Monday, December 28, 2015

Ander Monson: On Finding The Best American Essays 1999 at the Bear Canyon Goodwill

Five years ago in the Bear Canyon Goodwill, the northernmost one in Tucson, the one in the ritzy neighborhood that opposed Goodwill moving into it because of the people they feared the store would bring, I discovered The Best American Essays 1999.

I already owned the years after 2005, the year when I started buying them new, but had never thought about tracking down the older years of the series. After all, as Eric LeMay points out, are old essays news that stay news, or are these old editions essays with an expiration date?

Finding a BAE in a Goodwill was a different sort of reading encounter, not the kind I went after, but a chance one, much like the “random bear attacks” that my handheld Big Buck Hunter game bragged about in 1999. So, well, huh, I didn’t have this one. Edward Hoagland. I know that name. The turtles guy, right? I held it to the light. I put it in my cart. Right next to it I saw three more: 1994 and 1993 and 2003.

In Goodwills my habit is to quickly scan the trade books, the ones with the little taller spines and the classier typography because I deem myself a classy bastard. BAEs fit right into this algorithm, though I don't remember noticing any before this visit. Seeing several aggregated here, I thought: these had to be from the same reader. So I picked those three up too. I love finding readers’ used copies, particularly when they imply a constellation of a reading life. You don't need to see their names written in cursive on or pathologically marked up.

You can almost always tell, when shopping secondhand, which books came from the same person; they get shelved together by inertia more often than not, and they're often the same vintage, or with similar aging patterns. One time at another Tucson thrift store, Savers, I bought nearly sixty poetry collections, many by former colleagues of mine at Arizona, books sadly out of print and often-enough forgotten, all from the same reader, obviously, maybe someone who gave up on poetry, or gave up on the poetry that people at Arizona wrote in the 1980s and 1990s. Inside one copy was a draft of a poem. I bought them all and read them. It's depressing mentioning this, that

And yes, I do get a charge of electric jealousy thinking about those who’ve come across David Markson’s annotated books in The Strand bookstore in Manhattan after his death and blogged some of the notes he made on the pages.

Searching the shelves more thoroughly, I found nine years of BAE in total, and bought them all. I wondered who would have donated all nine, clearly well-read and well-loved, and only those nine, to the Goodwill. There was no bookplate or signature or note, no real evidence except from a faint mix of coffee and cigarette smell and their spines—relaxed from use but not yet broken—of their former reader.

Did the reader keep the others in the series and choose only these to weed? And why? Did they only have these nine and tire of them? Did they find themselves suddenly in their lives at a point with no use for essays, or the essays of yesterday? Did they get past thinking about considerations of Best? Did they just tire of keeping up with the series or the essay or contemporary writing? Or did they simply die and just have all their books donated without order or thought? This happens quite a lot in Southern Arizona, occupied as it is by many retirees with family absent, elsewhere, east.

If I could I would have loved to have asked the reader (or reader’s surviving spouse or child or friend or passing stranger or bookseller recruited for the task) to reflect on the decision of this donation, to essay the occasion of donating these nine different years of Best American Essays this day to this Goodwill.

I took them home and put them on a shelf. It took a while to get back to them. Nine books is a lot to consider, one reason why I find it hard to get it up to tackle the opaque bulk of the Joyce Carol Oates oeuvre, for instance. Yet I crack open the 1999 edition and she’s here, Oates is here, in a small and easily consumable package, with a surprisingly great essay, “After Amnesia.” And oh shit, I thought, there’s Charles Bowden’s colossal “Torch Song,” which I know quite well indeed.

Elsewhere in the ToC you’ll see a lot of names you’ll recognize: Brian Doyle (one of our favorites here, and one of the most frequent inclusions—after Cynthia Ozick, also included, and the all-time reigning BAE inclusion champion: and really, Bob Atwan, shouldn’t she by now have been drafted to be the guest editor?); Patricia Hampl; Scott Russell Sanders, Mary Gordon, Ian Frazier, and Joan Didion. Then, too, there’s Annie Dillard, and while I’d love for this to be my opportunity to essay against Annie Dillard, a sea turtle crossed with National Public Radio, today is not that day; I kind of can’t get my anger (or my pleasure) up for this particular piece.

It was fascinating, looking back at all of these old anthologies. I wondered what I would learn if I were to read them all.

Whoa: I thought. Maybe this was a revelation I was having. In retrospect this was the moment when I decided I’d have to have them all, the complete and expanding set of Best American Essays. Luckily, unlike the Best American Short Stories, there were only (then) 25 of them. So I kept my eye open for the next couple years, not seeking them out, but finding them when I could. I’d only end up needing to seek out and buy 1986, 87, 88, 95, and 98).


I put more stock in serendipity and chance operations than I maybe should, but there’s a lot of stuff in the world. More books were published this year than ever before. It seems like in the age of ultimate muchness it’s pretty hard to find your way to the things that matter. And as an essayist, figuring out how to open yourself up to the found and the happened-on, which is I mean to say the possibility of discovery and distraction, has become increasingly important to my practice.

So while I didn’t ascribe much meaning to BAE 1999 exactly at the time, when it came time to assign myself a year for this here advent calendar, I called 1999. Between the choosing of the year and the writing of the essay, though, I’d forgotten why I chose 1999, until I opened my copy up again and thought, oh, hey, here’s that Edward Hoagland introduction that’s stuck with me hard for a very long time now:
Essays are how we speak to one another in print—caroming thoughts not merely in order to convey a certain packet of information, but with a special edge or bounce of personal character in a kind of public letter. You multiply yourself as a writer, gaining height as though jumping on a trampoline, if you can catch the gist of what other people have also been feeling and clarify it for them.… Mulched perhaps in its own contradictions, [an essay] promises no sure objectivity, just the condiment of opinion on a base of observation, and sometimes such leaps of illogic or superlogic that they may work a bit like magic realism in a novel: namely, to simulate the mind's own processes in a murky and incongruous world.
This was a thought I'd never had before reading it, but one that felt obvious to me now: essays are conversations. They're messages. We are speaking to one another, aren't we, even if the one to whom we speak is no longer alive. We're not just publishing these essays into the void.

This, and not the turn to the new millennium, though there’s plenty of that thinking too on display in both Atwan’s and Hoagland’s introductions, was why I had picked this year: for that single and crucial thought. 1999 was an opportunity for thought, better, maybe, than most years, given how momentous the move to the new millennium felt then. The mind is focused by these numerical milestones: turning 18, turning 21, turning 30, turning 40, 50, 60, 75, hitting the year 1984, 2000, 2001, 2012 for the Mayan calendar truthers, and so forth. Then the year comes and the date goes and you turn and nothing really feels different except it’s passed, that opportunity for reflection has passed, and did you take advantage of it or did you not?

