wandering essays and would have some opinions. "Just catch the glory of life," he said to me once. "That's plenty."

The car was hot and we opened all of the windows. I unbuckled my seat belt, unbuttoned my linen jacket, and threw it into the back seat. We decided to take a different route back to the Bay Area, so I threw the Mapquest directions back there too. We get lost all the time, and we didn't have a map with us, but I figured it was a nice afternoon for some back roads and an unplanned detour or two.

Steve turned the key in the ignition. "Weird, isn't it," he said about the card. I propped it up on the dashboard to contemplate it.

There was a big multi-colored splat of bird shit like a showy Jackson Pollock on the driver's side of the windshield.

"Will you look at that bird shit!" he said. We both started laughing.

"I wonder what kind of bird that was."


Jacqueline Doyle was recently nominated for a Pushcart by South Loop Review, and has a "Notable Essay" listed in Best American Essays 2013. Her essays have appeared, or will appear, in South Dakota Review, Tusculum Review, Southern Indiana Review, Ninth Letter online, and Southern Humanities Review. She teaches at California State University, East Bay. Find her online at


  1. Yes! I am a long time champion of Levine's "The Essay is Sorry for Your Loss," and know the "Wuh?" of which Doyle speaks. In teaching the piece, and sharing it with peers, I've found that there's something about it, some ineffable quality that speaks to essayists in particular—a finding which Doyle here reassures.

    The personal essay is so unique and varied, ranging from near strict memoir to almost absolute literary journalism, that I take great comfort in Levine's grasping reach for meaning. "The Essayist is Sorry..." evokes just how I feel when chasing varied threads of thought, and that makes me less alone. What more could you ask of the personal essay?

    1. So pleased to hear from a fellow fan of Levine's essay! Thanks for taking the time to respond.

  2. I couldn't love this any more. Thank you, Jaqueline Doyle. Thank you, Essay Daily.

  3. I loved this piece and will look for more Jacqueline Doyle as well as Sara Levine.