Saturday, December 6, 2014

12/6: Steven Harvey on Humble Beginnings

I cooked up the idea of The Humble Essayist in the first week of November 2013.  The website, which is also known by its initials, THE, is devoted to the personal essay and its younger cousin, the reflective memoir, my term for book-length personal essays, and when I look into my notebook from that time I see that it had an appropriately inauspicious birth. “The happy essayist is the humble essayist,” I scribbled in an entry, the first in a series of failed mottos: “THE—Our article of faith is an article,” “NOT to be confused with THEM—The Hagiographical, Egotistical, Memoir,” and “Self deprecation is the way to the reader’s heart.” Oh well. In the middle of the list I landed on the phrase that became the motto for a page aiming low: “THE—The Definite Article.”

The main feature of THE is The Paragraph of the Week in which I use a paragraph of text by a promising or prominent writer I admire as a springboard for my own paragraph addressing the writer’s theme, drawing on language from the original paragraph and other parts of the text. I place the paragraph and my commentary side by side on the opening page. I wanted to keep it simple. I had rejected the motto “Our Font is Times New Roman and Our Mission to Make Things Plain” but the text is black and white, all in Times New Roman font, and the logo for the site—a bit of public domain clip art from ClipartPal—is a black and white line drawing of an old, bearded man sitting in his study reading between two candles surrounded by books, an inkwell with quill pens, an hourglass, and, of course, a smoking pipe. Plain, stuffy, and a little homespun, the look seemed just about right for The Humble Essayist. I launched the site on Independence Day, Friday, July 4, 2014, 169 years to the day after Henry David Thoreau began his experiment at Walden Pond. The inaugural entry was a paragraph from his essay “Walking” that had first given me the urge to write essays many years ago as a student.

The page is hardly humble, of course—nor am I. It is true that its main purpose is to shine a light once a week on another writer in this happy, but largely neglected corner of literature, but the secondary purpose is less pure—to get my own words out there in front of other writers who care about essays and other forms of musing prose. Part of the fun is promoting the page with words from my site on twitter @THEsharvey twice a day, an at times crass but lively venue for self-promotion that is new enough to be fun. I don’t have a ton of readers and my twitter feed is not “trending” as they say, but after a lifetime of writing which includes three books of personal essays, an anthology, and countless magazine publications all of which were read by only a handful of people, I figure I have increased my meager readership exponentially in six months. Now I need more than both hands to count them.

The happy by-product of all this self-promotion in plain garb has been the wonderful writers and readers I have met or gotten to know better along the way. Some are old friends, writers such as Jill Christman, Bob Root, Kathy Winograd, and Joe Mackall whom I know from writing conferences and teaching programs. Others were strangers to me except for their words. I met Elena Passarella, Sarah Einstein, Julian Hoffman and others by letting them know I admired their work and would include an entry on the page. I hope that they remain friends for a long time too. Many fans of the site are dedicated readers. One of my twitter followers vowed she would “Re/read every essay that is chosen for reflection” in THE, and she sometimes appears in my twitter notification box quoting or citing the writers I feature and doing my heart good.  

Some members of the community are no longer with us except for their words and what we make of their words. In addition to Thoreau, I featured E. B. White, James Baldwin, and M. F. K. Fisher who are with us now only in their books. I created a page in memory of Judith Kitchen who died in November. I had already written an entry for Judith, who is a great friend to writers of poetry and nonfiction and a personal friend of mine, so I asked one of my students, Sarah Wells, who admired her work to write the commentary as the first guest Humble Essayist. “It must have meant something,” Judith wrote at the end of her reflective memoir The Circus Train, “because it keeps on trailing its scarf of smoke” pointedly leaving the period off at the end of the sentence, the hazy trail of her words as real and fresh now as they were the day she wrote them—perhaps more real.

So The Humble Essayist is about others in many ways at the same time that it is all about me. My choices, my taste, my commentary, and my obsessions all writ small in my favorite black-and-white font. But the idea behind the page—its true raison d'être—is nevertheless humble because the genre is humbling. What matters in the personal essay is not the personal, but the assaying of the personal, the weighing, considering, recreating and probing of it in the exploration of an idea that is larger than the self. I remember when my first collection of essays, entitled A Geometry of Lilies, was published, the book editor from the Atlanta Journal and Constitution came out to the house for an article on my work. When he asked me what my book was about I said life, love, change, and death. “Oh, c’mon,” he scoffed, and when the article appeared, he left out my words and said that my book was about my family. But what is my very ordinary family to those who are outside it but a study in life, love, change, and death? And what could matter more?

Like scholars who poke through books, papers, microfiche, microfilm, and computer records humbly in search of the ideas behind their subjects, personal essayists probe their lives not to confess, but to reveal, and if they are lucky they can do so until they find themselves nodding off one day in a study while reading. The words are not about the life. Instead they use it up. I flip back a screen to look at the logo for my site once again. Clichéd as it is, it says it all: under one candle we see the old writer himself floating above the smoke of his pipe like a dream of himself and under the other candle we find the small stack of books and papers that will live on after him, with the hourglass hovering between. No wonder The Humble Essayist grips the covers of his book so tightly.

What I enjoy about doing The Humble Essayist is that the page reflects the movement away from self that is inherent in the genre it celebrates, the conversation beginning with me and my selections, but tugging outward, toward ideas suggested in the paragraphs I choose. Perhaps they choose me and were never mine to begin with, musings that come from the voice that poets hear, a voice beyond the self, speaking through the self. I’m happy when I tend to this voice in others and myself because it, like the flame the candle borrows, is what endures. What could be better than that? Maybe I had the motto right the first time. The happy essayist is the humble essayist, following the hazy smoke of a train of thought into a world that will in time let him or her go.

Steven Harvey is the author of The Book of Knowledge and Wonder, a memoir about coming to terms with the suicide of his mother published by Ovenbird Books as part of the “Judith Kitchen Select” series. A section of the memoir appeared in The Best American Essays 2013 selected by Cheryl Strayed. He is also the author of three books of personal essays, A Geometry of Lilies, Lost in Translation, and Bound for Shady Grove, and edited an anthology of essays written by men on middle age called In a Dark Wood.  He is a professor emeritus of English and creative writing at Young Harris College, a member of the nonfiction faculty in the Ashland University MFA program in creative writing, a senior editor for River Teeth magazine, and the creator of The Humble Essayist, a website designed to promote literary nonfiction.

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