It’s how I feel about Advent and about essay. I’m not religious. I’m not a tireless advocate for the essay. I’m actually all for speed, wanting the future faster, with more technology and retina scans and voice identification algorithms so we’ll never have to confuse a Cynthia Ozick essay with a Justin Bieber one. Oh, don’t get me wrong: I’d definitely read a Justin Bieber essay (if skeptically), but what I really want is to read Ozick reading Bieber (you up for that, Cynthia?).

What I like is the opportunity for reflection that Advent offers us, and the rigor of the calendar. It’s a little chamber that we make here in this space on Essay Daily and ask you to skim off just a little of your consciousness as you graze by en route to the rest of your lives, and leave it here with us for a moment. We’ll take just ten percent of the processing time of the moments it takes you to engage with us. That’s the pleasure of essay (or of literature and art in general), isn’t it? That it takes us over for a little while? The more forceful the art, the more of us it occupies in the moment when we’re encountering it. The craftier the art, perhaps the less overt, but the more of itself it leaves behind.

So I’m thinking here about two essays from BAE 1999: Ben Metcalf’s “American Heartworm” and John Lahr’s “The Lion and Me.” I’m thinking about these two because they were—to me anyhow—entirely unknown quantities. And both are worth your pilgrimage.

Here’s the opening of Metcalf's “American Heartworm”:
I proceed from rage: rage at those whose ignorance, either God-given or self-consciously homespun, has excited in them a wrongheaded desire to peddle as the font of all that is virtuous and productive and eternal about our nation that shallow and putrid trough we call the Mississippi River. For generations we have suffered such fools to create unworthy riverside wetland areas and disappointing overlook sites and unventilated paddleboat museums and disturbing amusement parks on the theme of the American frontier; to form historical societies so that we might come to think a great dfeal more than we should of a rill no deeper in places than a backyard swimming pool and far less apt to hold its water; to lay bicycle paths along the levees so that we might crack open our heads within sight of chemical wastes bound for the Gulf of Mexico; to clutter the calendar with steamboat festivals and “Big Muddy” days so that we might pay a premium for corndogs and warm cola, and grow red and sullen under the Midwestern sun, and slap our children before a congregation of strangers acquainted with the impulse and approving of the act. 
Whoo! So here’s a pissed-off voice of polemic, amusing and bristly, happy to explore the grotesqueries of the way we mythologize our big river (“a thin creek issuing from a nondescript pond in Minnesota”, but as the essay points out, by no means the biggest American river, being the Missouri). Metcalf goes on to lay into the culture of the river and the culture of the people and of course the river itself with a kind of fire that’s reserved for the place and people and culture where you are from. The last bit, that being from, is key—this is what gives him the permission to write the piece. It also moves the point-of-no-return pretty far up, since once you're dismantling your home and family, you've already quite obviously gone too far: you've chosen art over safety and society, and there's no point in slowing down or holding back or stopping. So fuck it: let's burn some bridges. And so he does.

It’s a great essay not just for this burn-it-all approach, for the unrelenting quality of its critique, but more importantly it's also often spectacularly funny:
The Mississippi’s lesson[:] weakness and chaos are the natural law…. The power of this lesson is made clear to me when I learn that a cousin of mine has burned down his high school because a bully told him to do so, or has molested a child for his own reasons, or has run off with his brother’s wife (and offered his own in recompense), or has deserted his pregnant girlfriend for a woman old enough to buy him beer, or has somehow managed to electrocute himself, or has tattooed an infant, or has been beaten so badly that her kidney was removed, or has not spoken to her aunt since her aunt married the man who ruined the kidney, or has rolled a car because his father never taught him to slow down on corners (and because the thought never occurred to him privately), or has been shotgunned at close range but is “too ornery to die,” or has been arrested for growing marijuana in the front yard, or has made no effort to pay the telephone bill and must now communicate solely by CB radio, or has become some sort of humorless Christian, or has been delivered of yet another child so that this jug band of woe might play on.
Preach, motherfucker! Well, maybe “funny” isn’t exactly the word, since it’s a tragedy he’s singing. It's funny because it's sad and because it won't stop.

As the kids on the playground wielding yo mama jokes and quoting Catullus would tell you, effective invective has to be at least as entertaining as it is cutting; it’s better to be funny than true. Or: if it's funny enough then it must have the force of truth.

And this forcefulness (and elegance: damn, look at those sentences, how they wind in an almost riverine way, and here's a little convergence between subject and form) is what remained with me later, and forms my memory of the edition. (This sort of dark rhetorical force also echoes solidly if far less amusingly though the Bowden essay, which if you haven’t read, um, get on that: start here with Sean Prentiss’s orientation).

My other revelation in the 1999 BAE is an essay much less concerned with spectacle, a subtler one that eschews showy rhetorical force: John Lahr’s “The Lion and Me,” a brief, exploratory memoir of his father, Bert Lahr, “the friendly absence who answered to the name of Dad,” who was best known for playing the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz.

John Lahr has had by this point a long and illustrious career as a theatre critic (and biographer of his father), and is likely known to you, but in 2010 I’d never heard of him (though I’d seen the film, of course, and the great set of weird and occasionally racist Frito Lay spots Bert recorded with the famous motto “No One Can Eat Just One”). John's written briefly here about these 1950 Lay’s ads and the odd fame and “new economic lease on life” that 1950s television brought “the low comedians who had dominated popular entertainment in the first half of the century” and the strange life of media that “The Lion and Me” approaches more directly, since this essay ends up being in part about the caprice of fame and media, in this case The Wizard of Oz, possibly the best-known and most-watched film ever made, and his father’s ambivalent relationship with it:
When the song began onscreen, Dad swiveled around in his chair to watch himself; once the song was over, he stepped forward and switched over to football.
     “Dad!” we cried.
     “Watch it in Jane’s room,” he said.
     “Is it gonna kill you, Bert?”
     Dad’s beaky profile turned toward Mom; his face was a fist of irritation. “Look, Mildred, I see things,” he said. “Things I coulda…I’m older now. There’s stuff I coulda done better”… His performance was enough for the world; it wasn’t enough for him.
I haven’t read John’s 1969 biography, Notes on a Cowardly Lion, that he mentions in this essay, but with my taste whetted by "The Lion and Me," I figure I'm now bound to. I imagine it would be particularly instructive to consider the space between that book (409 pages in a 1984 edition) and this 10-page essay, published nearly 30 years later (or the even shorter 2-page essay linked above, published even later, in 2011: we also note that these visits to the memory of his father keep getting shorter). I wonder if John shies away from looking at that biography for the same reason that his father didn’t want to watch The Wizard of Oz, and if this moment spent with the father’s reluctance is meant to suggest his own?

