Monday, March 21, 2016

Truth or Dare: On Imaginative Essays, Genre Transgression, and Shared Voyages

I. It started with Virginia Dare.

Like most Americans, I learned about The Lost Colony as a child—in fourth grade social studies class. The mysterious disappearance of the English settlement at Roanoke. The group led by John White numbered over a hundred when they left England in 1587, including White’s own pregnant daughter Eleanor, who gave birth at Roanoke. The baby, Virginia, was the first English child born in America. Even as a kid, I loved a good mystery, but I never wondered about what happened to the colony as a whole, or thought about them much at all, except as it pertained to Virginia whose newness captured me—a baby conveyed across the ocean in utero and planted like a seed in the New World. Virginia Dare. Her first name for a Virgin Queen, the second, a verb meaning courage. What would such a child have been like, I wondered over the years, until, a few years ago, I decided to pose the question to Virginia herself, in an essay, of course—because the essay is the best way I know to handle questions that don’t leave:

II. Teams of scientists have been searching the Roanoke site for years, analyzing bone fragments and combing through the soil. They will eventually settle the whole mess of The Lost Colony. But what will that have to do with what I most want to know? Some truths can’t be found in a compilation of facts. Some truths only reveal themselves when a person puts down their shovel and pick and opens their arms wide enough to receive a child gone missing for nearly four hundred and thirty years.

So I called out. But could such a long-gone child possibly hear? And even if such hearing were possible, would she recognize so strange a voice?

Yes. The answer is yes.

You will think I’ve gone soft in the head, that it couldn’t have been Virginia who answered and how right you’d be—though I’d be equally right to insist that a voice did return from the impossible distance into which I cast my line, a place which seemed to me very much like the outer Carolina Islands, a stretch of land navigable only through a tangle of letters and time, a wild space, from which a voice that was not my own rose from a lonely shore.

III. Literary resuscitation. It turns out to be habit-forming.

So good, in fact, I tried my hand at it again, bringing Susan B. Anthony back from the dead, standing with the suffragist on a late August day in 1920, the day the 19th amendment took effect—but only after bobbing her hair and setting her in a beaded dress at a speakeasy on Lake Ontario’s southern shore, the two of us watching bootleggers pull their boats into the bay.

I kept on. Dissolving the boundaries between imagination and reality and letting such habits infiltrate my essays. I climbed into the pages of a Kate Chopin story, inserted myself into 1890s Louisiana, standing under a canopy of tupelo and cypress trees while Chopin's main character, La Folle, decides whether or not to face down her greatest fear.

So close to fiction, all this imagining.

Ah, you might say, so you have an active imagination, that's not so bad.

But there’s more.

While I studied what I could find and read what others had written, it seemed the things I most needed to find, those small but essential moments, did not survive.

It wasn’t enough to report the facts of the tide of women leaving Ireland in the 19th century, I needed to stand with them for a moment, to feel the pulse of that boat as it pulled away from the Cork coastline, that ship loaded with mothers and fathers and children, moving faster than they expected from every last thing they knew. I wanted to be there with them for a moment, looking at the last bit of land before facing fully the blue before them. I wanted to stand there, between a group of girls leaving County Mayo, until I could almost feel their breath.

Do you see how far it’s gone?

IV. Which leads me to this confession, this sense of nagging unease.

If I were a fiction writer, there’d be no problem—I’d celebrate, in fact, and encourage myself to float further. But for going on fifteen years, I’ve loved the essay as much as a literary genre can be loved—for its movement, elasticity and poetic possibility, but most of all, for the direct connection to its writer, the throbbing honesty of its voice. If literary forms were friends, the essay might stammer a bit and take her time about it, but is the one genre who’d level with you about how your ass really looks in that dress. Which is why I stand before you now, an essay lover, more surprised than anybody that I may have gone astray.

When it comes to nonfiction, I'd always considered myself devout.

Which is to say that I tend to sit at a distance rolling my eyes when writers get into the Great Truth Debate. To me, it’s clear: If a fig tree grew in your front yard, don’t say it was an apple tree. If you make apples of figs, it’s fiction. And fiction is a fine thing. But a different thing, and I, for one, like to keep my genres straight. Hear the preaching in my voice? But only on this one thing, and not because I want to deprive anyone of apples or insist on figs, but because the inventional strategies of fiction lead to a different sort of truth than the essay, whose revelations rely on the act of sorting through the shards buried in the actual world, as well as those within us.

Still, all this preaching has me wondering if (as in life) those who are the most strident do not hide the largest transgressions? Except that, for all the imagining in my latest round of essays, I still find the line between the truth of the essay and the truth of fiction to be clear.

V. In the end, the way I make sense of the line between essay and story comes down to this:

  • The fiction writer creates a new world for readers (which, of course, is often created from existing parts).
  • The essayist guides readers through a new look at the existing world.

Perhaps more than anything, it’s the idea of writer as guide that is the essay’s heartbeat, it’s anchor. The claimed and outright presence of the writer that allows the reader to understand that—even during bouts of imagination—he is traveling with the writer. What matters most is how the writer filters and perceives, what she remembers, reports and wrestles with—the manner in which she renders her unique take on the world.

The essay is an invitation then, and, for better or worse, its trajectory and tone is largely about that invitation, the way it’s extended and delivered. The reader’s awareness of and connection to the writer is precisely what allows him to understand that no matter what’s put before him, he is, for the duration of the essay, on a shared voyage, and having a new look at the world by standing for a time at the writer’s side.

The guide may be clever, brooding, methodical, meditative, wise, funny, irreverent—and yes, even fanciful, but always, she is present in the work, whispering, here I am, let us travel for a time together.

Sonja Livingston's most recent book, Ladies Night at the Dreamland, combines history and imagination to illuminate the lives of women from America’s recent and distant past. She’s the author of the recent essay collection, Queen of the Fall, and the memoir, Ghostbread, which won an AWP Award in Nonfiction. Her writing has been honored with a New York Arts Fellowship, an Iowa Review Award, and Arts & Letters Essay Prize, and grants from Vermont Studio Center and The Deming Fund for Women. Sonja teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Memphis.


1. Virginia Dare Tobacco, label, (circa 1871)
2. From Virginia Dare: A Romance of the Sixteenth Century, by Mrs. E.A.B. Shackelford loosely based on the life of Virginia Dare (19th century)
3. John White's Map of Roanoke (1585)
4. Map, John White & Theodore De Bry (1590)

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