Friday, July 6, 2012

The Personal Essay ~ A Multitude of Containers

It’s interesting for me to step back and examine my writing progression. I read an essay this morning that I wrote in the spring of 2006 for a Stress and Human Health class. The title of the paper is “Behavior Modification: Toward Self-Empowerment.” It’s about four pages, double-spaced. I can tell right where I was in spirit and mind by the metaphor I used throughout the paper. It was a different chapter of my life, with different characters, different setting—a chapter now in time and space. I feel that at some point I will post the essay as a blog, after some edits.

At this same juncture in my life, which wasn’t all that long ago, I remember one of my instructors—may she RIP—I remember her kindness and openness of mind. I remember being inspired that she was still teaching. She must have been in her late seventies, possibly her eighties. I didn’t often raise my hand in class. I would want to say something, but my heart would thump, my palms would get moist, and a lump would form in my throat rising to a dry mouth. The anxiety would set in—all this because I was imagining myself speaking up—I would become unable to follow through. This happened each time I wanted to contribute, but I couldn’t push past it.

Her name was Mary and one thing she did differently in this one class was to have us write her a final letter stating what grade we thought we should receive and why. Besides my participation, I thought that the work that I did in the class merited an “A.” When I received my letter back, she had given me a “B” because I had not participated in class discussions. I accepted it. She was right. I respected that she gave me the “B” and not the “A.” I’m appreciative that she planted a seed. She told me that I had things to share and others may benefit and/or be able to add on to the discussion from there, that I shouldn’t hold back.

Later when I took another class she taught, she met with each student one on one. I told her how much I loved writing and that’s what I saw in my future. I imagined it differently then, but I’m doing it now, not solely in my personal journals, but by putting myself out there. I told her writing was my way of sharing. It’s the element I felt comfortable in and at home in. She smiled deeply and wished me luck.

I think of Mary from time to time because she was kind and generous. She was excited and passionate about what she taught and she took the time to know her students, if even a little bit.

What’s interesting about writing essays in class for an instructor is you have a set audience of one and a proposed topic, but I can tell by what I wrote in several essays across different classes is that I also wrote for people—for anyone that may find something to relate to—a way to see themselves reflected back.

Presently, there are certain pieces that may be strictly personal. I still post them because that’s part of me, part of my world. And there are others, where like today, I have a thought, I open an old essay to read, it brings me back to Mary, to a small slice of my road and then I follow where the words lead me. This morning I was going to work on a recent piece that I wrote. It needs a little work and if I still have time this morning, I’m going to look at it.

Writing blogs has changed the way I approach writing. I don’t always have a set focus or plan. There is less structure. Speaking of structure. That makes me think of an English class I took a long time ago at the community college. I was explaining to the instructor why I had written the essay as I had, that I didn’t want to be confined by the structure; I wanted to find my own container.

Containers are fascinating. A little over a year ago I picked up a book called The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present selected and with an introduction by Phillip Lopate. When I bought it I read the introduction and the first few essays. I put it back on the shelf. A week ago or so I picked it back out of the shelf and thumbed through it. I happened on G. K. Chesterton. The book has two of his essays and the one that I loved is called “A Piece of Chalk.” It’s not a long essay, three pages in this book. What he does in three pages with his imagination, imagery, and wanderings is so very satisfying.

I also recently downloaded a book to my Kindle called Crafting The Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Non-Fiction by Dinty W. Moore. What I appreciate most about this book is that Moore breaks the book down into various types of essays.

Moore sees the essay as “The gentle art,” and expands in answer to his question of what is an essay? “The personal essay is, of course personal, meaning of you, from your unique point-of-view. And it is an “assay,” derived from a French word meaning “to try” or “to attempt” (Kindle pg. 5)

Books about writing have always been a source of reading enjoyment for me. I have a small bookshelf that I go to now and again. The essays I remember from school were different, not as personal, though a few were because of the nature of the classes. Out of all the writing courses that I’ve taken, one that I gained much from, but that I did not have an interest in pursuing was the journalism feature-writing course. I know my voice; I can hear it and depending on who or what I’m writing about, and my moods, the musical notes may change, but I’m still there. When I wrote my feature pieces for class, my voice seemed to go away. It felt for me that the container was much too rigid. I wouldn’t want to write for a paper or magazine because of the loss of freedom. I’m happy writing and sharing on my blog.

Moore goes on to say, “Here the essence of the form is found: The personal essayist (that would be you) takes a topic—virtually any topic under the yellow sun—and holds it up to the bright light, turning it this way and that, upside and down, studying every perspective, fault, and reflection, in an artful attempt to perceive something fresh and significant. But it is always an effort, a trial, not a lecture or diatribe. The essayist does not sit down at her desk already knowing all the right answers, because if she did, there would be no reason to write” (Kindle pg. 5).

This also makes me reconsider how I view the essay or any other writing. Rather than think of the essay as a label, I can think of it as a container with many possibilities, roads, turnoffs, signals. This to me is more liberating. I also realize that the more containers that I expose myself to, the more that I keep following myself on the page, the more that I see and appreciate the organic-ness of the process. Often times I have no destination. I explore the whites space on the page, pave small roads, plant flower beds, try to figure out what I’m doing or thinking for those moments the light is on. It always feels different. I don’t always know where I’ll end up, and I like that.

This morning for example, I headed out and took a turn. My mind began recalling experiences and though I didn’t know they would fit snug, I followed and then on and on. This has been the way I write when I come to the page. I do my personal morning pages to get the fuzz out. Then I sit for a moment. I power up the laptop and I start typing with whatever idea or thought is there. This morning though I had other pieces on my mind, one that began as a free write a few weeks back to get the thoughts out and the other I mentioned. One is typed up and one still has to come out from the notebook to the typed page. And then that brought me to look for an essay that related to my free write. I looked through the folders on the computer and when I saw a different essay and read it, it was the seed that got my thoughts in motion.

Yes, I’m coming to appreciate the essay container from a whole different perspective. As Moore shares in his book, this is what Annie Dillard has said about the essay form:

“There’s nothing you cannot do with it; no subject matter is forbidden, no structure is proscribed. You get to make up your own structure every time, a structure that arises from the materials and best contains them. The material is the world itself, which, so far, keeps on keeping on” (Kindle pg. 6).

I think back on the English class—the one I mentioned where I wanted to find my own container, to break out of the confines of the basic structure of a college composition course. I wanted to wander. The essay does allow that. My instincts were right and I’m glad to be following wherever the moment leads.

Sometimes we need containers to break out of containers.


ashok said...

Vow, Your pieces are getting longer and longer Rebb and so well written too.

Did not hear from you for a long time so dropped in to check if you were still blogging.

Rebb said...

Thank you, Ashok. Nice to see you. I'm glad you stopped by and hope all is well. Are you still traveling much?