OK, Nicole, thanks for asking. I see you began this series with a conversation that, appropriately, broke your own ‘Breaking the Rules’ format rules by becoming just that, a conversation, between yourself and David Le Gault. And since I’m torn irredeemably between wanting to follow and to break rules, I thought we could continue with the conversation format, which is, after all, almost the rule now, but because of distance and time constraints I propose to imagine your part of it on your behalf. Will that be OK?
Nicole: [cursor blinks – as if to say she’s (I’m?) thinking, or else as if to say, WTF?]
David: I’m not at all sure this will turn out well for us but I feel as if you are prodding me from offstage with a broomstick.
David: You say.
Nicole: And by the way —
David: You also say —
Nicole: — I’m not at all happy for you to be making up my lines like this. I just want you – and everyone - to know that!
David: Yes, well you can always include those familiar meta/editorial asides in italics whenever you like since YOU HAVE THE POWER…
Nicole: [thinks…yes, I will be doing that, don’t worry!]
David: Are we an essay? Have we started to be an essay? Have we already forfeited all rights to be an essay?
Nicole: Well David, you tell me.
David: By the way, are you only going to ask people called David to contribute to this series? Is that why you asked me?
The reason I’m attracted to the essay is that —
(see, I tried to straighten things up there for a moment, but is that necessary?)
— for one thing, you don’t need to know where you are going or how you are going to get there. Which, if it works, provides the reason for the reader to keep on reading: they too want to find out where we are going to end up.
What I love, in thinking about nonfiction, and just to jostle something else in here alongside the idea of the essay, is the notion of the report or the account. But not reporting in a codified journalistic sense, with all of its associated rules (lead sentences, the inverted pyramid, ‘keep it objective’), and not accounting as in a tallying up, a tidying into neat factual columns. One of my favourite nonfiction titles is Gregoire Bouillier’s Report on Myself, because it sounds like an anti-confession, a faux-objective inquiry, like a Taskforce on Bewilderment. Let’s commission a report on heartbreak and the colour blue from Maggie Nelson! Let’s ask for a full account of the contemporary experience and phenomenon of humiliation from Wayne Koestenbaum; let it be an awkward tally of memories, observations, readings and confessions: ‘In a Buick station wagon my mother yelled at me in front of my debate partner, a girl with a perennial tan.’
What all of these investigations have in common is an explicit ethic in which the author admits to being implicated — neck-deep, as Ander Monson has said— in whatever they are reporting on or accounting for. (BTW, is it advisable to name-drop your editor, Nicole, or is it a bit sucky? Nicole: I thought these italic brackets would be reserved for my meta/editorial ‘real-Nicole’ interventions?? David: Sorry, Nicole… and also, I suppose, what if Ander wanted to do meta-meta interventions (if he has that POWER)? There seems to be a shortage of meta-intervention conventions available to us, don’t you think??) The convention is that the essay is precisely this: a form in which the writer refuses to hide from an open account, not only of whatever it that she is addressing, but also of how she is addressed by it. Cf, of Claudia Rankine’s work: ‘she wishes to interrogate the feeling inside of a moment’; or, as Rankine says, herself: ‘I’m interested in getting at an affect – not a story.’
Because we are desiring beings, sexual and embodied, and enmeshed in cultures, dialogues and atmospheres, our human thoughts and feelings at any given moment, whether we are crossing the road, chasing after bunnies, and/or essaying an account, are more like a carnival than a card catalogue or hard-drive directory. This is what makes life interesting, bearable and complicated all at the same time. As Geoff Dyer has said, he includes so much of himself in all of his accounts, whether they are supposedly about D.H. Lawrence or Tarkovsky’s Stalker, not because he thinks he is especially notable or important, but because ‘I am available.’ His own, particular, weird (but no more weird than any of us) carnival of insights, fears, preconceptions, contradictions, fantasies, hungers, analyses, nightmares and banalities, is uniquely available to him to report upon from close quarters, as it bears upon the ambit of his chosen subject. Don’t you think? Nicole? Nicole?
Nicole: Oh, I’m still here, am I.
David: What do you mean?
Nicole: You are very needy.
David: Yes, well there is this: My job is vulnerability. (Sheila Squillante) And also this: The fundamental experience of the writer is helplessness. (Louise Gluck)
Nicole: Keep going, its Essay Daily, not Essay Until the End of Time.
Self-consciousness is the pivot of the essay. A good essay is self-aware and self-implicating, maybe even self-lacerating or self-dismantling, since its author tries to give a full and frank account, which realizes all too well that it can never be a full and frank account, of what it is to address, and be addressed by, the thing at hand (the putative subject of the essay). The clear and present dangers of the essay form, on the other hand, include self-pity, self-regard, self-protection and special pleading. Am I sounding like a wanker?
Nicole: There is always that possibility.
David: Or perhaps like an Australian.
Nicole: Breaking the rules…?
David: Everybody knows you are not really saying these things. I think the playing field of the essay is very wide, in fact it runs right down into the creek, the borders only seem to be defined by the organizing voice of the essayist, wouldn’t you say?
