Saturday, December 21, 2013

ADVENT 12/21: Marya Hornbacher on What an Essay is Not

Misc. Things an Essay is Not


Marya Hornbacher



I get concerned with things like whether writing exists, seriously. I do. I worry that if the time/space continuum is a necessary illusion, then everything that happens here in this fold of apparent time (3:53) and in this cube of supposed space (dining room table, dying poinsettia, behemoth black cat) is an illusion as well. I will check this with my friend the mathematician. She sent me a poem about existence the other day. She will know.

So the question of whether this essay exists, since it only exists in the form of pixels of light, is really up in the air; which I mean to tell you is not reassuring at all.

Consciousness is a whole nother concern, and I cannot be bothered to parse that one today.


I used to write poems.

Once—I can’t remember the circumstances exactly—an old friend of mine happened to be in the city in which I happened to be, and so he dropped by for a drink. We discussed poems for what seemed a very long time, until long past the time when I wished for him to leave, and it became apparent he was not planning to leave at all, so I crawled into bed and left him sitting on the floor, reading my poems and talking to himself.

When I woke up, the room was a sea of strewn pages. I stood blinking, ankle deep in poems and notes. Every page was bilingual, multivalent, polyphonic, two-headed, forked of hoof and tongue: there was the neat typeface of the poem, the orderly progression of stanzas and lines; and laid over the poem was his childlike scrawl. He’d written something—a letter, it looked like, or a manifesto, a screed, a tirade, a memo, a joke, or for all I know it too was a poem, and the failure of imagination was mine.

Whatever it was, it was now written, had gotten itself said, and he was asleep. I found him curled like a homunculus in a wash of paper, his lips and fingers blue with ink. He must have been gnawing a pen.


Poetry was a violent first love.

It consumed me as first loves will do. I wrote nothing but poems, I itched for them. I twitched and ached. I begged off everything else I might have been doing (laundry, lovers, sleep) to go be with the poem again, the poem I was writing, which was of neither substance nor import. It was about I can’t remember what. It was about anything that went through my head. Minutiae, marginalia, whatnots and infinitesimal changes, small shadings and nuances and variant degrees of light. Very little escaped the poem; it had the pull of a centrifuge, and sucked in everything that flew past in the sphere of my tiny cosmos, swallowing me, the desk, the ashtray, the yellow notepads, the pens.


What makes an essay an essay and not something else?

For example: not a poem? Is an essay determined by the true or false? Is it determined by the use of language, the lyric or the un-? Is it determined by whether the author is given license to meander around plotlessly in her own mind? In whatsoever language she might please? Is it determined by structure; is it as simple as the broken line?

What, for example, is this? Is this an attempt at an essay? Does that make an essay in itself, because it tries to become what it is or means to be? Or is this a stripping of an essay down to its constituent parts and trying to build something new? Like the collapsing mustard yellow 1970s Volvo that sits in every northern California driveway, where someone is always intending to strip it for parts and rebuild it and drive it again, but they never do.

(My plan for now: to take this essay and strip the relevant sections from it and make a new essay that is the thing itself. But perhaps this is actually the essay I mean.)

And then there is the question of what an essay can be. Can an essay be a list? Ask Sontag. Can an essay be in verse? This one I dispute: I think a poem is a poem and prosody is prose: but that might just be me being pigheaded and rigid about what constitutes a line. In my head, lines should wrap around and not be broken. If one breaks them, it looks like a poem, and so it is, or it is so to me.

What then of “poetic” prose, or “prosaic” poetry? Narrative poetry, lyric assays? What of poetics? (What is poetics, anyway?  Or, what are they, I guess.)


Once a friend told me in passing to read a book called The Poetics of Space, and I went and got a copy, curled and soft, at the used bookstore, and I have never read it, but the title gives me enormous pleasure (the perfect rhythm, the concept itself: a poetry of space, a language for the articulation and mapping out of space) and so it has been on my shelf for twenty years, and I know one day I will read it and I don’t know which day: it may be like the day I woke up at one a.m., my clock reversed, and I began to map the shape and nature of night. As if a map of this was a necessary thing, work that held meaning, the work almost of a life. I couldn’t have foreseen the day, and I cannot know when I will read the book, the future not being under my purview.