These are the stories we know and remember and keep telling ourselves about our lives and our fathers, though the angle of the narrative changes and sometimes even inverts. Do they always get shorter, more condensed, the further we are away from them?

Wisely, though, the essay’s angled more at the father—the lion—than the self, and in describing the space between the selves that Bert presented:
the bittersweet comedy of his self-absorption…. Any lessons Dad taught about excellence, courage, perseverance, discipline, and integrity we got from his stage persona. His best self—the one that was fearless, resourceful, and generous, and that told the truth—was what he saved for the public, which included us; otherwise, as every relative of a star knows, the family had to make do with what was left over.
John's is a bittersweet essay, filtered now through three more decades of living. Since he became a father himself in 1976, he began to learn some new things about performance and truth and parenting, subjects only suggested herein in passing. And as in the brief essay linked above, Lahr points us back to technology, a seemingly everpresent consideration at the turn of the millennium, what with all our computers about to flip from 99 to 00.

As it turns out, technology is a major subject of most of the BAE introductions, particularly the latter years, and in many of our essayists’ responses to these anthologies, whether we’re lamenting the speed and shallowness of the culture and what that means for the sort of thinking that we seem to want to venerate, or whether it’s marveling at the quickness with which essays are now published and proliferate online, to write about time and the essay is to write about technology. If technology is a familiar subject for essays, more promising to me is the underwritten idea of the essay as technology, what exactly it does—what it used to do, what it still does, how it compresses and elides and sometimes seems to entirely stop time. And what it means for these yearly anthologies to encapsulate some little sample of the culture, no matter how flawed or weird or wack or idiosyncratic or limiting. Either way, some essays rise up and are preserved, remembered slightly better here. They fail to disappear as we might otherwise expect. What we’re reading when we’re reading old years of BAE is how one thinker (or a pair—guest editor and Atwan, pilot and copilot) read the essayists who read the culture that year.

And, nope, it’s not fair what gets through the sieve and what remains. Both Lahrs know this well enough:
I think Dad knew that he was a hostage to technology: a Broadway star whose legend would go largely unrecorded while, by the luck of a new medium, performers who couldn’t get work on Broadway would be preserved and perpetuated in the culture. … What lives on is the Cowardly Lion. When I watch him now, I don’t see just the Lion; I see the echoes—the little touches and moves—of those long-forgotten sensational stage performances that Dad condensed into his evergreen role.
It's not fair, but it is interesting.

Where John's essays ends is not with the solo show in front of an audience or staring into a screen and thinking about the past, but with a desire for connection, for the continuance of our conversations, always a winning move for me (and a founding notion of this website):
I’m pushing sixty now, but I find that the conversation with one’s parents doesn’t end with the grave. I want Dad back to finish the discussion—to answer some questions, to talk theater, to see me now. Almost anywhere in the city these days, I can turn the corner and run into him.…I go to buy some wrapping paper at the stationery store, and his face stares at me from the greeting-card rack. “Hiya, Pop,” I find myself saying, and continue on my way.
I like to think of that, the years between this anthology’s publication and my encounter with it five years ago, and now rereading it again this December, and being surprised again by what’s here, the force and subtlety of discovery. I don't know when I'll next come across one of the old years of the Best American Essays, or when my years will become old enough to see this essay recede and shrink, but I look forward to my next random bear—or lion—attack and promise to say hello and to spend an afternoon or longer with it before continuing on my way.


Ander Monson's most recent book is Letter to a Future Lover (Graywolf, 2015). He is one of the curators of this site.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

BAE 1998 read by Craig Reinbold: On Annie Dillard, Fanatic

It’s never easy writing about your heroes, up on their pedestals, cast in bronze. The only way to do it, really, is to knock them down a bit.

The worst I can say about Annie Dillard is that she is, more or less, a regular person. Or this might just be rumor? This secondhand intel came from a poetry professor at the U. of Southern Mississippi, where I was once briefly a graduate student, and where this prof and I occasionally drank from the same communal coffee pot. There were only a handful of us in the department who indulged in this bottomless Folgers (snobs, the rest of them!) and I occasionally ran into her between classes, in the closet where the coffee pot lived, simmering its life away. 

One day, offhandedly, this poetry professor mentioned meeting Dillard at a conference, or something, or maybe she was once her student and actually knew her (?), I can’t remember, but the point is, Teaching a Stone to Talk and especially Holy the Firm are two of my all-time favorite essays/essay collections, and Dillard, for me, has always existed on another, ethereal, plane. She’s a sibyl, an oracle, a Pythia with an oleander crown and wearing golden robes and—

“Actually, she was just wearing pants when I saw her. Khakis, I think,” said the poetry professor. “And a sweater, or maybe it was a shawl?” And, “And actually, this is interesting: that creek, you know, from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek—where’s the creamer, the non-dairy stuff? Thanks—it’s just, like, a ditch or something."

“A ditch?”

“Yeah, someone who went to visit the spot said it’s just a little ditch with some water in it and some mud and some bugs, and that’s it.” 

I wasn’t too disillusioned by this revelation about the creek being little more than a ditch—I mean, who cares? But Dillard in khakis? Khakis and a sweater! Not even a little crown of gemstones or a tiara or something? I mean, c’mon, this woman won a Pulitzer at 29! 


I didn’t choose to write about the Best American Essays 1989 because of Dillard, though inevitably when I come back to it, after this, it will be to re-visit her here. Her essay, “Schedules”, well, there’s a lot to it, but I’d like to focus, more or less, on this: 
It was on summer nights in Roanoke, Virginia, that I wrote the second half of a book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek… I had a room—a study carrel—in the Hollins College library, on the second floor. It was this room that overlooked a tar-and-gravel roof. A plate-glass window, beside me on the left, gave out a number of objects: the roof, a parking lot, a distant portion of Carvin’s Creek, some complicated Virginia sky, and a fair hilltop where six cows grazed around a ruined foundation under red cedars. From my desk I kept an eye out.
She writes of being distracted by the world outside this window, until eventually she “shut the blinds one day for good…lowered the venetian blinds and flattened the slats.” She kept herself to a strict schedule after that, the routine that wrote the book:
I slept until noon, as did my husband, who was also writing. I wrote once in the afternoon, and once again after our early dinner and a walk. During those months I subsisted on that dinner, coffee, Coke, chocolate milk, and Vantage cigarettes. I worked till midnight, one, or two.
To illustrate this devotion she recounts how her husband and their friends drove off to the city for some July 4th festivities, and how she demurred: “I begged off; I wanted to keep working. I was working hard, although of course it did not seem hard enough at the time—a finished chapter every few weeks. I castigated myself daily for writing too slowly…”

And she did it. She wrote the book, the book that won her the Pulitzer at age 29, that set her up with the privileges that come with literary success, namely, more time and freedom to keep writing. She did it. And how?

