Monday, February 18, 2019

Matthew Dube on James Agee



Harold Bloom describes the confrontation with the masterwork as “a psychic battlefield upon which authentic voices struggle for… the divinating triumph over oblivion” (Poetry and Repression 2). In other words, when writers encounter a masterwork, they rebel, fearing that if they can’t write better than the masterwork, they will cease to exist. Thankfully for me, I approached Let Us Now Praise Famous Men not as a writer in competition with its author James Agee, but just a reader. Even so, there was a curious sense of dissolving reading this book-length collage, of forms breaking apart, as if through his Olympian effort, Agee stepped outside the limits of genre or the need to create a discrete, unified, unitary text.

In 1936, James Agee went south with photographer Walker Evans on an assignment from Fortune magazine to create, in Agee’s words, “a photographic and verbal record of the daily living and environment of an average white family of tenant farmers” (IX). Agee’s ambitions ballooned from there, until he imagined a trilogy to be called Three Tenant Families. Fortune magazine passed on printing the prose and photographs Agee and Evans returned with. Agee himself only ever wrote the first volume in his planned trilogy, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and the material in this book can be found in a variety of formats, with and without the photographs, and under a couple different titles.

But as varied as the publishing formats of this material, the prose styles Agee uses are even more various. The differences between narrative sections, like “At the Forks” where Agee and Walker Evans encounter some local farmers, or the more poetic listing of “Clothing,” or the straight-up self-analysis cum artist’s statement of the three “On The Porch” sections, but especially section 2, unsettle our experience of what “non-fiction” looks like. In this long strophe, Agee is at his most revealing about his project, telling us about the real circumstances of his writing (“We lay on the front porch to the left of the hall as you enter” (197) and also his spiritual progress toward joy (“It is our consciousness alone, in the end, that we have to thank for joy" (199)), notes on his artistic aims (“the hearing and seeing of complex music in every effect and in causes of every effect” (204)), and interrogations of those aims (“Granted that beside that fact it is a small thing, and granted also that it is essentially and finally a hopeless one” (206)), as well  as playing with language and its formal concerns ("George Gudger is a human being, a man” (205) becomes “George Gudger is a man, et cetera” (211)). The mercurial flash of styles and ideas in the book as a whole are all present in “On the Porch 2,” and vice versa.

One needn’t wait till halfway through the book to witness the variety and Agee’s play with forms. Rather, it is already on display in Agee’s “Design of the Book,” this book’s table of contents, which mixes sections titled “Verses” or “Preamble,” which suggest a written document, with sections like “Intermission: Conversation in the Lobby,” which imply an ongoing, real-time performance, and other sections with titles like “Money,” “Work” and the aforementioned “Clothing,” which suggest an inventory of sorts, whether commercial or philanthropic or sociological. In other words, Agee’s book takes place between different modes and styles, and you see this long before you realize that the “Notes and Appendices,” traditionally the last section of a report, precedes the book’s final significant strophe.


What about Agee’s own confrontation with Bloom’s “strong poet”? In other words, who is Agee writing through and against? In “Notes and Appendices” (395), he namechecks Faulkner for the first time. And a reader, in 1941 when the book was first published or now, when s/he hears that this book documents an encounter with sharecroppers in the deepest parts of the Deep South, is likely to think of Faulkner and the shadow he must cast. Let me tell you, Agee’s writing overlaps with Faulkner’s as little as possible. There’s an internal boundary you find in Faulkner’s monologues, the sense that for Benjy or Quentin or whoever is talking, they soon meet the limit of what they can say, and that for that reason the articulation is always incomplete. Agee’s ear is tuned more to external forces, to what has been said over the course of human history, through our literature. At one point, he even admits his discomfort at writing in dialect. If his voice is rooted in anything, it is in his own cosmopolitan, hyper-literate self, which has already shown itself to be kaleidoscopic.

Agee credits other writers in his work, including William Blake, Jesus Christ, and Sigmund Freud in the “People and Places” family tree he gives us near the start of his book, and he interpolates a review of Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White’s book You Have Seen Their Faces in his own book, a similar volume to the one Agee has produced, if maybe more indebted to journalism than whatever literary trip Agee is off on. And Caldwell’s name does crop up a couple times in this book, though when it does it is usually in counterpoint to what Agee thinks he is doing.