Suppose an essay inheres in the line, the length of it. The lack of stanza or break. Then the process of making an essay from an old poem is simply a matter of piecing together of lines at the break, until they are unbroken & run on endlessly, never even pausing except for breath, caesuras of breath no longer than a beat.

Here is a line from an old poem. It has been repurposed: I pieced together the lines with tape. Now it is a line from an essay. Next: I will put it in a novel, and call it a lie, even though it is true.

The chattering spit and hiss of the old metal heater, like the yowl and chatter of a cat in heat.


Or, suppose the substance of essay, as opposed to poem, is story, even if the story is the story of the lifespan of a thought.

Here is a story about a line:

The only worthwhile line I wrote that year—not even one whole poem, just a fragment, a shard of a pot or a jar—was this: “the window open in winter”—

I wrote that the year I lived up in the hills of Santa Rosa in the house with no kitchen floor, when I was staying up late reading Marina Tsetalyeva. I read poems all night and learned something about them, though I still don’t know what. 


And here is an extremely small essay on a story about a line:

In truth, it’s not a particularly striking line, but it was read and repeated as if it mattered by someone many years later, and for all I know that is the only reason I remember the line: because it is not a line anymore, it’s a story. It is connected umbilically to the belly of the character that person has become. For that matter, it’s not even my line anymore. It’s his. He will, for my purposes, trail it wherever he goes.


Suppose the difference between poetry and nonfiction prose lies in language, particularly in the language of the specific, the material, the tactile or imagistic real:

Is there any kind of categorical difference between a poem or an essay that takes place in midair, as opposed to one that editors will say is “grounded in story?” Which I think as much means is grounded in narrative, or on the actual ground: the human experience of having one’s feet attached to a spinning rock in space such that one does not fly off.


I put together a book in this fashion: I make and unmake piles of paper, stacks of chapters, scenes, and miscellaneous passages, and arrange and rearrange them on the long table in my office, which is under the painting of the gas station at night—>

Why tell you that? About the painting? I don’t know. Why not? But what’s the purpose of it? Twofold, I think:
1) it is an image on which I want you to be able to hang your hat, one I use to give you a sense of where you are and what that place looks like, because essays often lack a sense of place; they seem to me often to be taking place in midair, in the voice of someone I can’t see; and
2) because I myself think in images, and since the essay is allowed to be in some measure a tracing of the author’s thought—their departure from a point, their traversing of some thought space, and their arrival at a destination of some kind—I think I am allowed to show you the way that space looks, and what objects are in it, so you too can see what I am seeing; which are images lodged in space.


Where does an essay come from, as opposed to a poem, or fiction, or theology, or limericks, or tirades for or against?

What it feels like here in this particular body: the easiest poems come crashing out the front of my head, always present, incessant, asserting themselves and spilling all over the page. The hard poems come from deeper, somewhere central to the core brain, and the best come from digging in the brainstem at the base of my skull.

Prose, I tell you, I must hop in a skiff and go sailing down into the belly of the beast, myself, the whale.

Anyway, not all that one finds in the guts is “personal.” It’s often just what we know deeper down, by the instinct we have for stories and words. And, lacking any real language for how the body works and why the mind knows, I have resorted to “guts,” “brain,” and “skiff.”


Is the process of poeming different than the process of assaying? What kind of thought process differentiates the making of the two? What kind of contents, what structuring of the whole?

A story—and an essay, is what I’m saying—can be found from stories that exist. In the personal essay, one takes the license of using stories one knows, that are in some way their stories—not stories about them, necessarily; but stories close to them, contained in the dusty suitcase of stories we all drag around with us wherever we go, whether we ever take them out and tell them or not.

Then essaying in that instance might be the gathering of parts & trying to find an order, according to one or another organizing principle: whether a principle one thinks may inhere in the pieces, a mathematics one cannot see but senses might be there; or a principle one decides upon and imposes whether it’s the right one or not.


Usually my essays begin as one thing and then divide into two, like a cell, and then sometimes divide into four: the process is that of pulling them apart, undoing their helix, or really more like pulling apart the striations of a rock. Green rock with green, orange-red rock in the heap of things that are orange-red.

