Rebecca McClanahan: The Essay as a Warm and Shifting Presence

(This essay, like the others published this week, was originally presented as part of the AWP 2017 panel “Imagining the Essay” with Lia Purpura, Ander Monson, and Lauret Savoy.) 


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Several years ago, during an AWP panel similar to this, I was sitting in the audience, and as the panelists began their talks about forgotten essayists, I caught in my peripheral vision a sudden movement, and something animal moved in me, for being at the time a NY apartment dweller, I was accustomed to that form of furtive skittering. Some of you were there, too, and know where this is heading, so I’ll cut to the chase: When in the course of human events a mouse appears, all bets are off. For mice are all about movement, digression being their foremost power. They live and breathe their grammar of prepositions, all those outs and ins. And this particular mouse—Mus Musculus, as I would later name him—was something to behold. His digressions included among the boots, between the aisles, along the extension cord, beneath the tablecloth spread for our panelists’ modesty, and now here he was skittering across the room and onto the partition, lifting his head in a literary pause as if to acknowledge his audience, and then he was out of sight.
     Later, as I thought back on the event, Cynthia Ozick’s essay came to mind—“She: Portrait of the Essay as a Warm Body,” which meanders through quotations and arguments and suppositions, coming to rest on this: the essay is not an abstraction; “She is too fluid, too elusive, to be a category.” She has contours, a body, is “a presence in the doorway.”
     Which brought me back to Mus Musculus. A warm body, yes, and a presence—in the doorway and elsewhere—but beyond that, an active, moving presence. He was, the more I thought about it, the Essay Mouse. For one of the primary elements of the imaginative essay is its movement. Ozick describes this as “the movement of a free mind at play.” Phillip Lopate notes the movement of the personal essay as “wheeling and diving like a hawk, each seemingly digressive spiral actually taking us closer to the heart of a matter.” And Deborah Tall and John D’Agata, in their editors’ notes in Seneca Review, write, of the lyric essay, “It elucidates through the dance of its own delving.”
     Drawing on these ideas, I began to examine some of my favorite essays not for the elegance and surprise of their language or for the voiceprint rising from the page—the two characteristics that usually seduce me as a reader—but rather for the moves the writers make.
     I started with short essays, like Barbara Hurd’s “Moon Snail,” which moves swiftly from its title, to an epigraph from Aristotle, to her first sentence—three words that begin an argument with Aristotle—followed by an “if” supposition, and then a description of a shell. And we’re only into the third sentence. As with most essays, as Alfred Kazin once observed, “… it is not the thought that counts but the experience we get of the writer’s thought.” And reading an essay rooted in imagination, we sometimes hang on for dear life because we are on a moving track. The more essays I studied, the more I saw, until my list of moves grew to more than seventy, including sidewinding, colliding, weaving, reversing, echoing, shifting tense, shifting point of view, employing negative space, as well as numerous camera and editing moves—flip image, splice, stop action, split screen, zoom in for closeup, and on and on.
     One of the most gear-shifting, wide-ranging essays was Reg Saner’s “Pliny and the Mountain Mouse,” which (speaking of the essay as a warm body) opens from the point of view of a marmot, who after months of hibernation wakes in what we now know as Colorado, though it is not yet named Colorado, for it is August 24, AD 79, and, as Saner moves on to say, “You and I aren’t here yet.” In this essay, Saner not only inhabits other minds than his own and moves backward in time, way back, he also imagines his way across wide expanses, sometimes straddling two continents at once, thus employing what I think of as the classic “Meanwhile, back at the ranch” move. We’re now seven thousand miles to the east, in Herculaneum, with science writer Pliny the Elder, who is sweating over his voluminous Natural History to insert facts about marmots. Then Saner moves on to the eruption of Vesuvius, which results in the death of the Elder, and then (here comes that wonderful “meanwhile” again) it is “evening in another country,” and we are back with the marmot, but in our own time. For, as Saner writes, “We can be here now. It’s our turn—to be, and be curious.” Finally, the “I” of the essay enters, an “I” who has seen hundreds of marmots, and, recalling one particular marmot, remarks that “to remember what sheer courage looks like, my mind’s eye often invokes him.”
     The mind’s eye, of course, is the eye of imagination. For some essayists, the eye of imagination does not leap like Saner’s across expanses of time and space but rather looks inward, finding the rocky, constantly changing terrain of the mind more than sufficient landscape to traverse. This kind of essayist might appear at first glance to be single-minded, but upon closer reading is shown to contain any number of multiple identities, including past and imagined selves as well as the present-tense self, a self that changes even as the words appear on the page. I’m reminded of Lewis Thomas’s “My Magical Metronome,” an ode to his pacemaker. At one point, he admits that in the past, writing as a physician, he had been critical of such technologies. Now, as the patient, he writes, “And here I am, enjoying precisely this sort of technology, eating my words.”
     Imaginative essayists are constantly eating their words, like Pac-Man ingesting dots so he can move to the next level, even while the ghosts pursue him. Reading their work, we can witness this process on the page; we can witness them eating their words. For they not only digress, they retract, reconsider, go forward one step, backward two, take another forward step, sidestep, and reconsider, because the act of writing moves that self more deeply into its most deeply divided thought. While in real life—whatever that is—we are often instructed, “No ifs, ands, or buts,” in an essay of imagination, these conjunctions are sometimes the main characters, and should be invited in as often as possible, like guests who disagree with our opinions. Here’s Montaigne in “On the Art of Conversation”: “When I am contradicted it arouses my attention, not my wrath. I move toward the man who contradicts me: he is instructing me.”
     Let’s take Montaigne’s idea a step further and imagine that “the man” (or woman) “who contradicts me” is myself. The first time I read C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, decades ago, I didn’t notice that he was doing exactly that. At the time, I was too hungry for answers. Or, if not answers, at least consolation. Wisdom. Guidance. A pathway through the forest of grief I was lost in. If you know the book, which I consider an extended essay, you know that I got more than I bargained for. Forget comfort and consolation. This writer is on fire, arguing with his culture, his God, established notions of grief, and, most startlingly, with himself, writing his way through the grief of losing his wife, yet refusing to solve the dilemma. “I will not, if I can help it,” he writes, “shin up either the feathery or the prickly tree. Two widely different convictions press more and more on my mind.” Paragraph to paragraph, sentence to sentence, Lewis employs ifs, ands, and buts freely, contradicting himself, eating his words. Here are three brief examples:

Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything. But no, that is not quite accurate. There is one place where her absence comes locally home to me . . . I mean my own body. 

What does it matter how I remember her or whether I remember her at all? None of these alternatives will either ease or aggravate her past anguish. Her past anguish. How do I know that all her anguish is past?

I will turn to her as often as possible in gladness . . .The less I mourn her the nearer I seem to her. An admirable programme. Unfortunately it can’t be carried out. Tonight all the hells of young grief have opened again;

It is a commonplace that “essay” is rooted in “attempt” or “try,” as in trying an experiment. But let’s enlarge and re-imagine “to try” to include “to put something on trial,” to argue both sides of the case. Because sometimes an essayist argues both sides of the case. She is both defender and prosecutor. She is, literally, beside herself.  Not out of her mind, but rather out of her single mind, making room as she writes for two or more aspects of herself to exist in the same moment on the page. She begins writing and finds that, say, the mother inside her is arguing with the daughter. The doctor with the patient. The ex-Catholic with the Buddhist. Through the process of imagining, of allowing—no, encouraging—collisions, she creates her own personal call-and-response choir. Turns out Ozick was right, or partly right. The movement of the essay is the movement of a free mind at play, yes, but is also the movement of a free mind conversing with all the other free minds living beside, and above, and beneath it.
     Which leads me to imagine that the most important questions an essayist can ask herself are, “At what place am I most deeply divided? Where am I of two minds? Or three, or four? And how can I bring those minds into the essay?” As Whitman suggests, we contain multitudes. Why not put them together and let them talk (or sing) it out?

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Rebecca McClanahan has published ten books of nonfiction, essays, poetry, and writing instruction, most recently The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change and a new edition of Word Painting: The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively. Her work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Poetry, Kenyon Review, Gettysburg Review, The Sun, and numerous journals and anthologies. McClanahan has received the Wood Prize from Poetry magazine, a Pushcart Prize in fiction, the Glasgow Award in nonfiction for her suite of essays, The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings, and literary fellowships from New York Foundation for the Arts and the North Carolina Arts Council. She teaches in the MFA programs of Queens University and Rainier Writing Workshop.

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