Instead, the writer Agee never mentions but who feels most influential is Henry David Thoreau, especially Walden. In fact, I think the best test to determine if you’d enjoy Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is to ask how you feel about Walden, how you maintain your readerly equilibrium in the shifts between “Economy,” where Thoreau outlines the exact costs for his plan to live by the lake and the more visionary/ philosophical/ lyric section “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For.” In fact, Agee’s book owes a lot to Walden, even though Walden really has only the two registers and Agee’s book has both of Thoreau’s and four or five all his own. Thoreau, if we strip him from his rooted historical consciousness, makes observing itself an act of praise, and this stripped-down listing is one of Agee’s rhetorical strategies. But like Thoreau, Agee can lift off from this quotidian listing into something empyrean at a moment’s notice, without troubling about that leap. But where Thoreau has those two primary modes, Agee has five or six to speak through.


Given that he introduces Freud as a “People and Place” early in the book, it shouldn’t be too surprising that Freud, or at least a Freudian mindset comes back at the book’s emotional (?) climax, or at least at that moment where, structurally, something like a climax can be expected.  I’m referring here to the “Inductions” section, which is placed at the crucial two-thirds point but which narrates one of the earliest moments in the book, a breakthrough with the Gudger family. Agee’s style in this section echoes high modernist narrative, something from Malco[l—?]m Lowry or Djuna Barnes, and features a very Freudian flashback, to eleven year old Agee masturbating while at his grandfather’s, years before (“I, this eleven-year-old, male, half-shaped child, pressing between the sharp hip bone and the floor my erection… striking over and over again the heel of my bruised hand against the sooty floor and the sweating and shaking my head in a sexual and murderous anger and despair” (335)), this as the prelude to a psychic break in the narrative’s present, when, driven by his erotic reverie to find a prostitute, Agee comments “That would do Via some bad damage, just as continuing to live with her is bound to” (339), Via being Olivia Saunders, Agee’s wife at that time, who has, until this point in Agee’s book, never been mentioned and who will never be mentioned again. It’s as if this eruption of his private life into the public text of the book is some return of the repressed. Looking for a sex worker, Agee gets caught in a torrential downpour, drives his car into a ditch, and he finds himself on the Gudgers’ porch (it’s worth mentioning that previously, he and Evans both have remarked on how attractive Gudger’s young wife is), and then, in a further Freudian turn, Agee is mothered-and-fathered by Gudger and wife and put to bed in the children’s bed. So, Freud, sure. He’s in there.


Every writer, but more so writers of non-fiction, must fear what the people they write about will think of how they are represented.  There are uncomfortable moments here, beyond lusting after his host’s wife. Those passages in “Clothing,” for example, where Agee describes what Margaret, age twenty, wears (“It is an elaboration of the sort of dress a ‘well-preserved,’ dark-haired, elegantly well-to-do, middle-aged woman might at some uncertain time during the last twenty years have worn formally” (250) and Paralee’s favorite dress (“exactly of the kind middle class girls of her age wear to town…. [except] in the wish for brilliance and emphasis and propriety, everything is overstepped” (ibid). So, if you’re a Dolly Parton fan, there are moments here that’ll make you cry.
But back to the point: what about Agee’s subjects? What will they think of his bathetic portraits of them?

They are illiterate, and were they able to read, their extreme poverty and distance from cultural capitals means they won’t ever see his book. This gives Agee license to be heartless in his portraits of them, to capture as much of our hearts as he wishes. When, in the 1989 book And Their Children After Them writer Dale Maharidge talks to Emma Woods, she said Agee got it wrong, that he misrepresented her experience so her character could bear the weight of Agee’s fantasy. It’s obviously problematic to say Agee’s fantasy is truer than Woods’ experience, especially in the era of #MeToo, but it’s not a lie to say that his book is pointed at a different goal than merely representing (though that’s surely in there, too).


What of the portraits? This is, after all, a book made from photographs of three families and their living spaces, and as Agee himself worries over repeatedly, his writing cannot quite capture the truth the way a camera can. Talking only about the writing like I’ve been doing here ignores the largest gap between styles, the photographic and the textual. It’s easy to note the disconnect between Evans posed photographs, where people are carefully arranged and often literally framed by their surroundings, doorways and window and the like, and Agee’s discursive, even impromptu prose, that admits no boundary to his interest or language.

