Wednesday, September 17, 2014

W. Scott Olsen: The Essay at ASCENT

Here is a secret, though it’s not very important. I read the essays last.

Every month, on the first, I click a button on the Ascent website and open the submissions manager. A short while later—sometimes a few days, sometimes as much as two weeks—the manuscript counter reaches 200 and I click that button again to turn the submissions off. There is no magic to the number 200 other than my own time and reading speed. When I was in graduate school, I sent a story to a good literary quarterly and they accepted it—a year after I submitted it. It then took them two years to print it. I was elated. And I was angry.

Because I am a writer, and because I am old enough to remember the fear and desire and anticipation and loathing hovering every day around my empty US Postal Service mailbox, I make sure the writers who send to Ascent get word, some word, within one month. So I begin with the poetry.  Poetry brings me back each month to reading like an editor, questioning with every new submission my response to language, to concision, to form and to depth. Reading the poetry first is a way to open the heart and the head to the blood-jet. Poetry is also the least forgiving of faults. Return or short-list is often an easy first choice.

I read the fiction next. I suspect I wince every time I read a new story that begins with some down on his luck somebody, who happens to be in a run-down bar, half drunk, gazing at some impossibly good-looking hope, but otherwise the stories that come to Ascent are good. They have size and weight and they are complicated not like detective novels but in the way of showing how love and confusion are necessary companions. Again when I was in graduate school, the writing world was filled with the imitators of Donald Barthelme and Ray Carver—both ends of the scale. Pyrotechnics and urgent whispers. These days, we seem to have learned the techniques, and the best writers use them all, sparingly or not, to tell a real story, a deep story, a fiction that’s true.

And then I read the essays. Essays are what I write. I expect the most from them, too. For me, the rewards of the essay are larger, deeper and more profound than any poem or fiction. They carry the weight of humanity just as fully as poetry and fiction, and they carry the weight of news as well. The essay is intellectual and moral and personal journalism. 

The world is not a simple place. The essays I most love are those that take the act of explanation, the act of articulating wonder or hope or anger or just curiosity and hunger, as their reason for being. I am sent a thousand essays that tell me a story—the time the author broke an arm, got fired, fell in love, wrecked a car, went hiking/rafting/climbing/spelunking, got a disease, remembered something from childhood—and every one of them will go back to the author if the essay does not also wonder what it all means. 

Here is a phrase I often use with students: The Essay is the Witnessed Development of an Idea. In other words, here is an idea, developed with examples and details and with deep care for the craft, given as a gift to some reader. The gift is not the sharing of the event. The gift is the sharing of an idea the event provokes. And the quality of the gift is in the exactness and precision of the words. Yes, I am aware this quality should describe the best in every genre. But it seems to me the stakes are higher for the essay. A poem and a story achieve metaphor. The poem and the story are True. The essay achieves metaphor, and does so without disbelief. The essay is both True and true. 

Here is another way to think about it. I have no real interest in the history of the torque-wrench. But even if it’s 3:00 a.m. and I am for some reason awake and channel surfing, if I come across Modern Marvels and they are talking about the history of the torque-wrench, I know my next half hour will be happily learning about wrenches. There is a patience to the developing context. There is a connection made from the wrench in my garage to some paleo-wrench I did not know existed. When the show is over, my wrench is a lot more complicated and a lot more exact. When the best essays are over, my own life—my history and community and family and sense of ethics—is a lot more complicated and a lot more exact. Life is larger. The universe is more filled with wonder.

There are no rules at Ascent. Because we are an online journal now, there is no need to fill or limit pages. And we publish just as soon as we accept, so there are no publishing deadlines. An issue is never early or late. If we publish five essays tomorrow and then not another one for six months, it makes no difference at all. 

I would love to say we have an editorial preference. Reviewing the last few essays on the site, you could think we have a particular interest in homes. Turn back just a bit farther, though, and there are no homes at all. There is a bit of dentistry. There is a war-zone. There is a trip in Appalachia. There is the Peace Corps. There is a dog. There is an office wrestling match. There is a bit of food. There is an execution and there is a birthday. There are a couple hikes in the mountains. There is a piece about language.

I should admit to one bias. More often than not, when a cover letter says “attached is a lyric essay” I do not smile. Too often, “lyric” has come to mean slight. The author is sending a scene, an anecdote, a memory or experience without context or development. Too often “lyric” has become code for “here’s something interesting and I don’t know what it’s about and I’ve not really done the work to figure it out, but the words are pretty.” In truth, I love the lyric essay. I love the micro-essay and the novella-length memoir. What I cannot stand is anecdote without context, without idea, without wonder how it all fits together.

As a reader, I do not think in categories. Ascent will read anything at any time. All I want is to be in the presence of a written voice that is on a journey, to be a member of the corps of discovery, to be so fully captivated by the unfolding connections that I’m late for something else.

We read a love poem, or a love story, and if it’s any good we say: yes, exactly—even though we never thought of love that way, in those words, before. We say, I didn’t know I knew that. We say, me too. 

When I read an essay, a really good essay, it’s like a long broad curve on a highway. We’re moving fast, the scenery is thrilling, the road in front of us promises a destination, though it’s around the corner and we are not quite there yet. As long as the tires are good, I’ll be damned if I’m going to slow down.

W. Scott Olsen is a professor of English at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, and the editor of the literary magazine Ascent.  His most recent book is Prairie Sky: Reflections on Flying and the Grace of Altitude.

1 comment:

  1. This is so helpful. I'll be sharing it with my students tonight!