Saturday, July 30, 2016

Assay's Best American Essays Project Database is Live

Oh, hey there. As you know, we're fans of the Best American Essays, built and edited by Robert Atwan (see our Advent calendar from last year for year-by-year reads and revisitations of each BAE installment).

So we're super excited to hear that Assay has indexed and databased all of the BAE anthologies, and not just the official Bests but also the Notables, which makes for an awesome set of data for scholars of the essay. You can find and search it here. Easy to lose some time in there.

Thanks to them on behalf of all writers and readers and scholars of the contemporary American essay. Try looking up some of our favorite (and the series favorite) essayists: Cynthia Ozick (holds the record, just, for the most essays reprinted in BAEs) or Brian Doyle (close), for instance. Oh, this is a fun toy.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Of Bedrock: Reading Michel de Montaigne's “Of Practice”

Whosoever shall know himself, let him boldly speak it out.
—Michel de Montaigne

I spent last summer in France, living at a camp about an hour's drive from Michel de Montaigne's mansion in Bordeaux. For miles, if I were to leave camp and walk in almost any direction I'd be met only by farms, by fields of wheat or grass, or by thickets of tall trees where I could hide myself from the sun. There were trails around the camp, littered with the waste left behind by nearby resident swans and ducks, or with manure from the horses people sometimes rode through the woods. Whenever I thought of the horses I couldn't help but also think of how close I was to Montaigne's home—how, if I'd been able to rent a car, I could drive away from camp and find the place where Montaigne himself liked to walk in fields of grass or ride his own horse on a fine summer day.
            I once told a friend who was studying philosophy about my introduction to Montaigne's Essais in my MFA program. He'd also studied Montaigne in school, and he thought it was fascinating that the course I was in at the time, History of the Essay, examined Montaigne as a writer, rather than as a philosopher. It was then that I became aware of Montaigne being taught in philosophy programs, as well as how infrequently he might be taught within the milieu of creative writing. I came to understand Montaigne as a writer who fits neatly in different circles, and who is often taught to students accessing him from angles far different from my own.
            Of course there are other writers whose work might find its way onto syllabi not just in creative writing classes but in courses in other disciplines—names that immediately come to my mind are Roland Barthes, Hélène Cixous, Susan Sontag, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Jacques Derrida—and these are writers who've adopted modes of writing often examined through kaleidoscopic lenses, looked at as if they take on different shapes and colors every time we readers make a turn. In the light of the kaleidoscope, Montaigne's own work is no less colorful.

It's easy to wonder just how we should read Montaigne, and especially how to look closely at his essays. We could read him as a wise philosopher who's teaching us about idleness or cannibals, but looking at the writing itself is another game, coming at Montaigne from a wholly different direction—a re-strategizing, if you will, of our examination of one of France's great writers.
            We can begin, I think, with the qualities of the Montaignan essay, and what have since become the qualities of the personal essay. For the record, I don't believe the Montaignan essay is the best or only valid form of the essay, nor do I, for that matter, want to call Montaigne the “Father of the Essay” (a moniker I'm more likely to give to Plutarch or Cicero). But I do think that because the Montaignan essay allows itself qualities like digression and anecdote, in addition to its conversations with other writers, it encourages aspiring essayists to follow his lead, and to consider the ways he synthesized the many elements of essay writing all at once.
            In Terence Cave's book How to Read Montaigne, for instance, Cave writes (about Montaigne's “To the Reader”)  that “[a]s in letter writing, it presupposes a reader who is not some distant, impersonal figure, but something like a friend. Or again, it may be expressed as a form of improvisation: 'essaying' can only be authentic when it avoids all premeditation and registers the random flow of thought.” Viewing Montaigne as a great letter-writer, as a belletrist at heart, might help us understand the position from which he essays, and, furthermore, how to essay ourselves. Montaigne isn't pedantic. He doesn't pontificate. He isn't condescending or conceited. He writes to us as friends, the dear in “dear reader” always hanging overhead, and the reason it might be easy for us to listen is because it's easy for him to speak. And just as with the epistolary form, Montaigne frees himself via an avoidance of forethought: He essays (the verb form never forgotten) in fluid motion, the pen held close and inhibition held at bay.
            Conversely, Jane Kramer tells us in “Me, Myself, and I” that “[t]he best way to read Montaigne is to keep watching him, the way he watched himself, because the retired, reclusive, and pointedly cranky Michel de Montaigne is in many ways a fiction—a mind so absorbingly seated that by now it can easily pass for the totality of Montaigne's 'second' life.” And Sarah Bakewell, in the warmly-received How to Live, notes that “[a]s the novelist Gustave Flaubert advised a friend who was wondering how to approach Montaigne: Don't read him as children do, for amusement, nor as the ambitious do, to be instructed. No, read him in order to live.” It seems that when we read Montaigne, it isn't as if we merely read the text but that we read Montaigne himself. This might be the only way to read him properly: First and foremost as a man.
            To read Montaigne “in order to live,” and to watch him “the way he watched himself,” we initially approach him not as philosopher, essayist, or former politician, but as someone who allowed the totality of the meaning of his life experiences to flow through his pen—as a confrère in the duty of living. Because his character on the page was shaped as much by his omissions as by his admissions, we trust more than anything else his thinking—the way it found itself sneakily placed, and its poignant presentation, should be our biggest considerations as readers.
            “Today we would call him a gentleman ethnographer,” Kramer writes, “more enchanted than alarmed by the bewildering variety of human practices.” This enchantment is Montaigne's gravity, and it's easy to think of Montaigne as charming because of how he marvels at himself, and therefore how he marvels at the rest of us. Whether in “Of Thumbs,” “Of Vanity,” or “Of Practice,” Montaigne's examination of human nature never traverses into contempt, and for this we can be deeply grateful. Montaigne's essays, always so thoughtful, have every opportunity to cast a dark shadow over his perception of the world, but his writing, even when it's writing about the darkness of death, somehow gives us a portrait of a man nowhere near in danger of going scrooge.