And more than that, Evans’ photos in the book lack titles or any identifying information. When the photos are later cataloged in the Library of Congress American Memory Project, Evans identifies his subjects with names that don’t align with the names in Agee’s book. The photos stand in opposition to the text, which seems so particular about who is who and what is what. But maybe the tension here is overstated; maybe the goals of the two media are different. The photos document, while Agee illustrates. Unless I’ve got that backwards.

Matt Dube reads and writes for pay and pleasure in mid-Missouri. He is at work on the Lovecraft-adjacent, haunting-in-a-small-town novel that will either put this region on the map or wipe it out. It changes, day to day.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Lorraine Berry: Scorched Moths

Now light the candles; one; two; there's a moth;
What silly beggars they are to blunder in
And scorch their wings with glory, liquid flame—
No, no, not that,—it's bad to think of war,
When thoughts you've gagged all day come back to scare you;
And it's been proved that soldiers don't go mad
Unless they lose control of ugly thoughts
That drive them out to jabber among the trees. 
(Repression of War Experience, Siegfried Sassoon)


Robert Raymond, my maternal grandfather, died of his wounds on October 18, 1917. He was killed by a mortar blast at Nieuport, part of the front during the Third Battle of Ypres, which has come to be known as Passchendaele. (His death made a widow of Edith, and left his ten-month old daughter, Hilda, fatherless.)


I sit down and attempt to write about my great-grandfather for the (lost count) time. I ask myself why I feel compelled to set his story down on paper, to give his death, just one of the ten million military personnel [1] who died during World War I, some kind of meaning.


Robert was twenty-five years old when he died. He had served with the Lancashire Fusiliers, 1/7 Battalion beginning in November of 1914.

If Robert was deployed immediately after training, it means he would have been sent overseas to Egypt in defense of the Suez Canal. In 1915, he was shipped to Turkey, to fight against the Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Gallipoli.


The records show that his battalion sent 410 men to storm the cliffs. Only 137 men escaped unscathed. The eleven-month battle killed 100,000 troops from Turkey, Australia, New Zealand, and Britain. In addition to the dead, there were 300,000 casualties. One historian includes this detail taken from first-hand accounts written by officers.

“It took days for those dead to be buried, and as the thousands of corpses lay in the sun with their guts and their shattered limbs and their stove-in heads disgustingly exposed, the stench of death sickened the living for miles around.” [2]


After Gallipoli, Robert must have been granted a brief home leave. The reading I have done indicates that leaves lasted approximately two weeks. I have no records to prove that he had leave at this time, but my grandmother’s life serves as evidence. She was born in late November of 1916, which means that sometime in February, Robert came home to his wife, Edith Lavinia, whom he had married on May 25, 1912. They lived on Sherbourne Street, in tightly packed terraced houses built by the Britannia Mill to house its workers. The mill stood across the road from the houses. 


One of the most common shared experiences for soldiers home on leave, regardless of which nation they were willing to die for, was the utter disconnect each soldier felt in their brief forays to the home front. After months of living in execrable conditions, they came back to homes where life had continued without them. 


In his memoir of his service, The Burning of the World, Béla Zombory-Moldován recounts a conversation he had with his uncle about the war’s potential outcome. 

His uncle said, “I accept that my position is not based on personal experience. For that very reason, I maintain that I am able to judge the facts more objectively. For you, everything is overshadowed by the traumatic experience that almost ended your life. The deductions you draw can’t be objective.” [3]

Those at home, of course, were not being told the “facts” in the newspaper accounts of battles. Journalists were not allowed on the front lines, and they were dependent upon the sanitized versions produced by each country’s war office. 


Even if the information had been accurate, soldiers on leave found that civilians refused to believe that their governments would sacrifice so many men for poorly defined, or even non-existent, reasons. 

In Schlump, Hans Herbert Grimm’s fictionalized account of the war he joined “in order to meet girls,” he quotes the man who blames Schlump for not being able to “contextualize” his own experiences. 

“[O]ne must differentiate between the longer and shorter point of view. From the shorter point of view all the war brings is sorrow, suffering and unbelievable torment. But seen from the longer perspective, one comes to a different conclusion … The individual is nothing, he has no intrinsic value, he is just part of a much larger totality, a nation. The individual has no soul, but a nation does. And the individual only has value when he is of use to his people.” [4]


A good portion of my undergraduate studies, a subject I pursued through the first part of graduate school, was reading about and researching how the working class organized itself against exploitation in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. Many historians have argued that the First World War interrupted a nascent movement among workers to see themselves as linked to other workers, regardless of national boundaries. [5]

The First World War exposed how all of that solidarity with other workers shattered as each country’s workers declared their allegiance to their kings and countries and picked up arms against other workers. Whether this was a complete failure on the part of the period’s intellectuals to understand what workers wanted, or whether this new solidarity was too weak to bear up under the pressure of war, the longed-for international workers’ movement was disrupted by the hostilities. 

