The Essayist

Inadvertently, I have discovered I’ve always been meant to essay.

Today I pulled down a dozen issues of Granta, with the intent to pluck the issue I once received which had travel writing as a theme. This I would gift to my brother with whom I share a love of good travel writing: Paul Theroux, Bruce Chatwin, Bill Bryson, et al. Because these issues were from the 1980s, I reasoned, this would be a fun backwards look at writers we now respect, writers who were but beginning to be known at the time.

For those who remain unfamiliar with Granta, its existence since 1889 as an outlet for literary exploration has been a source of refreshment to us literati (of which I am only an acolyte). Founded by students at Cambridge University, the publication fell on hard times in the 1970s. It was acquired by postgrads and their friends and relaunched in 1979 as a quarterly publication. I subscribed somewhere around 1986 or 1987 and continued through 1990.

Some issues of Granta from the late 1980s. The authors in “The Story-Teller” are: John Berger, Michael Ignatieff (interviewing Bruce Chatwin), Bruce Chatwin, Ryszard Kapuscinski (plus an interview of him by Bill Buford), Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, Patrick Suskind, Isabel Allende, Oliver Sacks, Jonathan Schell, Vaclav Havel, Ian Jack, and Primo Levi. Astounding. 255pp.

In an oddly fortunate turn, I couldn’t find the issue I remember, “In Trouble Again” which featured a panoply of then-current travel writers. Perhaps I gave it to him already? No matter. It caused me to look through all of the issues I have, those from Spring 1987 to Spring 1990 plus an issue I think was a bonus for subscribing, volume #8 from 1983. (I believe the  issue I’m looking for was also a bonus issue.) In looking through all of my issues, which I have not since the early 1990s, I realized what fantastic writing it is. I want to read these pieces again, all of them. Here is Hanif Kureishi writing “With Your Tongue Down My Throat” back when he only was known for writing plays, and not many of those. Multiple issues feature Bruce Chatwin and Bill Bryson. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Mario Vargas Llosa. Jay McInerney (Mr. “Bright Lights, Big City”). Ryszard Kapuscinski, wandering the world as a Polish communist. Salman Rushdie. And certainly I should but don’t recognize some of the other names out of the volumes I just pulled at random.

When I left off with Granta I instinctively turned to other sources of expository writing: Pushcart essay collections, books by Nicholson Baker (A Box Of Matches), Verlyn Klinkenborg (The Rural Life), Joan Didion (Slouching Towards Bethlehem), Annie Dillard (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek), and Making Waves, a collection of essays by Mario Vargas Llosa. I reveled in a large book purchased for $2 from a used bookstore in Hobart, New York, (population 400-something), The Art of the Personal Essay, an anthology of essays from the classical era to the present curated by Phillip Lopate.

From when I was 13 I fancied myself a writer. As I’ve detailed in other pieces, I beat my head against the wall of You Are A Writer Of Fiction. It has always appealed to me because you invent the stories out of your head. You don’t have to go research anything, you don’t have to be an expert, you don’t have to go interview people, you don’t have to do anything but be creative. I grew up, though, and learned that yes, you do need to do these things to be successful (i.e., make enough money to not starve).

Yet after I took this literary excursion I realized I have arrived where I always wanted to be. Essayists do not make special efforts to research so that they can write. They usually write out of experience, wisdom, and self-contained knowledge. They do not attempt to follow a structure to ‘hook’ the reader or create characters who will follow the inevitable crisis-obstacles-solution-redemption cycle which ‘guarantees’ success. They do not attempt to sway society through pithy and incisive novels commenting on the human condition. Essayists just write. They attempt to entertain themselves, yet write to a wider audience. They seek to illuminate an idea, a feeling, a place, a time, a memory, a person, and sometimes several of these at once. What they don’t do is attempt anything grand. In essence, they don’t “attempt” anything. They just write.

I’ve been bemused that after 15 months this site has yet to see one piece of fiction. I had thought to post short stories and micro-novellas here, but nothing has moved me to do so. I’ve just written, and what gets published has been poetry and essays. So be it. We write what we write.

Perhaps at an earlier age I would have attempted to force myself through other hoops. Practicing certain techniques, I might have become adept at it, enjoyed it, and then you would (maybe) be reading those works of fiction. It has not been thus. My entire writing life has been 99% expository writing: a journey of persuasion, reflection, explanation, instruction, and self-discovery. As Ursula Le Guinn wrote in A Wizard of Earthsea, “The truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing but does only and wholly what he must do.”

My one-draft-and-done approach to college papers, my write-on-a-deadline life as a reporter makes it such that I must hold myself back from hitting the Publish button reflexively. What might be “good enough” isn’t usually good enough. I have an exhilarating freedom, however, in writing from my heart and my experience without worrying where the chips should fall. I guess I’m an essayist. There are worse things to be.

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