The essay that helped me begin to understand the (Western) personal essay tradition and form was Montaigne's 1574 essay “Of practice.”[1] In “Of practice,” Montaigne begins with a philosophical position by introducing a subject, and we dive in with him from the first sentence: “Reasoning and education, though we are willing to put our trust in them, can hardly be powerful enough to lead us to action, unless besides we exercise and form our soul by experience to the way we want it to go; otherwise, when it comes to the time for action, it will undoubtedly find itself at a loss.” He keeps us seated in the third person throughout his first paragraph, then opens his second paragraph with a sentence that serves as a slight turn on his initial thoughts: “But for dying, which is the greatest task we have to perform, practice cannot help us.” This is what we need for an awareness of what Montaigne will ruminate on throughout the essay—but rather than swiftly introduce death as a subject in the first paragraph he guides us in slowly, and only once we're waist-deep will he tell us to swim on our own.
            This is a move Montaigne has borrowed (or learned outright, perhaps) from essayists before him, like Seneca, Plutarch, and Cicero. There's the introduction of a subject as a part of the essay's introduction, which differs from the essays working outside of Montaigne's lineage, which might open with an image or a narrative beginning instead. (An essayist who comes to mind as working outside of this traditional move might be Joan Didion, while those like Roland Barthes or James Baldwin have kept the move alive in much of their own work.)
            By the fourth paragraph in “Of practice,” Montaigne has brought the reader into the first person and into the collective “we,” also bringing those of us familiar with the literary essay as a form to a place of recognition: A look at one of the subgeneric attributes of the personal essay. His “It seems to me, however . . .” (my emphasis) leads us further into the process of essaying: After introducing the death-subject we come to see that this is beyond mere report, and that in order to dig into death there's an inevitable sense that, at some point, he'll have to provide a subjective examination of death itself.
            Montaigne's sixth paragraph finally brings us that narrative switch, where, it could be argued, we see him get to the heart of what we understand as essaying. He tells us about a time when he took his horse out for a ride around his property with another man, and that eventually this man “spurred his horse at full speed up the little path behind me, came down like a colossus on the little man and little horse, and hit us like a thunderbolt with all his strength and weight, sending us both head over heels.” With this thunderbolt came fear: The momentary fear that, on the ground away from his horse, “ten or twelve paces beyond, dead, stretched on my back, my face all bruised and skinned, my sword, which I had had in my hand, more than ten paces away, my belt in pieces, having no more motion or feeling than a log,” Montaigne would succumb to death's grip.
            From here we're given a meditation on what it means to die. More accurately, we're given Montaigne's observation that there is no way we can practice dying, the way we can practice our other skills and occupations. He illustrates through his narrative a philosophy appearing earlier in the essay, that “for dying, which is the greatest task we have to perform, practice cannot help us [. . .] we can try it only once: we are all apprentices when we come to it,” giving us the image of a helpless but ruminative Montaigne ready to pass away in that field, his body battered and broken but his mind still racing.
            He tells us how he's saved—by nearby family and friends who rush to his aid after believing he might've been killed by the fall—before returning to Montaigne-as-essayist in his eighth paragraph with “this recollection, which is strongly implanted on my soul, showing me the face and idea of death so true to nature, reconciles me to it somewhat.” Montaigne's own wandering mind took him to a place of reflection in order to better make sense of the death-subject, and in many of our own essays today we can see what we've learned from Montaigne's writing moves in “Of practice”: 1) that essays, by their very own meditative nature, employ narratives without necessarily becoming them, 2) that a linear (and non-digressive) form is difficult to maintain if an essay is going to essay, and 3) that in order to write our “honest-to-God” essays we need to make meaning out of our narratives—because that's what essays are supposed to do. Otherwise, we might as well try our hands at short stories.

In Phillip Lopate's 1996 essay “In Search of the Centaur: The Essay-Film,” Lopate spends considerable energy defining the essay-film for the unknowing reader, but works toward a definition of the essay-film by first illustrating the qualities of the personal essay. While these two subgenres of nonfiction need distinction from each other, discerning between them shines an accidental light on the qualities I've learned to use to classify the personal essay—or, at least, my ideal of the essay as a form.
            The essay, Lopate writes, “tracks down a person's thoughts as he or she tries to work out some mental knot, however various its strands. An essay is a search to find out what one thinks about something.” This lines up nicely with Montaigne's use of the term essai, from the French “to attempt.” I'll piggyback on Lopate's idea here in saying that the essay is an attempt at working through the author's mental knot; at figuring out what we really think about our subjects. And especially within the Montaignan tradition, the characteristic we look for as we judge the quality of an essay bears on how much digging into their own mind the essayist is willing to do. To keep the metaphor going: Good, Montaignan essays are going to search for the essay's bedrock moment, the place where you can't dig any deeper without it actually being therapy.
            In digging, Montaigne gives us a bodiless epistolary voice—bodiless because he doesn't actually address the reader by breaking the Fourth Wall, yet we never lose the sense that he perceives us as friends. I think this technique is one that's trickled down through other essayists, and Lopate might agree: He asserts that readers of an essay “must feel included in a true conversation, allowed to follow through mental processes of contradiction and digression, yet be aware of a formal shapeliness developing simultaneously underneath.” When I go to contemporary essayists like Baldwin or Barthes, like Didion or Biss, I assume that Montaigne's disembodiment somehow coached them, that it influenced a slightly indirect “dear reader” attitude they employed while writing their essays.
            It's this emphasis on mental processes that also helps define the Montaignan essay, and that gets us closer to understanding which tools (a shovel or a spade, perhaps?) we need to de/construct the essays in this tradition that we've described as sharp, poignant, heartfelt. When Montaigne returns to his essaying after detailing the story of his fall from his horse, for instance, he grounds us in his “dear reader” voice again with a reminder of the importance of recounting his fall. He tells us that
[t]his account of so trivial an event would be rather pointless, were it not for the instruction that I have derived from it for myself; for in truth, in order to get used to the idea of death, I find there is nothing like coming close to it. Now as Pliny says, each man is a good education to himself, provided he has the capacity to spy on himself from close up. What I write here is not my teaching, but my study; it is not a lesson for others, but for me.
Montaigne's statement about how “the capacity to spy on oneself from close up” is useful primarily to himself, but might what's useful for Montaigne to reflect on also be useful for others? This spying is an occasion not just for “Of practice” but for all of his most personal essays, and with Montaigne's self-study we become witnesses to the usefulness of reflection within the essay form. It's not merely for the purposes of exposition or confession, or for Montaigne to say to us “this is this weird thing that happened to me once,” but to mix meditation on a subject with a reflection that might illuminate this meditation, the product of which moves us both toward grasping “the idea of death” as well as—if we're essayists reading Montaigne in order to essay by his example—what it means to experience a brush against death. We have as much reason to ponder what Montaigne has done as an essayist as what he's done as a model for how we might learn to live.