My family’s own history as evidenced by genealogical research is of generation after generation of workers, many of them in the textile trades in the Manchester area. In an earlier version of this article, I wondered why a worker like Robert Raymond, whose descendants were involved in twentieth century workers’ politics, should have taken up arms on behalf of his country. 

The editor who had commissioned me to write about my thoughts and reactions to Robert’s death as the centenary of the Armistice approached, returned my initial draft, stating that my questions indicated “intellectual unsophistication” that he found uninteresting, and that he was killing the article.


Despite finding more evidence of the movement the editor had informed me “didn’t exist,” I decided that intellectual wrestling with Robert’s death was not likely to produce a satisfying rapprochement with the past. [6]


Instead, reading the memoirs and novels written by those who had served during World War I provided me with emotional resonance. In the words of individual writers, I could imagine myself in Robert’s head. 


Bodies that fell on the continent were not repatriated to Britain after war’s end. It’s why each English town and village erected a cenotaph where they could memorialize their local dead.
In a town in Normandy when I was twenty-two, I had encountered such a cenotaph. It bore the names of 624 men in a town whose 1910 population was just over 16,000. In Accrington Stanley, a small town not too far from Manchester, a battalion comprising local men went into battle at Serre, on the Western Front, on June 30, 1916. By July 1, the British troops had been defeated, but not before 584 of the 720 from the Accrington PALS Unit were killed, wounded or missing


I have a confession. Part of what sent me on this journey to write about Robert was based on what I found on his gravestone. His tombstone, which lies in the Zudycoote Military Cemetery in northern France, reads: 
280692 Private
Lancashire Fusiliers
18th October 1917 Age 25

Discovering the epitaph was a kick in the teeth. Why would his widow have paid extra for an epitaph that reduced her husband to yet another fleshed chunk of cannon fodder? It felt inconceivable to me that a young woman left with a babe in arms would declare such a thing. Didn’t she know what he had endured? 

But reading the novels of the war has answered part of that question: I doubt that she had any idea of what Robert had experienced during those months away from her. 

All letters sent to and from soldiers were read by censors who removed any material considered to be “sensitive.” Instead, soldiers were given the option of sending home pre-printed postcards—for free—that offered a sentence for the correspondent to indicate. These cards listed sentences that the soldier could mark with an X. [7] “I am quite well” or “I am being sent down to the base,” were two of the options. British soldiers were warned “If anything else is added to the postcard it will be destroyed.” 

When the men returned home on leave, many of them found it impossible to convey to their wives, girlfriends, and families the horrors they had witnessed. 


Some of the women whom they did try to tell refused to listen. In several of the novels, women on the home front—regardless of age—were represented as harridans who shamed the men who were not serving by presenting them with white feathers to indicate cowardice. Other women acted as bellicose tub-thumpers, dismissing the war’s doubters as traitors or caitiff soldiers whose “wetness” imperiled the brave. 

Gabriel Chevallier writes of one such encounter as Madame Bergniol argues with a returning soldier: 

“No son of mine will be brought up to think like you.” 

“I know that, mademoiselle. You could bear flaming torches as well as babies, but you’ll only give your son the guttering candle you were given; its wax is dripping and burning your fingers. It is candles like that which have set the world ablaze instead of illuminating it. Blind men’s candles, and you can be sure that tomorrow they’ll relight the braziers that will consume the sons of your loins. And their pain will be nothing but ash, and at the moment their sacrifice is consummated, they will know this and will curse you. With your principles, if the occasion presents itself, then you in turn will be inhuman mothers.” [8]


The men and women on the home front, who soldiers felt honor-bound to protect from their hideous memories, didn’t want to speak of what they had seen, nor did they wish to frighten those who would be able to do nothing but worry when the men returned to battle. Instead, in the news accounts, civilians were fed a steady diet of courageous Everyman heroes and glorious victories on the battle plains. It was only after the war that the novelists, memoirists, and poets were published. Even the poems of someone like Wilfred Owen whose “Dulce et Decorum Est” defined the war for many, was unknown during his lifetime. His battlefield death one week prior to the Armistice meant that his audience was only found after the war was over and his friends had collected his poems and published them in a volume. 

