There are a few writers who I am quite obsessed with – maybe even unnaturally so. Maggie Nelson is one. I’ve been ravenously reading her recent reissue, The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial, whenever possible. A few nights ago, as I worshipped her and her words, I found myself stunned and hurt when I came to a passage in which she recounts her mother sending her a card with Joan Didion’s quote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” She describes being more and more troubled by the line as she stares at it pinned on her wall. She says,
She goes on, “As soon as a writer starts talking about the ‘human need for narrative’ or the ‘archaic power of storytelling,’ I usually find myself wanting to bolt out of the auditorium.”
I set my book down on my lap, stunned. Nelson’s Bluets is among the best books I’ve ever read. Her “autotheory,” The Argonauts changed the way I view gender, sexuality, and motherhood. Following her mind – and her stories – has solidified my own belief in “the human need for narrative.” I fully buy in to the idea that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live” and that through writing and reading we find ourselves and others and everything is magical and devastatingly human.
In reading the work of Montaigne, I found myself enthralled not only by his words, but by his quest to learn how to live and die well, his understanding that “every man bears the whole form of the human condition.” I searched for myself as he followed his roaming mind, looking for lessons in living, in love, and in writing. Reading the narratives of a man who lived hundreds of years before me – and finding inspiration in his work – started this buildup of passion about the sheer power of the essay. I grew vindicated, awe-struck.
From there, continuing through the history of the essay, I found myself again and again happily fueling the fire. Susan Orlean tells us,
In those stories, readers see themselves, they learn something new. In an anthology like Essayists on the Essay, we are given hundreds of years’ worth of smart people saying smart things about the genre we love. We are given ammunition, inspiration.
And in reading, I collect pieces, fragments, and ideas and hold them up to my own mind, trying to assay myself. The way writing works on me has everything to do with where I am in my own life at the moment. I found myself writing to Montaigne, trying desperately to understand love and sex and marriage. In Natalia Gizburg’s “He and I,” I worried about how to write a relationship. In Chesterton’s “A Piece of Chalk,” I marveled at the meaning available in the everyday if we just open ourselves up to seeing it. I could say with certainty at any point that stories are a basic human need. That we write to share and connect.
So what am I supposed to do when one of the most important writers to me says that narrative’s entrapment is a “cause for lament, not celebration”?
Maybe the answers lie in the essay itself.
When we learn about the essay, we understand from the beginning that the etymology of the word itself comes from words meaning to try or attempt. When we write essays, we are making an attempt. The storytelling is part of it, sure, but we are trying to figure something out. We are, as Montaigne says, “not portraying being but becoming.” The essay itself contains the attempt, hopefully showing some new insight. The essay itself establishes a relationship with the reader. The brilliance of the genre is that it shows the mind at work, even if that mind is showing an event or telling a tale. That the writer chose to portray a particular line of narrative indicates something further still: the choices the writer made, which above all, mean something to the writer. Who writes an essay for anyone but themselves? Even if sharing is an ultimate goal, one cannot write only for others.
When talking about essays, I all too frequently resort to talking about them only as a reader. I’ve often failed to account for the writer. What I mean by this is that I’ve read them for my own benefit. That in and of itself isn’t bad; a published essay begs for a reader to read it. But this narrow gaze has led me to misrepresent the actual power of the essay. In my reading I’ve looked at the essay as a gift given to me rather than as something to be shared. An essayist who shares their work says, Here. Here is this thing I wrote. I hope you take something from it. An essayist does not say, I wrote this for you.
An essay is an attempt. It’s personal. Its being depends solely on the writer’s insights and experience. Readers, as Elizabeth Hardwick reminds us, “consent to watch a mind at work.” While the voice on the page is a construct, it’s the one the writer has offered to share with readers. It’s the voice, the persona, which the writer needed in order to write as she did. “Out of the raw of material of a writer’s own undisguised being,” explains Vivian Gornick, “a narrator is fashioned whose existence on the page is integral to the tale being told.” So, while we get to meet the writer, or at least some version of the writer, the writer still holds the power. The writer has the agency to tell the tale on his or her own terms. We, as readers, have the privilege of watching the writer’s mind work, of searching the container for fragments that might help us think about our own perspectives differently. I had forgotten that Montaigne identified this:
A genre like the essay cannot be studied in the same way as other literary genres. The power of the essay originates in the writing of it. That power stems from an essayist opening up to new meaning and opting to inquire rather than just tell. Thus, to study the essay we have to understand what it means to be a writer of essays. The writer – via persona – is the key element in the work. A fiction story can separate itself from the writer, can build a world that exists in imagination and is translated to page, all the while growing on its own. The story or poem can be set free to come to roost in the hands and minds of readers. The essay cannot. It is necessarily forever entwined with the essayist, unable to develop and expand once read.
So why read an essay? If it is an artifact of a specific time, place, frame of mind, version of self, inquiry, and so forth, how do we read it? What does it mean that we can find some universal truth in such a limited container, one that articulates what is true to only one human being? Readers of essays intuitively know that it’s about more than entertainment. It’s often harder work to read an essay than a short story. Phillip Lopate has one theory: “So often the ‘plot’ of a personal essay, its drama, its suspense, consists of watching how far the essayist can drop past his or her psychic defenses toward deeper levels of honesty.” Or, perhaps, the essay is appealing because it offers, as José Ortega Y Gasset explains, “possible new ways of looking at things.” In a recent review of After Montaigne, Robert Lunday explains how craving measure leads him to Montaigne: “Perhaps we suffer most due to our tendency to go out of balance: as men and women, as nations, as a species, we are too often beyond measure. Montaigne rights us.”
I suspect that each essay reader approaches essays differently, with various motives and assorted hopes. I cannot discount my own experiences with essays as a reader, but I do think that it’s important to consider the relationship I have with the writers of them. Similarly, I believe it’s essential to meld together the way I approach essays as a reader and as an essayist. Undoubtedly I am able to perceive the power of the essay because I’ve had the good fortune to write them. I’m not sure how to separate the two perspectives now that I’m writing this.
A few pages after Maggie Nelson dropped the bombshell on me, she describes picking up “The White Album” some years after receiving the card from her mother:
After reading this, I returned to a place earlier in the chapter where Nelson tries to reconcile stories and the urge to write. She quotes Virginia Woolf: “It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole; this wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me.”
I think now of the overwhelming pain woven into Bluets, of the raw honesty she uses when dismantling gender in The Argonauts. I think of the shift in E.B. White’s “The Ring of Time,” the flood of enchantment for the circus girl; the note of despair; the gradualism. Racism. I think of Didion’s breakdown of self and culture in “The White Album” – writing might not have helped her to find meaning, but it did something for her, of that I am certain. I think of James Baldwin and “Notes of a Native Son,” the interlacing of father and blackness, how it ends with a wish for answers. How Woolf’s “Death of a Moth” finishes with the strength of death. These essayists, all essayists, search. They may not find. But I believe they come out of it changed in some way; only then can readers, when they find an essay at just the right time, when they open themselves up to the experience of the essay, find it within themselves to change, too.