I don't think that I typically write Montaignan essays. I'm likely to ground myself in a narrative first, and then I try to make sense of that narrative, like Montaigne might do were he to begin with his horse instead of with the death-subject. I take my cues from James Baldwin or E.B. White, placing myself in an image before looking at the little pieces that eventually come together as a bigger picture. Montaigne's essays haven't driven me toward strict imitation, but I see the merit in using Montaigne to learn how to essay well.
            Reading “Of practice” taught me a lot about writing essays, though, and what it taught me most of all is how the personal essay operates as a subgenre of nonfiction, making me wonder how it hasn't been seen by more readers as essential—quintessential, even—to Montaigne's corpus. I want to root for it more than “Of thumbs,” “Of cannibals,” “Of the education of children,” or “That to philosophize is to learn to die.” I want it to be the essay that teaches us all how to essay.
            It also makes me a little sad. Not because of Montaigne, but because of readers and writers trying their hands at nonfiction who easily ignore what Montaigne shows us is the potential for the genre. I'm sad when college composition students think the essay is only an academic thing, which makes me wonder how we might rescue the essay from its history in classrooms. I'm equally sad when writers of “creative nonfiction” write narratives without questions and call them essays, when the essay as a form resides in the space between scrutiny, philosophical investigation, and self-interrogation. I'm all for narrative nonfiction, but let's not write narratives without questions while still calling them essays.
            “An essay is a continual asking of questions,” Lopate writes, “not necessarily finding 'solutions,' but enacting the struggle for truth in full view,” and “Of practice” is an excellent example of how we can do the work of asking questions without necessarily getting every one answered. We have no certain answers about death, for instance, but this shouldn't keep us from talking about how it affects us, how our perceptions of death might alter with age or experience, or how it feels to look death in the eye—to know that we might be put beside our own lives by accidents that shock us into reflection.
            I leave you as Montaigne himself might: Not with my own words but with those of another. Specifically, I leave you with Montaigne's words. Words that might guide us in both essaying and in life, and that shed light on how and why we essay: to paint our own thoughts, and to give testimony of ourselves.
My trade and my art is living. He who forbids me to speak about it according to my sense, experience, and practice, let him order the architect to speak of buildings not according to himself but according to his neighbor; according to another man's knowledge, not according to his own. If it is vainglory for a man himself to publish his own merits, why doesn't Cicero proclaim the eloquence of Hortensius, Hortensius that of Cicero?
             Perhaps they mean that I should testify about myself by works and deeds, not by bare words. What I chiefly portray is my cogitations, a shapeless subject that does not lend itself to expression in actions. It is all I can do to couch my thoughts in this airy medium of words. Some of the wisest and most devout men have lived avoiding all noticeable actions. My actions would tell more about my fortune than about me. They bear witness to their own part, not to mine, unless it be by conjecture and without certainty: they are samples which display only details. I expose myself entire: my portrait is a cadaver on which the veins, the  muscles, and the tendons appear at a glance, each part in its place. One part of what I am was produced by a couch, another by a pallor or a palpitation of the heart—in any case dubiously. It is not my deeds that I write down; it is myself, it is my essence.

Works Cited

Bakewell, Sarah. How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. New York: Other, 2011. Print.
Cave, Terence. How to Read Montaigne. London: Granta, 2007. Print.
Kramer, Jane. “Me, Myself, and I.” The Best American Essays 2010. Ed. Christopher Hitchens and Robert Atwan. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2010. 53-63. Print.
Lopate, Phillip. “In Search of the Centaur: The Essay-Film.” Beyond Document: Essays on Nonfiction Film. Ed. Charles Warren. Hanover, NH: U of New England, 1996. 243-70. Print.
Montaigne, Michel de. “Of practice.” The Complete Works: Essays, Travel Journal, Letters.

[1]    Translated here by Donald Frame. The essay also exists in Charles Cotton's translation, entitled “Use makes perfect.”

Micah McCrary’s essays, reviews, and translations have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of BooksAssay: A Journal of Nonfiction StudiesBrevityThird Coast, and Midwestern Gothic, among other publications. He co-edits con•text, is a doctoral student in English at Ohio University, and holds an MFA in Nonfiction from Columbia College Chicago. His book manuscript, Island in the City, was a finalist in the Cleveland State University Poetry Center 2015 Essay Collection Competition and a semifinalist in Ohio State University Press’s 2016 Non/Fiction Collection Prize Competition.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Hybrid List: Places to Send and Read Visual Nonfiction This Year

Bellingham Review (see "The New Kinetic Page" section in Fall 2016)

Black Warrior Review

BOAAT (is especially looking for video and graphic work)

Construction (see "Spring Harvest")

Creative Nonfiction (see the "Exploring the Boundaries" section and Hattie Fletcher's feature on "Recorded Lightning")

Diagram  (see I Absentia from 16.3)

Dzanc (see The Sorrow Proper)

Essay Press

Guernica (see "The Greatest Show on Earth")

Gulf Coast 

Hotel Amerika (see examples from their "TransGenre" issues 7.2 and 14.1)

Indiana Review

Natural Bridge

Ninth Letter

[PANK] (see "Drug Facts")

Passages North


Redivider (See new examples by Brenda Miller and Josephine Norman in issue 13.2)

Seneca Review (See examples like "Before My Memory Goes" from the Beyond Category Issue)

Siglio Press (see examples like Bough Down)


Sundog Lit (see "Azimuth As a Myth")

Territory (see the new "Underworlds" Issue forthcoming this August)

The Lifted Brow

The Normal School (see "Mousetrap")

Triple Canopy

Triquarterly Review (see "Shark")

Visual Editions

Zone 3 Press (featuring upcoming web exclusives for visual work)

1913 Press (see "Abra")

Hey, we think this list is looking much too short for our taste. Write to or tweet @sarahceniaminor to add a literary spot.