Nicole: Hmm, you mean, so long as we know it is all a game in the essayist’s mind then anything is possible?
David: Yes, the essayist is Godlike, but also, importantly, a clown and an idiot. Doomed to fail, but artfully, somehow. If it works.
Nicole: So the only rule is it has to work?
David: The rule, perhaps, if we are going to make one, is that the reader is able to be complicit with the game. Also, another rule will be that the essayist allows the essay to suggest its own structure, and then seeks to honor that suggestion. These are sounding like two excellent rules, if I say so myself. Part of the game is to listen to the essay as it develops and to tend it as it grows, like a child, in its own particular and unpredictable way. So in this sense the essayist is far from Godlike; rather more humble, like a parent has to be.
Nicole: Perhaps we should sing a song now?
Nicole: I just thought, why not? Why not a song?
David: Phew, you are really getting into this! A song! Lets just say, anyone can sing a song at any time, OK? Another thing I thought to mention, if not sing about, was to return to this business of card catalogues and hard-drive directories. This, in fact, could be another rule: the rule of irony. (There are now three rules, which is good, because a well-known meta-rule of design is that things should always come in threes...) Essays are inherently ironic because they purport to be offering knowledge about something (e.g. the handy Of Cannibals, by Montaigne), and yet they must also be disquisitions on not-knowing, on the limitations of what the essayist knows (or else they are fibbing, which is against the rules). And because an essay is a theater of the brain (David Shields), and what it feels like to live with a human brain is more like a carnival than etcetera…well, this could explain why essayists have frequently turned to bureaucratically utopian structures such as card catalogues and wedding contracts — to work against them, to harvest their ironic energy and thereby to produce dramatic (or perhaps rhetorical?) tension.
And always, once one is started, one is thinking, how are we going to finish this?
Nicole: And how are we?
David: Well, we still don’t know, in fact. We are trying to watch and listen for the shape, and for the turn. Near the start, I said that we don’t need to know where we are going in an essay, but that’s quite wrong, actually. Of course we need to know where we are going, even if it turns out to be a mirage when we get there. We need to have an idea of what it is we believe we are heading towards – and what we should be thrillingly surprised about is everything we discover along the way. Otherwise, why should the reader follow us, if we don’t even maintain the delusion that we are worthy guides? I always repeat to my students, and anybody who is interested, the advice the novelist Rodney Hall gave me a few years ago, a propos of any creative writing. He said you only need two things. First, you need to have some idea of what it is you are trying to reach, in a piece of writing, even if that is only the feeling inside of a moment. Imagine that this thing that you are trying to reach is like a flag in the distance, poking up from within a high-walled maze. Your job — the second thing is to know this — is to step into the maze, heading sideways, forwards, sideways again, up and down col de sacs, stumbling on blindly but always keeping the flag there in your peripheral vision, as you gradually approach it.
Nicole: Is that it — ?
David: What do you mean: is that it? Do you mean, is that the answer or is that the end?
Nicole: Hmm, language is always ambiguous, isn’t it...
David: You know what? I wish you had been the real Nicole. And things had turned out just like this, broken and unruly, essayed.
Nicole: Or maybe better to say it like this: the essay is an offering in the gap between us, where we can be broken and unruly.
David: Not us in particular.
Nicole: No, you know, more broadly.
Bouiller, Gregoire Report on Myself. Mariner Books, 2009.
Dyer, Geoff. Out of Sheer Rage: In the Shadow of DH Lawrence. Canongate Books, 2012.
Dyer, Geoff. Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room. Text Publishing, 2012.
Gluck, Louise. Proofs and theories. Harper Collins, 1995.
Koestenbaum, Wayne. Humiliation. Macmillan, 2011.
Monson, Ander. Neck Deep And Other Predicaments. Graywolf Press, 2007.
Montaigne, Michel de. ‘Of cannibals.’ The complete essays 152 (1958).
Nelson, Maggie. Bluets. Wave Books, 2009.
Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Macmillan, 2014.
Shields, David. Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. New York, NY: Alfred A, 2010.
Squillante, Sheila. ‘On using asterisks like bread crumbs’, Essay Daily, 2015.
Walker, Nicole. ‘Breaking the Rules--Part 3. What You Don't Know’, Essay Daily, 2015.
DAVID CARLIN’s new book is The Abyssinian Contortionist (UWAP, 2015). His other books include the memoir Our Father Who Wasn’t There (Scribe, 2010), and Performing Digital (edited with Laurene Vaughan, Ashgate, 2015). Apart from books and essays, he has also written and directed plays and documentaries, and in 2014 curated, with Paper Giant, the digital media exhibition Vault: the Nonstop Performing History of Circus Oz (Melbourne Festival). He lives in Melbourne, where he directs, with Francesca Rendle-Short, RMIT University’s nonfictionLab research group. David co-chairs the 2015 NonfictioNOW Conference, with Robin Hemley and (the real) Nicole Walker.