Devotion turned to fanaticism, her word, for what it took to write the book as she did.

“During that time,” she writes in the essay’s coda, “I let all the houseplants die. After the book was finished I noticed them; the plants hung completely black, dead in their pots in the bay window. For I had not only let them die, I had not moved them.”


She would also be divorced, “amicably”, soon after, though as a writer she’s much too reserved to drop this into the mix here, at least not directly. She let the plants die. Any implications lie between the lines.


I too went through a period in my late twenties when I barred myself in a study carrel, not all night, but all day, though unlike Dillard I have nothing, really, to show for it. No Pulitzer, obviously, but no book either. No tenure-track teaching job. No teaching job. No time or freedom to write—I’m writing this on stolen time actually (I'm supposed to be studying glycolysis and the Kreb cycle!).

In truth, I barred myself in that study carrel, but only 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and many days I’d ditch out early, wanting to enjoy a walk with my wife before making dinner. And I kept my weekends free, for living, rather than writing. Mine was a more measured fanaticism. Not fanatical enough, apparently.

Even in my 20s, when I was young, and pushing hard, I was never the type to let the plants die. There's no smugness in my saying this. If anything, I admit this with some regret. If that awesome fanaticism is what it takes, not just to write a book, and get that book published, but to make an actual life out of your art, out of writing, then I have entirely failed. Some people are destined for greatness, literary or otherwise, and some are stuck, forever, middling, where exactly? Here? Where is here? I don't know—it's not even on the fucking map. Fuck.

I was seven when the BAE came out in '89. Then in the 2nd grade and still wearing striped athletic socks stretched to just below the knee. That may have been the winter I also wore a pleather bomber jacket, stitched with wings and insignia, and various patches, black, like Maverick’s, though the neighbor boy, two houses over, had a brown bomber that I thought looked slightly cooler, and this is probably why he was the second most popular boy in our class of 22 while I was the third least popular. Oh, the quiet jealousy, the coveting. Much has changed since then—26 years have passed!—and much hasn't. Here I sit still quietly jealous, coveting.

Have I learned nothing?


Well, life is one long and tortuous learning process. Early in the essay, Dillard writes, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” I remind myself: Hey asshole, you just spent five hours on a Friday thinking deeply about life, and purpose, and meaning, and the art of writing. That's like the definition of privilege. Life is so good!

As the father of two someday-to-be-adults, I wonder what I will say to them when they feel like failures, as they inevitably will, at some point in their hopefully long and full lives. What will I say to my eldest, Ari, now just shy of 3 years old, if he fails to publish a book before he’s thirty? There’s always next year, I think, would be a good start. Then, Keep at it. And if my youngest, Jack, now 9 months, does, in fact, win a Pulitzer at 29, but ends up divorced that same year, possibly because while he was fanatically devoting himself to shaping pleasing sentences his marriage, untended, fell apart? I might suggest reevaluating priorities. But really who’s to say what will be right for him.

Dillard ends her essay with: “…the fanaticism of my twenties shocks me now. As I feared it would.” Not that she suggests she would have done anything differently, she doesn’t, but one senses, at least, a pause for reflection, and in that reflection, decision. And the decision is important. To make a conscious choice. To choose what sort of life you would like to lead, and live each day accordingly.


I’m going for a coffee, a small indulgence this beautiful December day, and then I think I'll steal another hour or two to reflect on this: I have no book, have nothing really to show for years of hard work, but at least our twenty or so houseplants are still kicking it. Indeed, they're thriving.

Craig Reinbold is one of the curators of Essay Daily. It's true, he has no book to his name, but his work has won some awards, been Notable'd in the BAE, nominated for several Pushcarts, and has appeared in many fine places, most recently in Zone 3. He spends his days alternately hanging out with his two boys and studying to become a nurse. 