A big thanks to Jill Talbot for inertia. 

Sarah Minor runs the Visual Essayists series here at Essay Daily.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Chelsea Biondolillo: On Shells


My grandmother taught me the word beachcombing. She taught me how it was done, too. My grandparents would take me with them, “down the coast,” on long summer weekends, and we would stay in cheap, sagging motels just off Hwy 101, and in the mornings, my grandmother would get up very early and go out to walk along the beach. If I woke up on time, I could go with her. The threat was there, that if I didn’t, I couldn’t, but I’m not sure it was ever exacted.

We would walk or drive to an access point, and then down to the wet sand line, which was easier to walk, and I would look for shells while she looked for birds or interesting pieces of driftwood. If she found either, she would take pictures with her heavy Canon. Later, in art school, it would be my Canon, but I didn’t imagine that at the time. I was busy stuffing broken shells in my pockets. Broken, because—my grandmother would tell me—the beachcombers had gotten there first and had gotten all the good ones.

She would tell me that I’d slept in too long or I didn’t like early enough mornings, and so I’d have to be fine with broken shells. I was fine with them. I still don’t like mornings.

I learned about borrowing forms for nonfiction long before I ever heard Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola’s term “hermit crab essay.” I was in a graduate workshop with an entomologist turned ethics philosopher, and he thought it would be interesting and crazy to use found forms to write a bunch of short form essays. When I first heard him explain what we would be doing (birth certificate as essay, check register as essay, tax form as essay), I had my doubts.

I’d had a plan for graduate school: I wanted to learn to be an environmental writer. I wanted to learn how to write narrative journalism. I did not want to waste a semester writing throw away work.

I complained, even. For which now, I am sorry, because those borrowed short forms were two of my own earliest publications and they remain my favorite thing to teach. I am so thankful I don’t have to deal with undergrads as hung up on formality as I was, as worried about the prize at the end of the page.

Beachcombers need three things to succeed: discipline, perseverance, and acuity.

Discipline to get up first, to chase the seawater back out under almost dark gray skies, to read the charts and tables that predict the lowest tides, the greatest exposures, and to learn, by repetition, where the land curves just so, where the deepest waves throw themselves upon the softest sand.

Perseverance to walk miles of beach, and scan billions and billions of grains of sand until their eyes swim with specks, and find nothing. And to go back out the next day as though failure were impossible.

Acuity to see the unbroken curve of aperture against all of the chips and shards the sea has thrown up, to see the unblemished whorl, the striations in deep relief among the smooth nubs of wood, the distracting pebbles of glass, the wet strings and sheets of seaweed, already rotting in the first light of morning.

When I tried to explain hermit crab essays to my own first nonfiction workshop, I saw doubt in their eyes. They were mostly freshmen, so they were more interested in doing what I asked than they were in questioning my authority. But their doubt was there in tented eyebrows and thumbs pressed into pen tops until the skin whitened. They seemed to ask: How will I do this correctly?

So I showed them a few of my favorites. Lauren Trembath-Neuberger’s  Drug Facts, Elizabeth Wade’s Variant Table, Nancy McCabe’s Can This Troubled Marriage Be Saved: A Quiz, Brian Oliu’s Tuscaloosa Craigslist Missed Connection #23.

Since that first class, I’ve added Carmella Guiol’s Hair, and Tamiko Nimura’s The Retelling, sometimes a discussion of Jill Talbot’s The Professor of Longing, but that one’s hard for freshmen. They haven’t read all the books and few can yet understand the longing of which the essay speaks.

A collector of shells is called a “conchologist” and on the Conchologists of America website, while describing the nature of gastropods and mollusks shells, Lyn Scheu writes that “Just as important as protection and rigidity, is the assistance a shell renders its maker in pursuit of the necessities of its life.”

Crustaceans in the superfamily Paguroidea, commonly known as hermit crabs, do not make but borrow the work of others, in their pursuits. They search carefully for the perfect fit, often trying and discarding several shells before deciding on just the right one.

It came up in that first class, after the readings had been assigned and during our discussions of them, and it has every time I’ve taught found forms—or hermit crabs, or fraudulent artifacts (as David Shield calls them)—a student asked if all of “these kinds of essays” have to be sad or traumatic. On that day, I rushed to say something to overcompensate for what I thought had been a misstep on my part as an educator. I thought I’d failed to present the material in a way that opened the form, that I’d prescribed through poor curation.

The next time a student asked me a version of the same question, I said something like, “I don’t know. Let’s talk about how the form works and see if that helps.” In part, because I felt more confident in my skills as a teacher, and in part because I wondered myself about the intrinsic sadness of the essays I’d found.

In Astoria and Seaside and Newport and Lincoln City, my grandparents and I would go to aquariums and small diners and even more rarely, five and dimes. Everywhere we went, there were beautiful shells for sale and I would often whine for them. Giant cowries, radish murex, pink conches. My grandfather would not even dignify my requests with a response. My grandmother always said no.

First, because they weren’t even shells from our coast. “What kind of ninny wants Australian shells at the Oregon coast?” she’d lament.

And second, because if I wanted nice shells I knew very well what it took to get them, and I was just too lazy to do it.

