Thursday, July 28, 2011
As a recent MFA graduate I brought a student’s perspective to the challenge of editing our collection. I wanted the essays selected to nurture my own writing by challenging my ideas about the form and encouraging experimentation. In short, I wanted teachers from whom I could learn. Think of the anthology as a kind of portable writing workshop on the craft of the contemporary essay.
We chose to use the word essays in our title instead of the term creative nonfiction because we felt the word essay, from the Old French essai, (meaning a trial or an attempt) best reflected the kind of adventurous spirit readers will find celebrated in the anthology. And it is that sense of possibility that most attracts me to the genre. The essay’s malleability allows a writer to shape the form as she wishes.
Ander suggested that Sheryl and I each comment on our favorite essays. What a great idea, and yet I find it difficult to do, because each essay in the collection moves me in some way. Nevertheless, I have chosen a few I wish to highlight: Joy Castro’s “Grip,” Linda Hogan’s “The Bats,” BK Loren’s “Trends of Nature,” Dinty W. Moore’s “Son of Mr. Green Jeans: An Essay on Fatherhood, Alphabetically Arranged,” and the three very brief essays we included from Lawrence Sutin’s A Postcard Memoir. I focus on these pieces, not necessarily because I love them best, but because in each I find something interesting to learn and qualities I wish to emulate in my own work.
In “Grip” Joy Castro opens her essay with a description of the torn “bullet-holed paper target” hanging over her son’s crib. The object is both tangible and symbolic and serves as the departure point for Castro’s exploration of the lengths to which a mother will go to protect her child. She organizes her essay into five discrete sections separated by white spaces. Her choice creates a kind of staccato rhythm for the piece, reminiscent of the sharp sound a gun makes. The essay’s power resides in its brevity and restraint, and the lyricism of her language.
Linda Hogan brings a poet’s sensibility and a naturalist’s appreciation to her beautiful essay, “The Bats.” Her title strikes one immediately because of her choice of article; “The” makes a difference. She conveys in her first words that her interest in these creatures that “live in double worlds of many kinds,” is specific and personal. Her essay moves between a narrative about two encounters with bats, one in a park in frigid Minneapolis and another in a cave in Germany, and the lyric. In the end, it is the beauty of her language I find so compelling. Imagine perceiving the world through sound, as bats do. Imagine a world where “Everything answers, the corner of a house, the shaking of leaves on a wind-blown tree, the solid voice of bricks.”
BK Loren’s poignant narrative “Trends of Nature” is published for the first time in our anthology. I find much to admire in this piece, but most of all, I appreciate what is true of the best personal essays: the writer’s honesty and the bravery such candor frequently requires. We trust Loren’s observations of coyotes, because she is willing to scrutinize her own behavior with the same degree of insight.
I keep returning to Dinty W. Moore’s “Son of Mr. Green Jeans: An Essay on Fatherhood, Alphabetically Arranged,” in part because I’m fascinated by the way his capacious mind works. Moore uses the alphabet as the organizing principle for his essay. His ingenious choice creates a framework in which he is free to consider a range of apparently unrelated subjects without losing sight of the essay’s central theme. His exploration of fatherhood is humorous, touching, and surprisingly informative.
From Lawrence Sutin’s A Postcard Memoir, we included three flash essays, each of which is paired with an image: “Pissed Off at Three Years and Four Months,” “Tower of Silence,” and “Young Man with Rifle, Black Dog and Dead Ducks.” Each essay is but a paragraph long, its shape on the page mirroring that of the related image. Sutin’s choice to use postcards as writing prompts creates a unifying structure for his memoir, while allowing each entry to stand alone. The pairing of photograph and prose serves to enhance our appreciation of each and provides Sutin with the necessary distance he needs to explore his complex past.
I believe our anthology tells a compelling story about the wealth of experimentation and multi-faceted character of the contemporary essay. I encourage you to read that story yourselves. I trust you will be challenged, inspired, and entertained.
Margaret L. Whitford
Monday, July 25, 2011
In the next few weeks in this space I've asked the editors of a couple new and forthcoming anthologies of essays to guest post about their favorite selections from the anthologies, what case their anthologies make about the state and range of the contemporary essay, and their motivations in assembling these anthologies. I've more or less been using one of five anthologies to teach my undergraduate courses over the last few years, and am happy to see some new and perhaps more interesting options come up. Of course I'm a fan of John's The Next American Essay and the case that it starts to make (especially in concert with the second collection, The Lost Origins of the Essay), but I get a bit bored with the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction, though it's got some excellent essays. And the Best American Essays series is usually an interesting choice, as are Lee Gutkind's The Best Creative Nonfiction 1, 2, and 3. The Best American Essays of the Century is excellent, but it feels dusty, and I feel dusty, and I just want to get clean after that. I eschew textbooks in general: I've never liked the paratexts surrounding the actual essays with the helpful writing tips and instructional whatnot, and prefer the essays themselves without all the crap. Really I might as well make a packet for myself and just use that, but then I feel like I'm limiting my inputs, not forcing myself to reckon with anything new, like living in a gated community, which you know is a model home for our future death.
Sheryl St. Germain and Margaret L. Whitford will be guest blogging about Between Song and Story: Essays for the Twenty-First Century (Autumn House Press, out now) an anthology that's clearly looking at the intersection between lyric and narrative. (Full disclosure: this and a few of these other anthologies include my work; it's a small world, the essay world.)
Then there's BJ Hollars' edited anthology, Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction, forthcoming in 2012 it looks like from University of Nebraska Press. I've asked him to contribute a note about this sometime in the future too. I don't know what all is in here, but it looks and sounds interesting. And Jill Talbot is editing an anthology of metanonfiction (and interviews with the nonfictioners included there) forthcoming in 2012 from University of Iowa Press. My sense is that these anthologies are among a set trying to offer a less traditional/more radical or adventurous vision of what the essay can be.
I'm sure there are others forthcoming--and I'd invite you to join us in our conversation here as it progresses.