Sunday, August 1, 2021

The #Midwessay: Caitlin Horrocks, The Cottage Essay

We're back for round 3 of #Midwessay coverage starting back up this week, in which we re/visit essays and essayists from Midwestern states and those of us still in Midwestern states even if we live elsewhere. In our first round we published one week in each state, and now we're swinging back through to continue. Up this week is Michigan, coordinated by Ander Monson. Are you a Michigander? A Michiganian? Do you have thoughts or feelings about our fair water-bordered state and its literature? If an essay captures the workings of the mind, what is the mind of Michigan? Be in touch and send us something.


The Cottage Essay

Caitlin Horrocks


When I think about Michigan essays, what I find myself thinking about is a subgenre I’d like to call “the cottage essay,” or maybe “the cabin essay.” It’s rarely a “lakehouse” essay, but it could be. I can’t always tell, in these essays, how large or well-appointed or house-like the cottages are. Sometimes my students just write about “my grandparents’ place.” 
     In Michigan, it’s not necessarily the richest people who have lakeside property, but the people who have lived here the longest. Wealthy people from Chicago might still simply buy a cottage. But for most of my students, for most of the people I know, your main choices are to rent one by the week or weekend, or to inherit or be hosted in one that was bought in another era, by an earlier generation, when such purchases were in easier reach. I was born in Michigan, but my parents were transplants. My husband is from Seattle. We write and teach. We will probably never have a cottage. But I read a lot of cottage essays. 
     Most have one of three shapes: the first is more commonly by a beginning writer, and it is an essay about joy. The joy is cozy and regular, without beginning or end—the writer anticipates the same joy every summer (the cottage essay takes place almost always in summer, though the cabin essay might also take place in autumn deer hunting season, or winter snowmobile season).  The writer’s joy is so perfect and private and steady that it becomes a vague fog to the reader. We talk about this, the “problem” of joy, how odd and unfair it is that it’s so much harder to convey in interesting ways than tragedy. The student’s patience for this conversation tends to correlate to their patience for writing in general.
     A second sub-subgenre is about disaster narrowly averted, usually in the form of the near-drowning of either the author or the author’s cousin or friend. There are a lot of near-drownings, and some are harrowing. But this essay is ultimately about the lesson learned, either by the parents or the kids. The author will return next summer, chastened but wiser. 
     The third sub-subgenre starts off as an essay about joy. Possibly with a near-drowning thrown in. But mostly about the rhythms of vacation life, the reconnections with extended family, the meals with hot dogs and fresh watermelon slices, the mosquito bites and floating swim platforms, the cheerfully over-crowded sleeping arrangements.
     But in this type of essay, we are headed from “every” to “last.” A last time the now-adult child vacationed with the family. A last time before divorce or other family strife put the cabin out of reach. A last time before the property was sold. A last time before the beloved matriarch or patriarch died, or some other center of family gravity could no longer hold. The cottage is now demolished or condemned or more often occupied by strangers. This cottage essay is an essay about joy, but also about loss. It is about coming of age and nostalgia, and how joy looks from an unbridgeable distance. 
     Part of what those writers understand of happiness, they have learned through loss. Part of what they understand about writing, they learn through their attempts at resurrection, to make breathe on the page what is gone in real life. Individually, the essays might or might not succeed, but as a genre, I can’t unread them. The sub-subgenre of near-drownings is with me when I take my child to swim lessons. But the third type of cottage essay now dogs my vacations. I stayed in a rental a few weeks ago and kayaked around the small inland lake. The cottages initially inspired in me jealousy, and then a sort of sympathetic, anticipatory grief. All those damp, vinyl-sided memento mori, scenic little skulls at dockside.

Caitlin Horrocks is author of the story collections Life Among the Terranauts and This is Not Your City, both New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice titles. Her novel The Vexations was named one of the 10 best books of 2019 by the Wall Street Journal. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she teaches at Grand Valley State University.

What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest? What are the characteristics, if any, of the #Midwessay (the Midwest essay)? What gathers us together? What pulls us apart? Springing from a twitter conversation, we started asking writers and readers what they imagine (or would like to reimagine) as the Midwest and the Midwessay. The #Midwessay is a series of reports from the Midwest (whatever that is) by and/or about Midwestern essay and essayists (whatever those are). Essay Daily will be publishing these, sorted (loosely) by state, in February 2021 and beyond.  These #Midwessays will be collected here and on a separate site at a later date. If you'd like to submit a report / essay, send it our way. Details and coordinators for each state are listed here. You can also ping Ander (link at the upper right) if we don't list a coordinator yet for your state. —The Editors

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