This is not always true, but often: an essay that borrows a form attempts to mask its true nature—not in service to mislead, but as a way of softening some blow. When Trembath-Neuberger lets a pill bottle’s warning label minister to the wounds of the narrator from sex work, it is to give the author some space from that conversation. Talbot lets the informal voice of a college syllabus speak to her students of her sadness and unfulfilled aspirations, lest she be required to herself. Hidden within the mechanisms of Wade’s variant table is a family tragedy, that the reader can only imagine is still too difficult for the narrator to speak of directly.

The wound needs to be protected, these essays seem to imply, with something hard and calcareous. Something spiny, perhaps, or even pearled. Something you might want to pick up, even if it is chipped. The insinuation is then, that when you see a borrowed form, it is hiding a hurt.

One of my students turned in a long, detailed geologic “mud lab” report that carefully talked around a prior suicide attempt. I’ve read essays about miscarriages, parental and partner rejections, assault. Said one young woman during workshop, “Nobody needs to act like they are anything but happy, when they’re happy.”

She took almost every one of the pictures of my childhood that exist. Several research studies have shown that photos can influence memories. They can overwrite the lived moment and replace it with the framed shot. I don’t remember the childhood days I spent at my own house nearly as well as the times spent with my grandparents. I took my first picture on her camera; it was a close crop of her face, smiling at me. Not a good picture, but I remember her telling me about what framing a shot meant. I still have a copy of a copy of that photograph, and in that moment, I’m told, I fell in love with taking pictures.

When I look at her photos of birds, I remember being there. I become her eye looking through the lens, her finger pushing down the shutter release.

“Are we allowed to be funny?” asked a student once.

“Always.” But this won’t guarantee a funny essay, exactly. See also Pete Reynolds, Jody Mace, Leigh Stein.

I’ve wondered whether or not these found forms are a useful exercise, or just a way to win my students over with something that seems “fun” or “easy” to them because it doesn’t require easily assessed components, like dialogue, character development, setting details. It’s true that if they at least try, I give them an A. There should always be at least one task for which effort is good enough.

My grandmother was not an easy person to love. She was quick to criticize and appearances meant everything to her. She could be silent for long stretches. Whole weekends at their home in Estacada, Oregon, might pass with few words exchanged. She’d make me spaghetti-Os or hot dogs for dinner and then drift away again, to her room. It never seemed strange because I had nothing to compare it to. I loved her despite and because of these things.

Other weekends, we’d drive all over the countryside looking for barns or grosbeaks she wanted to photograph, or going to rock & gem shows, or the tallest bridge in the state. We’d climb the Astoria column or make piles of clothespin dolls. She’d try to teach me to tap dance or show me how to eat steamed crab legs with fresh strawberries from the u-pick farm.

I am just like this—passionate and engaged one day and a hopeless mess the next, withdrawn and easily overwhelmed.

Where I really struggle in teaching hermit crab essays—in teaching any kind of essays, really—but especially these so contrived—is not in grading performance, but in knowing how to teach students to write something that isn’t just an exercise. Discipline, perseverance, acuity—but what lecture do I give to teach that? I gather up all the examples I can. We talk through published work and work they’ve just written. We use words like earned and earnest and obvious. We say that something is beating the reader over the head with the message, and that’s what needs to be fixed. We praise subtlety and judiciousness. We marvel at some attempts and discard others.

Am I teaching them a skill that will assist in their pursuit of the necessities of their [writer] life by teaching them that shells can be built around their most tender thoughts?

I rarely worry about being first on the beach, now. I figure that what’s left has been waiting for me and what’s gone was meant for someone else. When I find a whole shell, it is never a rare specimen, but that doesn’t diminish its value to me. I will walk for hours if I can, looking at the sand and the progressively paler high-water lines. The pleasure is in the action: I try to look to the water and the coastline to determine why there are more pieces of seaweed and stone and shell on one part of the beach than the other. I know nothing about the forces of waves against the shore and how riptides really work, but I like trying to reverse-engineer the workings of them from the evidence.

Why teach a form that might already be overdone – or for which success is so rare? Would any other Drug Facts or essay as multiple choice test ever be anything other than derivative?

I can justify the exercise of writing found form essays—as a way to explore different narrative voices, to examine one’s personal dialect in a small, unyielding space, to see where it reaches over the boundaries, and where it shrinks from them.

I worry that they worry that these are skills that can’t readily be transferred. I’m a more confident teacher, but I still have doubts.

We say my grandmother could be difficult. That’s how my family talks about her, if we do. We say she was often lost in her thoughts, or that she was a terrible housekeeper. I wonder if there was more to it than that, but I never dared to ask her, when I could’ve. She lived for too many years in the depths of Alzheimer’s-triggered dementia. At the end, she was almost always difficult, almost always lost.

She took pictures when she could and looked for birds. She left the country whenever she was able and she filled her house with evidence of her rare adventures from home. Maybe the distance between home and away was the root of her melancholy. Maybe it was nothing more than melancholy. Some things resist discovery, and the work will only ever be in the wondering.

Here is what I would tell my next class, whenever we meet:

Practice is inefficient by design. Collect as many tools and forms and voices and structures as you can, so that you are as well-equipped as possible when you sit down to work. Write a first-person memoir, investigate something and report on it, write a lyric, a braided, a fragmented essay. Write a Montaigne. Write a Sedaris. Write a fraudulent artifact—the official form you’d fill out if you could, the letter to someone you let walk away without confronting, the headlines you’d like to see. Write a multiple choice test, a want ad, a drug facts label. And then, if you can bear it, write a short story, a poem, a play. If the words are good or if they are terrible, celebrate your hard work. Practice discipline and perseverance now, and the acuity will come. Watch the lines move across the page until the forces that move them become visible. Reverse-engineer your work from the evidence it leaves behind.


Chelsea Biondolillo is the author of the prose chapbooks Ologies and the forthcoming #Lovesong. Her essays are collected in Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2016 and Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women and have appeared recently in New Ohio ReviewDiagramSonora ReviewNew Mexico Review, and Passages North. She has an MFA in nonfiction and environmental studies from the University of Wyoming and currently lives in Arizona.