The accounts of a loss of life feel impossible to apprehend. Consider, for example, this number from the Austro-Hungarian Empire: Prior to the war, the population was 51 million. The seven million casualties it suffered breaks down like this. “An average of more than 4,500 Austro-Hungarian men in uniform were killed, wounded, or captured every single day of the war.” [9]


When I try to comprehend what Robert saw, heard, smelled, and thought about during the war, I hear the incessant booms of the mortars that were fired several times a minute for hours on end. For men trapped in foxholes with shells raining down on them, it is not surprising to learn that many returned with a condition labeled “shell shock.” 

But, in addition to the noise, it’s imagining the trenches divided by a patch of “No Man’s Land,” that I cannot shake. This passage from Chevallier is a tough read. The replacement soldiers have just arrived at the trench where they are due to relieve the men who have been there for several days. What they find is something out of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch:
Corpses contorted into every possible position, corpses which had suffered every possible mutilation, every gaping wound, every agony. There were complete corpses, serene and perfectly composed like stone saints in a chapel; undamaged corpses without any evident injuries; foul, blood-soaked corpses like the prey of unclean beasts; calm, resigned, insignificant corpses; the terrifying corpses of men who had refused to die, raging, upright, bulging, haggard, cursing and crying out for justice. All with their twisted mouths, their glassy eyes, and their skin like that of drowned men. And then there were the pieces of corpses, the shreds of bodies and clothes, organs, severed members, red and purple human flesh, like rotten meat in a butcher’s, limp, flabby, yellow fat, bones extruding marrow, unravelled entrails, like vile worms that we crushed with a shudder. The body of a dead man is an object of utter disgust for those who are alive, and this disgust is itself the mark of utter prostration. To escape such horror, I looked out at the plain. A new and greater horror: the plain was blue. [French uniforms were blue.] The plain was covered with our comrades, cut down by machine guns, their faces in the mud, arses in the air, indecent, grotesque like puppets, but pitiable like men, alas! [10]
Chevallier’s description continues on for pages. While the battle is never specified, he is providing a sense of what hell was encountered at Artois where the French suffered 102,000 casualties in six days. 


My great-grandfather’s death is a stone I keep in my pocket, my fingers rubbing against it, worrying it in an attempt to make something meaningful of it. How can I capture the impact that one single death had upon his family when he was but one of millions? Does it make a difference if I tell you that Hilda, my grandmother, became an orphan a few years later when Edith died of kidney disease? 

Perhaps I try to make Robert’s death mean something because I know that ultimately his little girl would grow up without parents, raised by the older step-sister who came into her life when Edith remarried shortly before her own death. 

No photographs of Hilda as a child exist. No one thought to take her photograph. She doesn’t exist before pictures that show her as a married woman. Is it wrong that when I think of Robert’s death, the story of what became of the tiny invisible baby he left comes with it? 


On the day that Robert died, his commanding officer noted that the battalion had suffered seven casualties that day. Even on October 18th, Robert’s death was not special in any way. His commanding officer made no special mention of the man who had served with his battalion for thirty-five months. 
These hearts were woven of human joys and cares,
     Washed marvellously with sorrow, swift to mirth.
The years had given them kindness. Dawn was theirs,
     And sunset, and the colours of the earth.
(The Dead, Rupert Brooke)