Saturday, December 26, 2015

BAE 1997, read by Will Slattery

When I come to a book, I want very badly to love it deeply, to find myself enthralled and enraptured by it, to have new avenues of intimacy and perception opened within my mind, to come away ecstatic and electrified. If this is not possible, the next thing I want is to really fucking hate it, to be able to cast the book down in disgust and point at it with a baleful, imperious finger as I declaim that this shit right here is exactly what is wrong with essays/art/the academy/the world/etc etc etc. The Best American Essays 1997, edited by humorist Ian Frazier, denies me both of these experiences. It is a collection of mostly reflective, mostly humorous essays of uneven quality.
            But first, the publication stats: 24 essays total, most coming in under 5,000 words, with 5 from The New Yorker, 3 from The New York Times Magazine, 2 from Harper’s, 1 from The Oxford American, 1 from The Paris Review, 1 from The New Republic, 1 from The Threepenny Review, 1 from Allure, 1 from High Plains Literary Review, 1 from Sports Afield, 1 from The Atlantic, 1 from Under the Sun, 1 from Creative Nonfiction, 1 from The Missouri Review, 1 from Esquire, 1 from The Massachusetts Review, and 1 from Granta. Nothing too surprising here: as with many years, BAE is dominated by the major New York publications, with a smattering of national magazines and well-regarded literary journals.
            And secondly, the quirky ephemera: my copy of BAE 1997 came used, with an inscription on the title page reading “Happy 20th Birthday, Love Mom + Dad” (evidently the gift was not well-received?), a red ribbon straddling page 160 and 161, smack in the middle of Lauren Slater’s emotionally claustrophobic Black Swans, which recounts the repetitive horrors of her struggles with OCD. This essay has been diligently and methodically marked up in purple highlighter, though no other essay in the collection has received such attention. I suspect that one of the previous owners bought the book just for this essay, though there is no way to ever confirm this.
            And now, the main gist: it was difficult not to think of this collection as The Fourth State of Matter & Other Essays rather than as The Best American Essays of 1997. And who could blame me for being drawn to this particular monument, for wanting to read the whole collection in light of it? Jo Ann Beard’s account of the 1991 University of Iowa shootings is easily one of the best known contemporary essays. I teach it to my Intro to Creative Nonfiction undergraduate students, and almost every intro-level instructor I know teaches it in one form or another. When asked by strangers—on planes, in bars, in waiting rooms, and in all the other places of forced, inescapable conversation—to clarify “what creative nonfiction is” I usually just tell them to read The Fourth State of Matter. I’ve re-read it for teaching or research or whatever probably 4-5 times in the last 18 months. Normally I approach this essay in my teaching persona, and I always nudge/persuade/coerce my students into talking about Beard’s prose on a near-microscopic line-by-line level: what kind of details does she provide? Does she use particular sonic patterns? Is her vocabulary more Latinate or more Anglo-Saxon? Are her sentences long or short? Are there recurring sentence structures? What sort of metaphors does she rely most heavily on? That teaching persona makes me seem like some kind of deranged whip-brandishing New Critical martinet, obsessed with cracking the codes of style and technique, and so it was a pleasure, maybe even a relief, to read it this time with an eye towards the holistic experience.
            And it holds up beautifully. The Fourth State of Matter is elegant and brutal in all the right ways, with a swerve that still feels forceful and yet inevitable even after so many re-reads. Nothing demonstrates the sheer excellence of this essay better than the ending, an imagined conversation with a departed friend:
In a few hours the world will resume itself, but for now we’re in a pocket of silence. We’re in the plasmapause, a place of equilibrium, where the forces of the earth meet the forces of the sun. I imagine it as a place of stillness, where the particles of dust stop spinning and hang motionless in deep space.
Around my neck is the stone he brought me from Poland. I hold it out. Like this? I ask. Shards of fly wings, suspended in amber.
Exactly, he says.
            But Beard’s essay feels a bit like an anomaly in this collection, which is dominated by short, mostly wry essays, sometimes a little thinky, sometimes a little nostalgic, sometimes a little ranty, and sometimes a little mysterious. The strongest of these is probably Hilton Als’ Notes on My Mother, an elliptical unfolding of an enigmatic relationship, which opens with an absolutely killer line--“Until the end, my mother never discussed her way of being”—and keeps that balance of smart lyricism and pleasing opacity all the way through:
All the women in my family wanted me to become a black male for the same reason: they wanted to define themselves against me. I tried to please them, because I adored them. I thought that being an auntie man was a fair compromise, but it wasn’t.
Alphabetical ordering means that Als opens the collection, and Joy Williams closes it by channeling the snarky spirit of H. L. Mencken for The Case Against Babies, an essay bubbling over with joyous condemnation of reproduction, of overpopulation, of ecological arrogance, of all the bullshit sentimentality that comes with anything involving babies. What lies between these two, Beard and a few other exceptions aside, ranges from pleasing-yet-forgettable personal essays to sheer crap. Dagoberto Gilb has an amusing anecdote about the whirlwind of emotions that came when he first saw a stranger reading one of his book in public. Cythia Ozick, Lukie Chapman Reilly, Frank Gannon, Charles Simic, and Naton Leslie all have well-executed reflections on some variant of family story or history. Gay Talese’s Ali in Havana has an absurd, wonderful concept—Muhammad Ali meets Fidel Castro at a really awkward formal reception!—but at 13,000-ish words the piece just drags and drags and drags, failing to keep me awake for the ensuing carefully-observed international comedy of manners (I was unsurprised to find out, through judicious use of Google, that Talese saw 12 rejections for this piece before Esquire agreed to publish it). Susan Sontag offers a truncated, phoned-in history of the decline of cinema as an art form. Thomas McGuane’s Twenty-Fish Days, published originally in Sports Afield, gives us a narrative example of the “kind of poetic singularity” that sometimes accompanies fishing trips. I am certain there are readers, somewhere out there, who care deeply about the “poetic singularity” made possible by fortuitous angling. I am not one of those readers.
I should make a special note here about how I am deeply drawn to, despite myriad reservations, My Habit, Paul Sheehan’s essay about his crack vial collection (which, at 562 entries, was easily the largest crack vial collection in the world). Sheehan willfully, almost dickishly, ignores all the big stuff—he doesn’t want to talk seriously about the racial implications of drug policy, or the socioeconomic structures, or any of the half-dozen other loaded issues. He doesn’t use crack. He just wants to collect a ton of crack vials, for reasons he admits he doesn’t fully understand, and this leads him to wander the streets of New York, at odd hours in odd places, looking for vials with new colors, new caps, or new designs. Sometimes he pretends to be a priest while doing so, because evidently people ask fewer questions when priests dig around in the trash or the snow for crack vials. There’s something oddly charming about this man’s “obsessional predicament”, about this fucked up flâneur, this perambulating asshole who lets us have a little peek into his mind, who lets us feel up the textures of his weird brain for a few minutes.
This is, I think, what we mean when we talk about essay-as-a-verb, when we talk about the mind of the author being consubstantial with the text (or however that damned Montaigne quote goes), what Ian Frazier meant in the introduction, when he talked about “the voice unspooling in the essay’s present time”. Those of us who write essays unspool ourselves in this weird, intimate, idiosyncratic sphere, and the best essays from BAE 97 tended to be the ones who directly owned up to that. Frazier described his individual selection process as follows: “I think the essays in this collection are great. I liked many essays that I did not choose, but I liked these the best. To say what moved me about various specific ones would not be to tell you much of use to you.” When I first read that, I thought it was a bit of a cop-out, a lazy way of getting out of the hard work of justifying his decisions. But I’ve come around to Frazier’s side: sometimes you like the jerk with the crack vial collection, and sometimes you don’t.
Will Slattery helps curate Essay Daily. He is an ex-cheesemonger, a CNF MFA candidate, and was once described by a friend, during a heated argument, as “a violent homosexualist”. He tweets on occasion: @wjaslattery.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Nicole Wallack on Robert Atwan's Art of the Foreword

“[E]very work, be it fiction or serious treatise, is embaled in some fantastic wrappage, some mad narrative accounting for its appearance, and connecting it with the author, who generally becomes a person in the drama itself, before all is over.” 
—Thomas Carlyle, on Jean Paul Richter (1827).