Monday, July 11, 2016

THE MALCONTENT on the Many Disappointments of Annie Dillard





This, dear readers, is the first iteration of The Malcontent, a new pseudonymous Essay Daily feature in which we invite writers to put on their black hats and write against the things that we all seem to love. In our private, cranky hearts, we wonder how much good universal praise does anyone. 

Who would you want to take down? How about Didion? Montaigne? Let's take some shots at the pillars of the genre. Want to pitch us a malcontent piece? Find Will or Ander at the emails on the right.

As Edward Abbey puts it in Desert Solitaire: “Nobody particularly enjoys the role of troublemaker. But when most writers are unwilling to take chances, afraid to stick their necks out on any issue, then a few have to take on the burden of all and do more than their share.”


“Nature writing: I seldom read it myself.” —Edward Abbey

My cat is dying and I want to tell you the truth about Annie Dillard: she sucks and apparently no one else wants to say it. There’s too little time for fucking around with nice words about a nice lady, this Dillard who's probably the most universally-approved-of essayist this side of Joan Didion. As the Twitter kids will tell you now's not the time for niceness. Now's the time for rage. For a long time I’ve happily avoided Annie Dillard and you should too.

For starters, avoiding Annie Dillard means avoiding the swarms of Annie Dillard supplicants, “infant sea turtle[s]…running down the beach and into the surf through a gauntlet of hungry ghost crabs, screeching seagulls, swarming and greedy stonefish, hagfish, devilfish, lampreys, manta rays, giant clams, and eggheaded walleyed eight-armed ink-spreading octopodes. Those that survive this initial run for the open sea live to become adult sea turtles, armored and invulnerable giants—literature.” I quote Edward Abbey whom I’ve vowed never to quote. Look what you’ve already driven me to do, Dillard. Twice in one essay, I hope, and then never again.

Annie Dillard probably has something to tell me about my dying cat, but I don’t want to hear it. But you can be pretty sure that something probably involves a tree, a walk, or a bird. 

You cannot get through a Dillard essay without running into one of these boring natural phenomena. They are bad enough on their own, but many essays unfortunately contain all three. Take, for instance (I’m picking at random here) “Schedules” from Best American Essays 1989, in which “Sometimes in June a feeding colony of mixed warblers flies through the pines,” “Nuthatches spiral around their long, coarse trunks,” and “The pine lumber is unfinished inside the study; the pines outside are finished trees. I see the pines from my two windows.” The walk, of course, gives rise to the birds and the pines and the nicely furnished finished/unfinished thought, which is almost, but not quite, worth the walk. The birds just decorate the essay, give us something natural to look at. They fly; they spiral. They’re there.

Let's try another. It doesn't take long to locate these in “For the Time Being” (anthologized in BAE 1999): “Okay, we’re a tree. These dead loved ones we mourn were only those brown lower branches a tree shades and kills as it grows; the tree itself is thriving,” or, very late in the essay, as I very nearly gave up the possibility of getting birded: “The birds were mating all over Galilee. I saw swifts mate in midair.” On they come, bird, tree, metaphor. At least the birds mate in midair: the tree metaphor’s half-dead.

Even in “The Stunt Pilot,” (BAE 1990) an essay about just that, with no shortage of insane airborne acrobatics and dramatic maneuvers, it’s only a matter of time until we arrive at her tropes: “The Bellingham airport was a wide clearing in a forest of tall Douglas firs,” “something caught my eye and made me laugh. It was a swallow, a blue-green swallow, having its own air show.”

At least 1982’s “Total Eclipse,” one of her best-known essays, gets it out of the way early, on the second page: “the trees changed, and in the trees were strange birds.”

I admit that some of her bird descriptions are less boring than others: “He examined the eagle and found the dry skull of a weasel fixed by the jaws to the throat. The supposition is that the eagle had pounced on the weasel and the weasel swiveled and bit as instinct taught him, tooth to neck, and nearly won. I would like to have seen that eagle from the air a few weeks or months before he was shot” (“Living Like Weasels,” an essay you probably know and think fondly of). That’s pretty good: this isn’t the usual kind of bird, pecking and mating and flitting from pine to pine and looking pretty; this one’s caught in an epic struggle with a weasel, and so does some useful work in the essay. This bird works as both metaphor and scale move, where all of a sudden we get aerial, and we’re excited. Too, there's that weird location: not in but from the air: we're not just aloft but aloft above the eagle. This is not bad, though you could argue that the weasel is doing all the work here, not the bird.

Elsewhere in the essay we’re back to the same old: “Twenty minutes from my house, through the woods by the quarry…where I like to go at sunset and sit on a tree trunk,” “Then I cut through the woods to the mossy fallen tree where I sit.” The sentence is saved by the entertaining jump to judgment of the fallen tree (“This tree is excellent”) but then we’re back to the pointless presence of birds, when “a yellow bird appeared to my right and flew behind me.”

Jesus, Annie. Is everything bird? Are they just punctuation in your essays? Are they just a handy way to switch out of a scene or let a thought resonate through the woods so as to make it more profound?

Let’s look at your often-anthologized “Seeing”: “I used to be able to see flying insects in the air…Now I can see birds,” “For a week last September migrating red-winged blackbirds were feeding heavily down by the creek at the back of the house. One day I went out to investigate the racket; I walked up to a tree, an Osage orange, and a hundred birds flew away.” Huzzah. Trees hold birds and inspire a walk.


I started challenging the internet to find a Dillard essay without these tropes. Someone suggested that since it's all the suburbs, I should check out An American Childhood, though it’s a memoir, not essays proper. In many (possibly all: I didn’t check exhaustively) of its short chapters, you’ll still find birds usually enforced into servitude as similes: "Consciousness converges with the child as a landing tern touches the outspread feet of its shadow on the sand" ("Waking Up"). On a forced sort of walk we’ll still run into hedges, which are basically just stunted trees: “He chased Mikey and me around the yellow house and up a backyard path we knew by heart: under a low tree, up a bank, through a hedge.” And even in the suburbs, trees are her default setting: “Some trees bordered the little flat backyard, some messy winter trees” (“Being Chased”).