[1] The total number of World War I dead is disputed. The number of dead when civilians are counted, and the 1.5 million Armenians who died during the Genocide in 1915, and those who died of disease and starvation during the course of the war brings the number to nearly 40 million
[2] Hell’s Foundations by Geoffrey Moorhouse (2008: Faber & Faber) 
[3] The Burning of the World, Béla Zombory-Moldován (2014: New York Review Books) pg. 113 
[4] Schlump, Hans Herbert Grimm (2014: New York Review Books) pg. 241 
[5] At the University of Washington, where I did most of this work, the exploration of labor and World War I was a topic of interest to professors. See, for example, in Germany, Marxists identified themselves with anti-militarism long before the war broke out
[6] I mention this because I think the idea that “working-class” folks capable of recognizing common interests, of acting rationally on their own behalf has been lost in recent years. Recent votes—Brexit in Great Britain, the election of Donald Trump in the United States—exposed the divide between workers and the journalists who covered them. Journalists settled on an explanation that working-class folks had been hoodwinked by politicians into voting against their own class interests and the working class had been exposed as a hotbed of racism and regressive thinking. But as I argued in a number of articles, and journalists such as Sarah Smarsh, Elizabeth Catte, Steven Stoll, and Ted Genoways, among an increasing number, have argued against these reductive arguments about working-class culture. 
[7] This service was offered especially for those soldiers or their correspondents who found writing difficult. In the BBC TV series, “The Village,” these postcards became a plot point. When a soldier on the front works out a code using the postcard to let his younger brother know he was being sent to the front, his subterfuge is discovered by army censors. 
[8] Fear, Gabriel Chevallier, (2011: New York Review Books) 
[9] Zombory-Moldován, pg. xiii 
[10] Chevallier, pg. 62

Lorraine Berry writes for a number of publications including the Guardian (U.K.), the Washington Post, Catapult, and Read It Forward. She has recently been diagnosed with abibliophobia. Follow her on Twitter @BerryFLW where she tweets about her passion for Manchester City Football Club. 

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Monday, February 4, 2019

Reflections on Writing the Short Essay: Hesitations and Possibilities

Vanessa Calderon, Casey Dawson, Grant Dufrene, Diarra English, Waverly Evans, Dana Gainey, Carissa Harlow, Ryan Mayer, Anahi Molina, Sarah Neal, Margaret O’Connell, Sophia Rataj, Brian Recile, Christopher Schaberg, Rayana Windom, & Dari Zeltser
This semester at Loyola University New Orleans we took a new class together, a workshop called Writing the Short Essay. We read some samples at the beginning, including a piece at the Rumpus by Chelsey Johnson, a recent essay by Alison Kinney in the New York Times, and even a Twitter thread by Jami Attenberg. Our goal was to wrap our minds around this wide-ranging and slippery subgenre, and then to try our hands at writing (then workshopping, pitching, and ideally submitting) our own short essays. But as we discussed and workshopped, we found ourselves asking questions about what this form requires of writers, and of readers. For many of us this was our first experience writing something in between academic and creative—if that binary can be used, at least tentatively. As a final project, we reflected on writing the short essay: our experiences, the conundrums we encountered, and more.

SR: On the first day of class, our professor tells us we can write about anything. But we must write. Shit. Not only have I never written a short essay, but it is notoriously harder to write when your subject matter can be anything. I rack my brain. I get four sentences in, hate it, delete everything. I try again, searching through my mind for a thought worth sharing with some unseen audience, but to no avail. It’s not until the night before the piece is due that I realize I just have to write. Who cares if it’s terrible? That’s why we’re workshopping it. I now realize how freeing it is to word-vomit onto a page and dig through the mess until I find a small seed of truth. And maybe there’s a tree metaphor that can be pulled from that last sentence, but I’m not gonna go there.

CH: The short essay is intimate; it’s about obsessions—the things that grip you endlessly; the things that people often tell you you think too hard about. It’s about body image, gender identification, religious scrutiny, ice cream, soap, sex, love, cemeteries, alcohol, aging, dolls, crickets, etc. While these topics seem to be meant for late night conversations with your best friend, or coffee shop talk with your table neighbor who desperately wants to drink their soy latte in peace, the short essay expands the topic just enough that it pops into something different. Like a bubble, stretching into a new space before disappearing back into thin air.

CD: The short essay can get a bad rap. Misunderstandings about this form can lead to bitter conversations about clickbait headlines, a growing public disdain for expertise, and our collective, crumbling attention span—all discussed with a sigh/eye roll combo that my thirteen-year-old self would be proud of. To quickly capture a thought, idea, experience, or response to a cultural moment without expertise, but not without care, can make this an unruly form of writing. It can quickly magnify the insecurities experienced by aspiring writers of all stripes. (Hello, impostor syndrome.) But if our thoughts and ideas are only accessible to those with enough student loan debt to prove their qualifications, then maybe we are failing as writers. The short essay format covers all the opposites of what we have been trained to write—but it might be forcing us to do better work.