Robert Atwan’s deep belief in the essay’s inexhaustible mystery and reward has sustained thirty years (and counting) of annual, public meditation on the genre in his forewords to The Best American Essays. As Atwan tells us in his foreword to 1997, the series has always sought to highlight “the essay’s astonishing variety” (1997, xii); it does so “in two ways: by screening essays from an enormous range of periodicals and by inviting a distinguished American writer to serve each year as the guest editor” (1997, xii). Yes, diversity is truly wonderful in its many guises, ecologies, and generic expressions. For the series to have thrived for so long, however, it has needed the audible presence of Robert Atwan as a thinker and essayist in each volume. Every year, he teaches himself and his readers a little more about what Virginia Woolf famously called, “the peculiar form.” In the essay, Atwan has found a “durable” and capacious art, practice, map for a key trajectory of American literature, and corrective to what he sees as the strictures of writing and thinking in school. The Best American Essays rightfully can be credited for at some of the essay’s current success in online and print journals; the exponential increase in courses and programs in creative nonfiction; a burgeoning interest in Essay Studies within departments of literature and Composition; and, as Atwan notes (first with some reservations in 2007, then with many fewer in 2010), how could there be a blogosphere without writers creating as blog posts what Phillip Lopate has called elsewhere, “essays in disguise” (2010, xiv)?
     Keep company with Atwan for a little longer over these years, and we increasingly appreciate him as a thinker who has worked hard to develop a high tolerance for his own uncertainty, especially about essays; at the same time, he holds himself accountable for trying to articulate his own ideas about essays as they deepen, become obsolete, or get replaced by better ones. At key moments—the most fruitful in these forewords—he highlights challenges we face as we try to read in ways that change us, write essays that cannot be graded by a machine, have ideas of our own, tell truths in nonfiction, and name touchstone qualities of essays so that we can learn from one another about them.