Later on Twitter, Zoë Bossiere, in her attempt to test my theory, challenged me to check out the chapter sort-of-titled “Terwilliger Bunts One,” and on the very last page, I was just about to point out that really these weren’t essays, and surely some of them wouldn’t be bird-tree-or-walk-populated, but then: "she would fly at him in a flurry of passion, as a songbird selflessly attacks a big hawk."

I exhaled. Close one.

Even in “An Expedition to the Pole” from Teaching a Stone to Talk, a visit to the mostly-birdless Antarctic, of course we arrive at the obvious: “penguins, according to visitors, are...adorable. They are tame! They are funny! Tourists in Antarctica are mostly women of a certain age. They step from the cruise ship’s rubber Zodiacs wearing bright ship’s-issue parkas; they stalk around on the gravel and squint into the ice glare; they exclaim over the penguins, whom they find tame, funny, and adorable; they take snapshots of one another with the penguins, and look around cheerfully for something else to look around at. The penguins are adorable, and the wasp at the stained-glass window is adorable, because in each case their impersonations of human dignity so evidently fail. ” The only reason, one senses, that there are no trees mentioned is because in Antarctica no trees exist. Still, perhaps a better essayist could have worked one in from memory.

Tame, funny, and adorable: these are words that Dillard uses to mock the visitors and differentiate herself from them. They also describe the very worst kind of nature writing, the sort that makes us all hate nature writing. All nature writers know this. They tend to be a cranky, somewhat self-loathing group, don’t they? Often enough they go to nature because they dislike being around people. Who could blame them? People are awful. Just check your Twitter or your Facebook or your headlines this year as cops keep shooting people and people keep shooting cops and we keep shooting each other and buying more guns to protect us from each other. One could forgive the nature writer for just opting out of this bullshit. Except here comes Dillard, tame, funny, and usually adorable. Except her writing about nature often enough has the effect of bringing everyone to nature, thus running her bird-and-tree-filled lonely walk.

Tame, funny, and adorable also adorn the lamest nature you can find, the sort you might see in internet videos of cats. It’s easy (if unpopular these days) to be snarky about cat videos (see also the great Coffee House Press anthology, Cat is Art Spelled Wrong, for disquisitions on our weird, obsessive love of cats and cat videos online). And as every tourist knows, it’s easy to be snarky about other tourists. It makes you feel less like a tourist. (As an aside, I’d love to read an essay in defense of tourism.) A little snarkiness goes a long way in a Dillard essay. Even if it’s cheap, it makes you feel like maybe she’s alive after all. For instance, I’ve always appreciated the fact that she smokes, for instance: it makes the image of her walking and writing about walking a little more tolerable. If she were to discard a burning butt and ignite a blaze in a national forest I’d read that essay.


I mean to offer this trope-spotting not as just a party game (though it’s a good one for the kind of party I am glad never to be invited to if it involves reading Annie Dillard) but as a real critique: not only are these three things—birds, trees, walks—closely related in exactly the way you already imagine, but they’re also boring. You know what you already think of them. You like them. Birds are meaningful and beautiful and natural. Walks are probably good though you don’t take them often enough and, because you underestimated the velocity of your digestion, sometimes you end up shitting behind a bush, possibly on a bird. Trees are great except when one falls on the so-called-writing-office in the corner of your house or blows up your retaining wall. Nature’s awesome when contained. It’s great until it gets in your way.

The problem is that for Dillard these images are defaults. Usually they represent laziness, a failure of vision, here not just often but always. Or, when in doubt, as Portlandia reminds us, put a bird on it and it will sell.

Maybe this isn’t her fault. One can’t always pay close attention to everything. (But isn’t that what we go to Dillard for?)

If we were to look at the body of work of any writer with the brand recognition of Dillard, probably we’d find the same. That’s what the people want, isn’t it: some degree of predictability, of recognition, of the familiar? (Say it with me: tame, funny, and adorable.)

As JC Hallman points out in his essay “On Repetition,” essayist Geoff Dyer “has also made the mistake of saying the same thing over and over. I’m quite sure this accounts for [his] wide-ranging popularity.”
This is the secret of what we really want in our reading, our eating, our nature, our travel, our dailiness, our sex: mostly the same—which is to say safety—with minor variations to keep us interested. We’re wired for variety within bounds.

Dillard’s smart enough to know this about us, and like us, she likes us: she likes liking what she likes. And so she’s fossilized herself inside herself.

All of this, though, is Dillard’s fault. It’s the job of art—or at any rate the artist—to resist these norming forces, to, as Alice Notley puts it in a great essay, “How to Break Through: an Homage” (published a few years back in Denver Quarterly):
I must leave you with one final point, the final final point, what you need to know to be a poet, and to continue to be a poet: 
That’s pretty hard to do, I admit. It's harder when you win the Pulitzer at 30.

Sure, we all want to get paid (CREAM get the money), to be professional, to play nice, to make people happy. We like to be funny. We like to be adored. These things are good. But by doing so we risk being tamed—worse, we’re self-taming. And what Dillard reveres is the wild, such as it is, even in the midst of a subdivision: her wild is achievable for us, familiar, accessible. We’re in love with the idea of the wild because we don’t want to see the ways that we are tamed. That’s why we really love Dillard: not for the documentary in her work but for the art in her work, because she massaged things so that they fit a little better with what we were prepared to hear. We want less friction. What we want to hear is a fiction. Which is to say the tameable, a wide green chemically-castrated lawn.

The appeal of the fiction is the appeal of the memoir in the age of deindividuation. It's the appeal of the Big Narrative in the age of the fragmented attention span. It’s the appeal of intimacy—however we find it, preferably without driving too far—in the age of isolation. It’s the appeal of the big claim, in fact in this very sentence (see how appealing it feels to make this statement? see how it obscures as it embiggens?) in the age of what really ought to be our skepticism, unsurety, and doubt.

