I’ve been thinking a lot about this definition of life. That a hunger for narrative is wired deep in our lizard brain rings true for me, as a human but also as a writer. I began reading to answer that question, “what happens next,” and I began writing because I wanted to tell stories. Now I write and read and teach other forms too, and one of the great pleasures and mysteries of the essay for me has been examining what happens when story is discarded.
Of course, nonfiction often incorporates story, is even built around it, as is the harrowing “23 Weeks 6 Days”—what keeps the listener listening is not questions about the nature of infant consciousness, or about the limitations and hubris of medical technology, but “Will the baby live?” The interludes of reflection or research in the episode are driven and occasioned by that question, left unanswered until nearly the end.
But what happens without any baby at all? John Edgar Wideman’s essay “Looking at Emmett Till” chronicles the horrific murder of fourteen-year-old African-American Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955. Till is of course dead before the essay begins, his white killers acquitted. While there are gripping passages narrating the events leading up to Till’s murder, the central thread of the essay is the fact of Wideman’s obsession, his inability to look away from Till’s ruined face, the fact and manner and meaning of his death. Tim Bascom’s useful “Picturing the Personal Essay: A Visual Guide,” provides visual representations of various essay structures: good old Freytag’s Pyramid, but also waves, whorls, flat lines with dips like a road studded with potholes. Essays like Wideman’s loop and circle back on themselves—they do not climb resolutely upward. But in all of Bascom’s drawings, the lines end in pointed arrows, the kind I was taught to make in math class, indicating that the lines continue indefinitely, or at least on to the next page. Those arrowed ends are an act of optimism; not every essay creates that feeling of forward movement. Sometimes a flat line feels like a flat line, a pothole like a pothole.
I’ve been thinking a lot about momentum—the pull a powerful piece of writing in any genre exerts on its reader, in which the text does not just hand us a series of bread crumbs, however delicious, but compels us to move ever more urgently down the path to collect more. I could say a good essay asks the reader to “lean in,” but because there’s already a business advice book with that title, I won’t. In fiction we might talk about pacing, and if we’re talking about an exciting denouement, we might mean when the action literally quickens, when the sentences get clipped and blunt, encouraging the reader to physically read faster. In an essay, there is likely not such an obvious accelerando, but there might still be (hopefully is) a kind of crescendo. Or, to throw one more turn of phrase at the phenomenon I’m trying to describe, Alberto Ríos writes in the poem “Some Extensions on the Sovereignty of Science”:
When something explodes, for example,There are plenty of reliable magnets in both fiction and nonfiction (ex. “will the baby live?”), but a writer of essays must also begin to master a subtler set of laws governing magnetism.
Nobody is confused about what to do—you look toward it.
Loud is a magnet. But the laws of magnetism are more complex.
I have not mastered these laws, but I take some comfort in the fact that no one else seems to have, either. Phillip Lopate writes, “Even a “pure” meditation, the track of one’s thoughts, has to be shaped, given a kind of plot or urgency, if it is to communicate.” But what kind? And how is it created? Lopate also writes, “There is no guarantee that the personal essay will attain a shapeliness or a sense of aesthetic inevitability. The well-made short story has a recognizable arc that seems built into the genre, whereas even an essay that is “well made” seems to follow a more intuitive, groping path.” The lizard-brain question “What happens next?” becomes “what will she think of next?” or “what will he choose to discuss next?” which requires a very dynamic “she” or “he” indeed to exert equal pull. Segmented or collaged essays seem purposely to fight momentum. They break ideas apart and lay the pieces side by side. Cynthia Ozick writes, “Like a poem, a genuine essay is made of language and character and mood and temperament and pluck and chance.” Chance? Sure, but while that may be comforting for the creative geniuses among us, it is slightly disheartening for any fiction-writers-turned-essayists groping for craft lessons.
Again Lopate: “the personal essayist… dive[s] into the volcano of self and extract[s] a single hot coal to consider and shape…” A hot coal would certainly create magnetism, but only if the essayist can translate its heat, its annihilative potential. Even the most imperiled baby can go cold on the page, while another author’s personal preoccupation sears. Wideman’s “Looking at Emmett Till” contains and transcends both—the imperiled child and the authorial obsession. “A nightmare of being chased has plagued my sleep since I was a boy,” the essay begins. The last sentence of the first section reads, “The chilling dream resides in a space years can’t measure, the boundless sea of Great Time, nonlinear, ever abiding, enfolding past, present and future.” And a sentence that appears between the other two: “I’ve come to believe the face in the dream I can’t bear to look upon is Emmett Till’s.” It’s a truism in both fiction and nonfiction that a beginning creates a contract with the reader, and this one sets up an essay that promises both the unreality of nightmare, and the authenticity of history; a face unseen and incessantly seen; the way this face haunts past, present and future; the way it haunts both Wideman as an individual and the society he exists in—the society we all exist in.
The essay, as it continues, dips effortlessly in and out of subjects from the author’s childhood to imagined scenes of Emmett, his great-uncle, his murderers, to paragraphs that tackle racism and the legacy of slavery head-on. “Effortlessly” is almost certainly the wrong word, because as artfully as the essay leaps from section to section, there is anguish audible on every page. Wideman can’t look anymore, doesn’t want to look anymore, at Till’s mutilation and the threat it conveys. And yet because of that threat he has to. He has to make the reader look too, and keep looking. The essay is able to describe a woman “whose presence is sometimes as strange and unaccountable to me as mine must be to her, as snow falling softly through the bedroom ceiling would be, accumulating in white drifts on the down comforter” alongside sentences like, “Any serious attempt to achieve economic, social, and political equal opportunity in this country must begin not simply with opening doors to selected minorities.”
There is constant conflict in the essay, not just in terms of its depiction of intractable racial conflict, but between styles and dictions, personal and public, fact and imagination, Wideman and himself. He can’t go on; he goes on. The reader goes with him, more and more urgently hoping perhaps for Wideman to find some peace, and then magnanimously bestow it on us, too. Maybe we want the author to tell us what to do. Maybe we want him to keep being haunted, if it means more essays this good.
And when I think of magnetism in that way, I arrive at the idea of “conflict,” fiction’s natural fuel, whether that’s the conflict between Harry Potter and Voldemort, or Harry vs. his own impulsiveness. Maybe “conflict” in that latter sense is what creates momentum in nonfiction, too—the author vs. a nightmare face too terrifying to look at straight on, the author vs. his own need to look, the author’s need to write about what he sees vs. the impossibility of ever properly describing it. The inability of the reader’s lizard-brain to reconcile all of this vs. our desire to try. We read towards resolution, even when we know that that isn’t the natural (or maybe possible) destination of the essayist. We want to see how it all comes out. We scoop up hurried, greedy handfuls of dirt along with the bread crumbs. We lean forward. We listen, wanting to find out what happens next.
Caitlin Horrocks is the author of This Is Not Your City (Sarabande Books) and the fiction editor of the Kenyon Review. She teaches at Grand Valley State University.