It begs the question of why one must go around pulling interconnected things apart: extricating things that feel inextricable, that originate as single things (a wash of thoughts and words), but for the purposes of the essay must be reorganized into categorically differentiated things.

Suppose that is what an essay is: that’s what differentiates it from simply a wash of words and thoughts, or prevents it from being one giant essay, the work of a life.

Because one does pull the essay, no matter how many later essays it becomes, from the larger morass of thought: all the crap that runs through your brain while you write and think about the essay, you’ve got a river flowing past & you are carefully pulling out the trash that goes by, making a pile of it, and calling it a discrete thing. Which it is; it is a discrete thing, a thing that resembles other like things, like a Platonic form. It is the Platonic form Essay.

Or it is the Platonic form Trash, or the form Flotsam or Jetsam, or both.

Because think of all the things this essay is not about! You can’t imagine how much I had to shove out of the way to get at the bits of essay this essay became.

For example, an old tidbit of the opening of a book went sailing past a moment ago: “Here is Roger. Roger is a sociopath.” Which is about a man who really was one. That is from a book on a thing that was true. The book as such does not yet exist: it exists only as a piece of paper that I wrote on while I was, for reasons I shall not go into right now, in Jamaica, sitting by a window with a billowing white curtain breathing in—

—YOU SEE WHAT I MEAN? All that cannot be included! All that I must excise!


An essay is what is left from the original wash of thought, all you have excised or extracted from that wash (picking trash and foam from a river), or if you prefer: you are attempting to do the thing Michelangelo said he did, when asked how he made David: He said he just got rid of everything that wasn’t David. So in an essay or any attempt to communicate in words, one tries take away everything we would say that is not the thing we mean to say.

Philosophically, that’s just ripped off negative theology: a concept of God based on all that God is not.

Then how does one determine the essay from all the rest?


Suppose the difference between them is a matter of fiction and fact.

Fact in poetry always serves the ends of language, image, the middle of the thing, and claims to be another kind of truth, the essence of the thing, the thing itself.

What ends does fact (such as it can be) serve in nonfiction prose?



Is a personal essay, or any kind of use of an I in nonfiction, some kind of demand that you “look at me”? Because in fact that is often not what I, as a writer, want you, as a reader, to do. Rather, I often want you to inhabit me, to slip on the suit of my skin and the rubbery mask of my face and look out through these eyeholes so you can see what I see, because—this is much more obvious than people seem willing to let it be—I like what I see and how I am seeing, and find it intriguing not because it is my way of seeing but because the act and experience of seeing is inherently interesting, and I think you will like it and find it interesting as well, and I want to hand over the kaleidoscope, the mind’s collage of shifting color and light and all forms of perception, sensate experience, abstract thought—and say, “Here, look.” Hold up my I and you will not see a version of me. You will see a way of seeing that is simply a shifting of perspective; it is like or it is unlike your own. Either way, the seeing affirms something, affirms the question of whether or not we even exist.



I knew someone who hunted deer. A man, back then a boy, now lost somewhere in some fold in space and time, in a parallel universe where his life goes on and mine does as well, and I can no longer remember how our paths ever met or found me in the dingy but warm and well-lit flat while outside in the dark the rain came down. It was summer. No, fall. He brought out the wine, put blues on the stereo, of course. There was a little lamp on the table—a diner table, now that I think of it, with red sparkling plastic seats. The lamp had a little shade, cast a penumbra of shadow on the table, or maybe did not. The vagaries of memory, etc. We drank. I knew nothing about blues, but did not let on.

The foregoing is all I remember of a poem I wrote years ago, fifteen? It is easy enough to break a poem into pieces and cobble it together as prose. You need only start with a story, go back to the story that sparked the poem, go past the fictions of narrative poem, back to the story’s seed. You may need to shift person, and sometimes tense. This particular poem (a fiction) was written in 2nd person, in an epistolary form that had possessed me at the time, written to a “you.”

Years later I ran into the boy—by then a man—but somehow absurd, in a blue sport coat, hair short and usual, at a reading at a conference in Chicago or D.C. I was reading, and sensed his fury palpably in the room. It bewildered me—it had been years—it was anyway only a night. Feeling irritable and defensive, I thought for a moment of reading the old poem but realized that it was never really about, or a letter to, him. There was no such you.