Once there was a boy from a Catholic household in Paterson, New Jersey, who loved books. His father didn’t. He preferred to follow the horse races in New York tabloid papers. Reflecting in 2011 on how he came to be an “anthologist,” Atwan recounts a childhood and adolescence when he was “not just a voracious and undiscriminating reader,” but an “obsessive” one (2011, xii). He went to Catholic school, and admits with a mix of emotions in which understandable pride wins out: “[a]s far back as the first grade, I enjoyed reading anything and everything. I even loved to read the required Baltimore catechism with its endlessly fascinating questions—‘Why did God make us?’—and all the textbooks the good sisters passed out to us on the first day of school each year” (2011, xi-xii). Yes, we read this right—the textbooks, too. Directed to the Paterson library in the first week in high school by one of the nuns, and awed by the “imposing building with its stately columns,” Atwan reports that becoming a card-carrying member of this institution conferred adulthood on him, at least in his own mind (2011, xii-xiii). Among the countless volumes, young Robert felt complete assurance that he “would never be bored in [his] life,” but also “a terrifying rush of unknown possibilities” (2011, xiii). Access to endless books, and a readerly constitution that demanded new material fueled years of Atwan’s formal and self-directed educations.
     It took until graduate school, while working through an interpretation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I, for Atwan to recognize that he “had been reading literature for years with proficiency and passion but without aesthetic insight” (2010, xi). In retrospect, Atwan notes this better kind of reading requires not only the capacity to understand and document what we read, but to reread, looking for how writers “wire” their work in patterns of ideas, tones, and structure (2010, xii). To become a reader who can see the “circuitry” of a text, we need to give up the easy pleasure of finding in literature a mirror of our own beliefs, preferences, and values. So we need to be interested in others, as well as their works’ effects upon us. Atwan recalls in his 2006 foreword that as a younger reader, encountering Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge for the first time, he was drawn into the book because of his fascination with Larry Durrell, and Durrell’s erotic hold over his ex-fiancé, Isabel Maturin (2006, x). The act of rereading this book many years later surprises Atwan as he notices Maugham’s audacious blending of fiction and nonfiction techniques. Maugham draws the narrator as Maugham himself, “the famous writer, identified as such, complete with references to his previous novels and many biographical details” (2006, x); the whole book is structured as the writer’s memoir. For Atwan, cultivating better readers is a challenging task, but one that literary works—and essays as much as any—need in order to thrive, regardless of whether readers encounter those works in print or online. Some of the responsibility for teaching readers resides with authors and editors.
     In each of the volumes, Atwan invites readers to assume as wide a variety of stances towards the essays as the writers themselves enjoy—and we need this kind of understanding and welcome. We can read each year’s volume as the contributors’ “attempts…to come to honest terms with the varieties of American experience” (1993, ix). We also can seek out essays that may focus less on key events, people, and phenomena of a particular year, and instead look for those that express more broadly the American essay’s Emersonian inheritance: “the importance of process, renewal, and originality, a respect for the individual angle of perception and the common flow of experience” (Atwan, 2003, x). And if, like Emerson, we seek thinkers and writers whose choices of language, form, and presence “unsettle all things,” well, we can read for that, too, and find plenty to fulfill us in any volume.
     Atwan emphasizes across these forewords the essay’s embrace of formal experiment: he tells us that Annie Dillard’s choices in 1988, “blur the boundaries of criticism, biography, and exposition….They play tricks with narration…undermine our confidence that we can know the writer through the writing” (1988; x). In 1991, Joyce Carol Oates’s selections are notable for how diversity as an idea, value, and practice shape contemporary essays’ form: “Here are reflections and meditations, philosophical fragments, personal narratives and anecdotes, cultural critiques and impassioned arguments….Today’s essay assumes many shapes…” (1991, x). He explains the series’ commitment to diversity more fully in 1997, in his foreword to the volume edited by Ian Frazier, which “introduces a major strain of the essay that most previous volumes had surprisingly underplayed: humor” (1997, xiii). Essayists’ willingness to work across genres, topics, and stances, demonstrate a strength of essays as a form, and potentially a limit or problem for the identity of “essayist.” Essayists “use the whole bag of tricks” of literary practice to make their work, “artful, true, and believable” (1989, x). However, Atwan wonders, even in 2015, about how many writers there are who we might consider “true essayists” (xii)—artists who write essays primarily—in the lineage of Montaigne, Emerson, and White (and I would add Rodriguez, Ozick, Didion, Jordan, and Sontag).
     If there can be people who are “true essayists,” there might be something called, “true essays,” although the kind of truth at stake here has nothing to do with verifiable events, or fact-checked episodes that essayists relate. This truth is about whether there is a genre that we can call “essay” and be relatively confident that we can communicate our understanding to others. Atwan returns repeatedly in this series to four qualities we can find in all essays that have lasted beyond their moment of composition: 1) they explore original ideas about specific topics; 2) they include the vivid presence of the writer who readers can discern and track; and 3) they incorporate moments of both self-awareness and skepticism primarily through reflection; and 4) they resist what Atwan calls “standardization” in content or form.
     Of these issues, the first is the one to which Atwan returns the most frequently and subsumes some of the others. He muses about the relationship between contemplation and literary craft in essays in the very first foreword of 1986: “Thought and expression, substance and style: the essayist shuttles between these fuzzy boundaries, now settling down with ideas and exposition, now searching for eloquence and charm” (x). Over the years, Atwan explores why when reading essays it is hard to appreciate fully Virginia Woolf’s notion from “The Modern Essay” (1925) that “[t]he art of writing has for backbone some fierce attachment to an idea.” This quotation appears in the first forward, but becomes the generative focus in 1992, for the volume edited by Susan Sontag. He notes of Sontag’s choices, “If anything can be said to link these diverse selections together, it is the passion that informs them. Throughout the collection we find many ‘fierce attachments,’ either the writer’s or the subject’s…. [i]ntellectual passions to be sure but erotic ones, too—when, of course, the distinction applies” (1992, x). The impulses of logos and eros need not be at odds with one another in essays, and, in fact, if an essayist hopes to make something lasting in her or his work, they cannot be.
     Atwan’s own work reflects his “fierce attachments” no less visibly. Read Atwan’s forewords to 2003 (on Emerson), 2004 (on Agnes Repplier), 2012, and 2014 (on Montaigne) and see how each contributes to an evolving theory on the relationship between what essays are, and what they do (for writers and readers). He has written on Emerson more extensively outside the Best American series than he has on any other single essayist. His chapter, “‘Ecstasy & Eloquence’: The Method of Emerson’s Essays” (in Alexander Butrym’s 1989 collection), charts Emerson’s path to the essay as he sought “a vehicle that would allow him to give his creativity full rein, to take risks with conventional structures and logical organization, to turn traditional rhetoric inside out” (Atwan, 109). And rhetoric, at least as he has seen it taught (and taught it himself) in first year composition courses, needs urgently this undoing. He relates in 1998 a familiar and dispiriting experience of having students in his writing course who could not work their way out of writing the five-paragraph “theme.” It was awful because it was formulaic, but more important, it was “a charade. It not only paraded relentlessly to its conclusion; it began with its conclusion. It was all about its conclusion. Its structure permitted no change of direction, no reconsideration, no wrestling with ideas” (xii). That is, the essay that we teach in school forbids students their own messiness and complexity and potential for surprise—the kind the Emerson recognizes that Americans needed in his time, and which we need in ours. Atwan demonstrates through his own close and impassioned analysis how in Emerson’s essays we can detect “a strenuous pulling in two directions—rhetoric against poetry, line against circle, intension against ecstasy” (E&E, 114), a tension that gives force to the work without resolution. “Ecstasy & Eloquence” leaves one wishing for the book on Emerson Atwan has in him.
     We can glimpse more about what this book might delve into at greater depth in his foreword to 2003’s volume, guest-edited by Anne Fadiman. In 2003, Fadiman was also the editor of the journal, The American Scholar. Atwan notes that 2003 marks Emerson’s bicentennial, which gives him many reasons to return to Emerson’s “The American Scholar,” for a few more pages. Here, he makes the case that Emerson’s influence can be felt in today’s essays but indirectly. The 21st century American essay seems in many ways to be the anthesis of the Emersonian one in many ways that matter: we expect our essayists’ voices to be “familiar, conversational, even intimate,” and share “personal stories” full of details (x). Yet Emerson “stubbornly refuses” our desires; he “prefers what he calls ‘severe abstraction’” (x). Although we might support the idea that writing our detailed experiences is a democratic way to share and show our difficult truths, Atwan prompts us to consider whether we also need more “telling” in our contemporary essays—more abstraction or severity, maybe both. In “The American Scholar,” and Emerson’s work generally, Atwan finds a writer who not only provides guidance for how to read an essay, “as the enactment of an individual mind in process” (xii) but also a reason (perhaps the reason) why we should: Americans are not sufficiently skeptical of the ideas that most influence us, especially our own. Atwan reminds us that we misunderstand Emerson when we let him persuade us: “Emerson wanted us to remain always wary of persuasive claims, to worry about the slippery slope between intellectual influence and intellectual tyranny” (x). Emerson offers an important warning to readers and attempts through his example to provide a bulwark against our own credulity. Writers also need to be vigilant; there seems to be no limit to the ways we can dupe ourselves into not thinking as hard as we should in our work.
     As Atwan mentions in this current Essay Daily series, typically he limits his forewords to approximately seven paragraphs. That certainly was true in the first decade of the series, but in the last five years the length has increased, and in the process, he’s occasionally added titles. No surprise, perhaps, that the longest of these, running sixteen paragraphs, is his 2012 foreword called “Of Topics.” The essay begins with a pedagogical dilemma he has faced in creative writing courses: What might account for the fact for many students, an essay “is wholly autobiographical, pure and simple….Textured and original description is minimal, as are—if I may use the word—ideas. Forget surprising metaphors or memorable observations. Missing, too, is the one literary element that the greatest essays thrive on—reflection” (ix). Atwan’s concern has been sounded before by many other essayists and teachers of the essay. Phillip Lopate delves into some of the possible reasons that students might resist being explicit about their ideas in his essay from 2005, originally published in Fourth Genre, “Reflection and Retrospection: A Pedagogic Mystery Story.” Locate suggests students may have “a narcissistic attachment to [a] younger ignorant self, so fragile, so guileless, and [want] to protect it from the contamination of intellectual sophistication”(6); or their resistance may reflect “an unwillingness to relinquish their rage” at the deep hurts and trauma that draw them to write nonfiction narratives and motivate them (8). Both Lopate and Atwan highlight a diacritical difference between the writer’s motive for composing, and the reader’s need to understand an essay’s exigence: Ideas not only answer the “so what?” question for readers, but also shape significantly the writer’s presence in the essay. Students would benefit from discovering as did Montaigne, Joseph Addison, William Hazlitt, Emerson, and Woolf that having a topic does not imply that the writing will not be personal—“based often on subjective experience and an individual perspective” (Atwan, 2012, x), but it would change the contract that the essayist makes with the reader. Instead of promising that we will learn more about the writer as the primary focus of the essay, topics give writers an occasion to do something other than narrate their experiences.
     The essay offers writers a gift, Atwan reminds us, “at the core of the genre is an unmistakable receptivity to the ever-shifting processes of our minds and moods…the truest examples of the form enact that ever-shifting process, and in that enactment we can find the basis for the essay’s qualification to be regarded seriously as imaginative literature and the essayist’s claim to be taken seriously as a creative writer” (xiv). We could hear Atwan sounding a warning, too; we cannot forget that the essay as artistic, intellectual practice comes with significant responsibilities. The essay (“The essay?”) may be capacious, adaptive, and responsive to subject matter, historical and political contexts, and the proclivities of the writer’s mind. Atwan enacts in his forewords, and in his dedication to The Best American Essays as an extended cultural inquiry, the ethics of both making our minds visible, and being brave in all ways when we reach the limits of what we know.


