The Essayist's Real Challenge

by ALLAN REEDER

In supporting college applicants' thinking, imagining, and writing, we at Hillside are often demonstrating why concern about what an essay is "about" must not precede close interest in and examination of the raw material — close looking at the specific details of experience. Don't rush to meaning! A fresher, truer "aboutness" almost invariably results from patient recollection (indeed, re-collection) and consideration. 

And so when To Write a Great Essay, Think and Care Deeply, from The Atlantic's By Heart series, came to our attention, we applauded. In appreciation for the lessons he finds in J.R. Ackerly's My Dog Tulip, nonfiction writer Lucas Mann describes Ackerly as "leaning closer, looking so carefully" and notes that "it’s the closeness in his gaze, his dedication to looking, that transforms the subject." Mann reflects how we tend to "prioritize a weighty topic over the force of an author’s gaze, the clarity of her prose, the sincerity of her emotion." He goes on: "[I]t’s important for me to remind myself sometimes that, at its heart, that’s all a great essay is: a virtuoso performance of care." 

Frequently we talk at Hillside about how the interesting writer is the interested writer — how just isolating and describing the specifics of experience with careful attention (attention that is full of care) is not only an essential step in realizing an authentic meaning but an engaging act in itself. As Mann writes, "[S]pending one’s time fretting about aboutness is a deflection from the essayist’s real challenge: to think and feel as deeply and specifically as possible about whatever it is you’re looking at." 

The Ear Still Does It

Last week, while reading remarks from the Irish novelist Kevin Barry in The Atlantic's By Heart series ("How Fiction Can Survive in a Distracted World"), I heard another writer's voice break in. Barry, who had spoken by phone with Atlantic contributor Joe Fassler, was discussing the various challenges to sustained readerly attention. "We’ve changed very much as readers of texts, in recent years. We’re much more impatient now — I think, primarily, because we’re all online, all the time." But, he reflected, the human voice "can still arrest us, slow us down, and stop us in our tracks." This was a preface to his specific appreciation for the captivating power of "Under Milk Wood," Dylan Thomas's "play for voices." 

It was just after Barry had demonstrated the particularly inviting effects of the opening voice in the play, which asks us repeatedly to listen, that I was listening to Robert Frost's voice, talking from somewhere in my memory. 

I went looking for the source, which turned out to be a letter Frost wrote from England in 1914 to John Bartlett, his friend and former student. Soon I had Barry talking in one browser window and Frost writing in another.  And a minute later, Barry was standing on one side of an imagined stage, inside his home in County Sligo, the phone to his ear, while Frost sat writing at a desk on the other side. A bare space at center stage — and almost exactly a century — separated them, but still they conversed, in a way. 

FROST: (voicing what he writes) The ear does it.

Barry pauses. Pulls the phone from his ear for a moment, as if he's heard something in the room.

FROST: The ear is the only true writer and the only true reader.

BARRY: (continuing into the phone) I always think there are two kinds of readers. There are readers who read with their eyes —

FROST: Eye readers we call them. They can get the meaning by glances.

BARRY: — who process a text in images —

FROST: But they are bad readers because they miss the best part of what a good writer puts into his work.

BARRY: — and I think there are readers who read with their ears, who listen, as the sentences unfold across the page. I’m of the latter variety. 

FROST: (nodding) You listen for the sentence sounds.

BARRY: My ear is my critical tool.... It’s what catches the false notes.

Silence

 FROST: I wouldn’t be writing all this if I didn’t think it the most important thing I know.

Watch Carefully

"Many writers feel that they have to put all this drama in their books in order for us to feel something. Drama is always too easy, in a way....

"[I]t’s much more interesting to deal with everyday life, with novelty, with days going by and nothing changing. It’s more difficult, but it’s more interesting—because that’s what most of our lives are. Ninety-nine percent of our days are like the day before. It’s very seldom that we kill ourselves, that we are raped, or killed—luckily. For me, the interesting thing is to deal with that head-on: How do we live when nothing is changing? How do we deal with small things?

"You can still achieve emotional impact without big, dramatic gestures. It’s done by watching very carefully."

Peter Stamm, in "Great Writing Is Humble," The Atlantic

Writing as Listening

There is a Norwegian novelist who says “Writers must beware of their own good ideas.” You have this great idea, and then you start writing—and maybe something happens, and your voice starts taking you places. But if you start to think, I’m going away from my great idea, I have this wonderful idea! I need to get back to my idea—you stop following the consequences of the place and voice you’ve chosen. This is a mistake. You see a lot of decent books and plots that are fantastic—the writing might even be really good—but still somehow feel completely dead. I think that’s because there’s a great idea, a compelling premise, but a lack of honesty that can only come from listening closely to your writing. Those beautiful moments when you’ve just got to put the book away for a while because it’s so intense—we have a Norwegian word, smertepunkt, which literally means “point of pain”—can only come from this kind of honest listening. And Alice Munro is an absolute master of it. She dares to take the consequence of a voice, and a place, and follow them to where it takes her. 

— Linn Ulmann, "Before You Can Write a Good Plot, You Need to Write a Good Place," The Atlantic, 4.23.14

Walter Mosley on two sentences by Raymond Chandler

"Forty-four years ago, I came across a passage that changed my life. I was teenager then, reading just about anything that struck my fancy. In those days I was pretty much an unconscious reader taking in one book after another looking for good stories. When I was finished with one novel it receded into the background and made way for the next. I had no notion of becoming a writer. Writers were, for me, long dead practitioners of a lost art.

"And so it went. I read, let's say, Treasure Island by Stevenson, then Damien by Hesse, and on to The Long Goodbye. One page after the other went by and I was as happy (and as unaware) as a clam. And then two sentences, toward the end of the novel, shook me from my waking slumber. It was like a one-two combination punch....

"Those 24 words alerted me to the potential power of writing."

Read about those 24 words at The Atlantic.