That is the fallacy of 2nd person. It is the betrayal of them, of the truth. You steal the event when you leave, and then you write it down. That is the first betrayal. The second is this: You pretend you are speaking to the person, as if the poem is for them. But in truth you throw your voice past them , the person of whom you speak—you look past the person, crane your neck to see what lies beyond them, the putative object (and in this case subject, which in second person is always the case) of your words. The letter is supposed to be to them. But you are speaking in truth to the reader, that other “you.” That you breathes down the neck of the person himself. You never really loved the man, of course, the actual self—who I suppose in his own writings is crafted and shaped into the first person, a singular fiction, an I. In my work, though, he remains you, and he remains the second person: beyond him is the You to whom I speak.

That larger you is ever present for every writer, lurking beyond the real. Anyone who writes for someone other than themselves—the latter a fictional practice, I often think—writes to that other you. Every original person, the object, the subject of the poem or prose, is betrayed when I steal their story to use in my own. This is why people are irritated when you write about them in nonfiction (which is one’s best attempt to pull what is true from what is story, like picking the meat off a carcass until it is bones). They don’t like to see themselves represented. No one really wants to see how they are seen by another’s eyes. It is like listening to a recording of one’s own voice. Strange, entirely unfamiliar, a different person, and one is disoriented by that: one wonders which, the unfamiliar voice played back, or themselves as they hear themselves inside the echo chamber of their skull, is fact.


Then what about the invention of the 2nd person for the purposes of this essay?

(Which are what? What makes an essay serve its purpose?)

You are its purpose. The occasion of the essay is you.


One of the things that bothers me most about online writing, particularly prose writing, particularly essays, is that the written thing (essay, thing, what have you) cannot be written on. As in, written upon, on the thing itself, you cannot write upon das Deng an Sich, you cannot scrawl upon it unless you have that little Kindle stylus which I do not and which anyway does not write anything that cannot immediately be deleted, erased, gobbled up by space. When I am writing for an online thing, I have the persistent, spooky sense that I am not really writing words that will reach any extant sensate being, any second person, any greater Other, ANY YOU, because where the hell are you? Are you in a chair? Are you on a stair? Are you reading in a plane? Are you reading on a train? I do not like it Sam I am, I do not like the fact that I can’t really know if you are there and I am here. Because and let’s be clear about this, while I “know” in some sense that I am “here” (at least the illusion of me has the illusion that I am here in this illusory space, see the foregoing table, poinsettia, cat), I don’t in any substantive way know you are there; I assume you. You are implied. I feel a little awkward about this.

The effects of your presence or absence cannot be felt in advance: I have no way of knowing in this fold of time whether or not, in different or later or further away fold, one pretty randomly labeled Saturday 21st 2013, you and this essay are present in the same approximate cubit of space; and furthermore, I do not know if you are intersecting there, or if you are paying one another no mind.

You are like dark matter in deep space. You are inferred from your effects.


To write, to write on. I came here to write an essay and to write on an essay, and I confess I find it frustrating that you cannot write on whatever I write, should you be so inclined. If inclined, I ask that you please print out, write on, argue with, tear up, burn, flush, or eat the pages I have written, or I shall feel as if we have nearly intersected somewhere in virtual space but never actually seen one another eye to eye, not even for a blink.

Which is to say, I am shouting into the void. What you’re doing, I can’t rightly say.

Then curl up in the pages. Chew a pen. Blue-fingered, blue-lipped, fall asleep.


Marya Hornbacher is an award-winning journalist, essayist, and the bestselling author of five books, including the New York Times Bestseller Madness, the Pulitzer Prize finalist Wasted, and the New York Times Editor’s Choice The Center of Winter. Her work is published in eighteen languages and is taught in universities around the world. Her most recent nonfiction appears in Gulf Coast, Fourth Genre, and Vestoj. Shortlisted for the 2012 Pushcart Prize in both poetry and prose and the recipient of a host of awards and fellowships for her work, Hornbacher’s writing across genres appears regularly in literary and journalistic publications. She teaches at Northwestern University and is currently at work on her sixth book.

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