VC: My initial fear with writing the short essay was that I had not read enough of them. I wasn’t even sure what one looked like. Maybe I needed a New Yorker subscription (or at least the tote bag). But I soon realized that I’ve read innumerable short essays in my life—whether in the form of a nuanced twitter thread or a shitty Buzzfeed listicle. The short essay is everywhere. I guess it’s the season, as it seems to be the perfect form to write “on the pulse” pieces. Without realizing it, I’ve also written a few by accident: a Google Doc of short paragraphs divulging my favorite celebrity sex stories, an extended Facebook post about getting a parasite in Mexico, and an iPhone notes review of public restrooms in New Orleans. The short essay could be a diary entry, personal reflection, or niche commentary… Those count right? Either way, they’re entertaining.

RW: If the academic essay is the strict, authoritative parent, then the short essay is the fun, spontaneous aunt. The short essay can be a creative outlet, political standpoint, or practically anything the author desires. Go on vacation and write about navigating the crazy rides at Disney or the new Diagon Alley in Universal Studios. Even better, describe the cherry blossoms and culture of Japan, and how the over fifteen-hour plane ride and screaming babies were worth it in the end. I would read that; but the author had better be real with me. Educate me on the difficulties of traveling and learning the native language. Share your emotions on witnessing outright racism for the first time. A short essay takes readers along for the ride, exposes relatable and peculiar experiences in short bursts that keep our attention and end right before you would have lost it. You’ll find me long past bedtime, snuggled up, and laughing as I walk with someone along The Great Wall of China.

SN: I can’t write right now because I’m too stressed about another assignment for work. It’s not the right time of day. I can’t write right now because I’ve looked at a screen too much today. My writing needs to be inspired. Hold on. I can’t write right now because the sunlight looks good through my window, and I gotta look at that. Plus, I got this Amazon package that I have to make an event out of opening. I have to wait until the water for my tea is boiling. I can’t write because I haven’t done my research for the piece yet. I can’t write right now because I have to feed my guinea pigs their hay. I have to wait for my tea to be cool enough to drink. I have to check my email just one more time. Has my tea fully steeped? I can’t write right now. Let me jot something down in my phone real quick.

CS: I wonder what the short essay is for, these days. It’s the form I feel most inclined to write, and it seems like the form with the best chance of being read. But I also worry that my writing is getting pulled into the mill of digital media, where short attention spans reign. On the other hand, even a short essay seems like a small act of resistance! Asking readers to linger with me for five or ten or even maybe fifteen minutes, to play out a scenario, consider an unappreciated object, or reflect on a counterintuitive phenomenon. To try out an uncomfortable or strange idea, to tarry with a half-formed thought, a hunch or an eerie premonition. I write short essays as a matter of coping with the craziness of our times—even, though it may sound hyperbolic, as a matter of survival. It’s a way to organize and sort through the vectors and variables of our days, and to put something in the world that feels like a small outcropping, a breakwall amid the crashing surf that are our oceanic, immersive digital media shorelines.

MO: Recently, Time magazine published a short essay stating that humans now have eight-second attention spans, shorter than that of a goldfish. This particular article—itself cleverly brief—took me 39 seconds to read, which amounts to the attention span of 4.33 goldfish or 4.88 humans. The author of the Time piece asserts that the cause of the shift in the average human attention span is most likely a result of our “increasingly digitalized lifestyle[s].” So it makes sense that our media should adapt accordingly: in recent years, the short essay has gained and continues to gain popularity and literary credibility. Short essays force the author to put seemingly unrelated ideas into conversation without extended transitions. The form requires more interpretation while still being intended for a wider audience of casual readers. Like a poem, you get what you give from the short essay, and I find that reciprocal exchange both thrilling and apt for the current times of the goldfish.

RM: The short essay functions similarly to a seasonal Halloween store: its genius lies in its resplendent evanescence. The short essay seeks to agitate the reader, momentarily plunging them into its subject matter like a baby into baptismal water, and they emerge from the text with an altered perspective. The subject of a short essay can linger in the reader’s mind longer than those of more protracted literary forms because concision correlates with impact. In the essay, “The Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe notes that “if any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression.” If a short essay cannot be read in one sitting, it sacrifices its potency. The short essay’s pithy length allows it to hold the reader’s attention: to descend, maintain for a moment, and then drop, like a spider from its silk.