Every time we make a big old claim (like "Annie Dillard sucks"?) we die a little.

Oh, I know Dillard writes about these things too, probably fringed with feathers and with a lovely backdrop of some bucolic trees. But what I want more of is less birds flitting around trees and more dead ones on the concrete. I want the meat. I want, like essayist Allie Leach, to eat some roadkill bird or one your dying cat brings back to you as tribute because she’s observed that you suck at being a carnivore. Now that is a good thing to do with a bird in an essay. It's also a good thing to do with a cat.

It’s best, too, because it’s not going to bring more people to eat roadkill birds. Actually if it would, that would be an fine outcome of a nature essay.


One of the many problems with nature essays is that they’re appealing. They draw people to the things that they describe. Those things get worse from the attention: commodified, despoiled, and pointlessly mythologized, and visited, visited, visited. Then the occasional asshole who resists this knee-jerk reverence lashes out, and so these people—the fans and the anti-fans—run down what remains of nature and wreck it further for the next to come. It would be funny if it wasn’t sad.

For instance, someone spray painted a bunch of saguaro cacti in Tucson. A half mile from my house no less. Someone cut a couple others in half. They can take a century to grow. Thank you Dillard fans. Thank you Dillard.

Joy Williams knows it well in her seminal guidebook, The Florida Keys, now in I think its seventeenth printing: it’s a guide that is ambivalent about its riches. It does not entirely want you to come to see what it describes, since tourism, the economic lifeblood of the keys, inevitably leads to the dulling of the weirdness of the Keys and the ecological downfall of the Keys, and this will lead to the cessation of tourism, which is the only thing presently that keeps it alive. Joy knows that writing about a thing kills it a bit. So as to heed her point (I have been listening, Joy), I’ve never been there. Reading about the place and all the people like me reading about the place and thinking about coming to the place was plenty meta. It’s hard out there for a hipster.

Google “Annie Dillard sucks.” I’ll save you the trouble. Aside from this essay, three other hits pop up: one’s some fake essay-writing service; one’s Matt Gardner, who uses it as a kind of Wesley Willisesque (Rock over London, Rock on Chicago) signoff: “Till next time, remember, Annie Dillard sucks!” That seems about right. The third is the abstract for someone's MA thesis, which sounds like the kind of thing I want to read. In fact I may try to ILL it right now. What’s up, Karen Jackson, of Acadia University, in Spring 2010? You seem to be speaking my language. The world could use a little more scholarship like you propose. Let’s chop down some pretty trees.

Listen: I blame Dillard for each defaced cactus and the diaspora of crappy kokopelli tattoos that adorn the mailboxes and walls of Arizonans who listen to The Captain & Tennille (now recently divorced, the long lie of their lifelong love finally ruptured) on their bright green lawns. I blame Dillard for the sea turtles that keep cropping up in shitty essays about the glory of the Galapagos. Sea turtles would seem to have one mode in literary writing: majestic, bordering on metaphorical. I would like to piss on one and see what happens.

Maybe it's the adolescent in me, but I'm drawn to defacements largely because they so effectively violate the social contract of what we like to think of as civilization: here’s my shit. Keep out. I keep it safe in my yard, and in my house. The understanding is that you don’t come and touch it. Some of the shit is designated as our shit, such as public lands, and the understanding is that we revere these spaces, perhaps as a kind of apology for the rest of the space that we feel free to buy up and redevelop and poison and burn and trash and abandon. But the defacer—the spray-painter, the graffiti artist, even to some extent the chump-ass burglar who riffles through my car some nights and takes the little bit of change, leaving (this is how these days have changed) my collection of CDs—the defacer traffics in shock. It is a blunt instrument and a powerful one.

It has its uses. It’s easy to settle into what we accept as a common understanding of what it is we do when we live together. “The greater the mass of things, / The greater the insecurity,” Kenneth Rexroth tells us. I like that quote not just for what it says about domesticity and America but what it says about authorship: the bigger the author gets (I don’t just mean the writer but the author, the thing that’s part woman, part expectation, part marketing, and part myth), the more it must tend toward stability. I mean to say I guess it’s not just her fault. It’s fucking ours. We're so needy. By our love we sand the edges off of everything; it all starts to suck and die a little, doesn't it?  

The defacer—the vandal—spits at all of that stability with a single gesture. The kid who took a knife to my childhood friends’ aboveground pool. The teenager who painted a big red X on a neighborhood garage door and buried an axe in it. The girl who egged your house or slashed your tires or took your bike and dumped it in the lake. She’s invasive, powerfully so, unanswerable. She says who the hell do you think you are? She asks are you just what you’ve amassed? She says are you the bumper stickers on your car? Your kickass RV? Your bird-infested lemon tree? Your carefully-curated lawn gnome collection? She says fuck that. It doesn't mean what you think it means. 

Yes I’m unbalanced. I think I know what it means when some asshole breaks into my car in the carport and steals the little drawer full of collected change, maybe ten bucks worth: not much money, I wail, but it's the violation. In my better moments I'd like to be able to savor that unbalancing: it makes me feel alive. I think I want to be the weasel: to latch on and not to give way. But usually I’m not able to. Who is? Instead I’m just pissed off because I know I’m vulnerable, as I always was. Another desire to buy a gun arises. Why is this the state I want to abate, this fear, this awareness of my penetratability by the world? Is it that my fiefdom feels so safe or has become so big and knowable that a small intrusion is enough to click me into outrage mode? That I know it's all just a car crash or an embolism away from disappearing? Or is it just protective that I’m feeling, my wife and kid and dying cat inside? Is that realism or is it desperation?

Dying, all of them. The vandal and the petty thief, the eagle, the weasel, the cut-in-half cactus, each and every tree and bird and memory. All of them are dying. All of us are dying. We slump slowly toward our further slumping then our stretching out and eventually our leaving who we were before.

Annie Dillard is dying too. Isn’t it important to be honest about it?


The Malcontent is a cranky, pseudonymous column of Essay Daily, a black hat donned by writers of many stripes.