Nicole B. Wallack is the Director of Columbia University’s Undergraduate Writing Program in the Department of English and Comparative Literature and an Associate of the Institute for Writing and Thinking at Bard. Her recent essays and reviews have appeared in Public Books and Fourth Genre. Her book, Crafting Presence: The American Essay and the Future of Writing Studies (Utah State University Press, 2016), argues for an essay-centered curriculum in both high school and college. Crafting Presence highlights The Best American Essays' contributions to genre theory, and demonstrates how we can teach students to craft thinking presences in their essays, by drawing on reading and writing techniques from the fields of Composition, Creative Writing, and literature. She can be reached at this email.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

David L. Ulin on Best American Essays 2011

I want to look at The Best American Essays 2011 by considering a single essay, but first, there’s another essay we need to discuss. Earlier this month, in the aftermath of the shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California, The New York Times published a piece by Susan Straight, who lives ten miles from the site of the carnage, in Riverside. Straight is a cogent observer of life in Southern California; her essay in Best American, which was originally published in The Believer and is called “Travels with My Ex,” traces an encounter with a California Highway Patrol officer that is common but also particular. “He’s pulling her over,” Straight’s ex-husband mutters, as he watches, from behind the steering wheel of a second car, their daughter get stopped on the freeway. “Of course he is. Car full of black kids in the OC.” These aren’t someone else’s kids, however; they are Straight’s kids, which leads to a full-on song and dance of accommodation, rage and resignation and embarrassment. “If there’s anything scarier than Fits the Description,” she explains, “it’s Routine Traffic Stop. … The names or faces we’ve learned over the years. A brother in Signal Hill. Rodney King. The Baller’s basketball coach’s brothers, both of them. My younger brother’s best friend. Shot nineteen times in his white truck as he maneuvered on the center divider of the freeway having refused to pull over. He might have been high.”
     Straight’s New York Times essay relies on a similar sort of movement: to take what had by then already become part of an ongoing national narrative and frame it in the most personal terms. Ongoing national narrative? More like a pair of ongoing national narratives, the most dominant national narratives we have: terrorism and guns. “My daughter had called me the night before,” Straight writes, “voice trembling, about a news story she saw on a 52-year-old waitress who was killed when she asked a customer not to smoke. ‘She was you, Mom,’ she said. ‘She was an ordinary lady working night shift at Waffle House! That’s already a hard job, and somebody shoots her in the face because he can’t light a cigarette!’”
     What does this have to do with San Bernardino? Everything, as it turns out. “Since my eldest daughter was born 26 years ago,” Straight explains, “our family has lost 57 relatives, friends and neighbors to gun violence. My nephew, also 26, wrote his will at age 13 after two friends his age were hunted by gang members and shot, one on a porch and one in a car a few blocks from our house.” It’s impossible to read that passage without thinking of “Travels with My Ex.” In both pieces, Straight keeps steering away from abstraction, bringing us consistently back to the real. “[F]inally,” she writes in The New York Times, “a mechanical arm reached inside a shattered window and pulled out a limp body, which fell unceremoniously into the street.” The body is that of either Syed Farook or Tashfeen Malik, the husband and wife who perpetrated the San Bernardino attack. And yet, that phrase “limp body”—it says exactly what it means, no association, just a body, stripped of agency, that was once a human being. In that moment, the attacker becomes human, not a symbol or an emblem but a person, and the precipitating act becomes personal, as if it could refer to any one of us.
     What I’m talking about is empathy, what I’m talking about is writing between the lines. What I’m talking about is framing everything through the filter of the human, both victims and perpetrators alike. For Straight, the key element is less terrorism than proximity; “Wednesday,” she tells us, “I watched as a mass shooting unfolded on the street where my mother had recent heart surgery, where yards and fences looked so familiar from the aerial view. A place I know.” The essay ends with her ex-husband, calling from a street in San Bernardino, where he is waiting to be picked up by his company’s van. “I get scared,” he says. “I wanted you to know where I was, in case I get shot. Out here, I never know. A black guy thinks I’m in a gang, a Latino guy thinks I’m in a gang, a cop thinks I did something. It could be a white guy who just doesn’t like me. … Then I get in the van and have to hear the radio turned to Rush Limbaugh, and I know he hates me.”
     “Travels with My Ex” involves the same man, the same relationship, the same unspoken fears. After their daughter gets pulled over, Straight swings into action; “My job,” she writes, “is to be the short blond mom.” She approaches the officer, explains the family caravan. “We’re on our way to the beach for a birthday party!” she chirps. “Her dad and I didn’t want to get separated, ’cause we might never see each other again!” We’ve all been there: this move, or assertion of parental status, this stepping in to take care of our kids. But Straight is also walking directly into a minefield of race and privilege, which has ramifications beyond what is happening alongside the road. “The little women,” she confides, “hate when I do this. They imitate me viciously afterward. They hate that I have to do it and that I am good at it.” To help her kids, in other words, she has to bear the burden of their approbation, their disgrace. “Toni Morrison’s novel Sula,” she remembers later. “The mother and daughter are on a train traveling from Ohio to Louisiana, and when the white conductor berates them for being out of the Colored car, the mother smiles at him, a placating, unnecessary show of teeth, and the black passengers hate her, and her daughter is ashamed of the custard-colored skin, and her weakness.” This is how Straight feels about herself.
     One of the requirements of essay writing is to bare these moments, to show our vulnerability and our shame. This, too, is part of the mechanism of empathy, the way it opens up a territory we all share. When I read such a passage—as when I read the expression of her ex-husband’s fear on that San Bernardino corner—I identify, even though this is not my experience. I identify because I have done the same thing for my children, presented the same face to authority, the same uncertain grin. This is what an essay does, uncovers the commonalities between us by revealing the specificity of the author’s life. The universal particular, let’s call it, as in: The more specific or particular an essay is, the more universal it becomes. I think of Straight, trying to make sense of the massacre in San Bernardino or trying to protect her daughter, and I see myself. In that act of revealing, she turns the mirror back on us.


DAVID L. ULIN is the author, most recently, of Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles. A 2015 Guggenheim Fellow, he spent ten years as book editor and book critic of the Los Angeles Times.