GD: I’m still not sold on this whole “short essay” thing. As a still (barely) recovering internet addict, the short essay doesn’t sit right with me. Maybe it’s because my newfound quasi-Luddite aspirations seem at odds with the format. Short essays never stick with me the same way that other forms of writing do. Though, maybe they aren’t meant to stick with you in the same way. I can never remember the author or the details so I tend to lose track of whether these ideas came from a late-night drunk phone conversation, from a stranger who asked to borrow a pen in a bank, or from a short essay I read when I was supposed to be doing research for a term paper. That could be the point I’ve been missing: ideas should flow freely without worrying about their origins. The concept should take precedence over the arbitrary details. Still, the short essay feels like the fast-food-alternative to other forms of writing: as though it was meant to be quickly consumed, discarded, and forgotten as soon as you close out of the tab. Packaged in polystyrene.

DE: Each day, we move through a series of interactions or events that we dismiss as insignificant, and later, there are some we can’t stop thinking about. We replay how we said “hi,” if how we opened a door was too aggressive, and whether or not that afterschool program our parents forced us into helped us or scarred us for life. The short essay writer goes one step further and plucks these endlessly fractal moments that we all fixate on and pours them onto a blank document until they can make some (some) sense out of what it all means. At the end, there is (sometimes) an essay with a concept that someone on the other side of the world or in your own neighborhood may relate to. The short essay, when done well, eases the reader with the feeling that they’re not the only one.

DZ: How do I know when an idea is done? Is an idea ever done? (I’m about to graduate, so maybe I am scared of tying myself to anything particular for fear I’ll back myself into a corner.)  If I can make an argument, does that make it true? (No.) Does that mean I should make it? (I think about what thoughts I want to put out in the world, and the difference between useful ideas and harmful ones.) What should I write? What I believe? What I can get published? Who am I asking to listen to me? (What if I want the privacy that I’m not used to and that advertisers don’t want me to have.) Should a short essay take a short time to write? How do I decide what to say? Do I ever know? Do I pretend to know? How do I know when I know what I know? Is publishing just immortalizing a time that I pretended to know? Should I wait until I have it fully thought out? What is “fully thought out?” Does it matter? (Maybe I’m taking this too seriously.) What are we trying to do here?

BR: When I write a short essay it’s usually sparked from a spontaneous idea or emotion. If I want my essay to be 100 words, I am allowed exactly that freedom. This restrictive freedom allows writers to put their thoughts down without getting into bullshit territory. (Or is some material in short essays precisely bullshit, and that’s okay too?) The short essay allows for exploration of off-the-wall ideas. That’s because you don’t have any long term commitment to the concept. All you have to do is get the idea off your chest, onto the internet, and let it breathe for itself.

WE: The short essay helps me order my thoughts one step at a time. Thinking about the world and all of its problems can be overwhelming, so why not try to attend to little issues that might illuminate a larger problem? As a dancer, dance always helps me take a break from my wandering mind. I can focus on contorting my body to achieve bizarre angles and stark shadows—similar to the short essay. But I don’t have to engage in the physical activity that fatigues my body. Instead, the short essay tires my brain, squeezes each drop of question onto a page, and spreads it into a wonderful mess. Maybe someone will accidentally stumble upon an article online while crying over their recent breakup and discover that he did her dirty through a particular article on sexual harassment or cheating spouses. That’s all I can hope for in my essays: that someone will get stuck on my little burr of confusion and carry it along on the hem of their pant leg for a while.

DG: My drawing teacher tells her students that “just because something is true doesn’t mean it’s necessary.” In a drawing, this translates to not needlessly overcomplicating a piece and screwing with the composition because you see something else in the initial image. The criticisms I got on my first short essays were along the lines of “it seems like there’s a lot here” and “try having a central focus.” My classmates were talking about the same concept as my art teacher—that I need to focus on simplifying the composition rather than emphasizing content. What I like about the reductive quality of the short essay is that reading a successful piece is often akin to feeling and thinking in a way that mimics someone else’s reality. It’s easy to write off fiction as constructed and therefore not realistically applicable, but the short essay demands empathy and focus on something that’s true and worth considering, even if for only ten minutes.

AM: I used to think the short essay was my best friend, but I realize now that the short essay is just myself, cut down and copy-pasted into a Google Doc. In that sense, I kind of hate the short essay, since I kind of hate myself. But I also love it and am obsessed with it since I am obsessed with myself. I’ve got a Gut Feeling.

The authors are students of writing at Loyola University New Orleans.