To Essay a Path Forward
A new collection of very short, quickly readable essays has been released by PEN America.
Titled We Will Emerge, these essays are available free of charge online and are the result of a project initiated by Wajahat Ali and Dave Eggers during April of this year’s pandemic spring. (That last link is to Publishing Perspectives, where we have a great deal of coverage of the pandemic has it pertains to aspects of the world publishing industry.)
The collection is cast in five chapters, many of the essays only a few paragraphs long.
And the topic, in general terms, is about what may lie on the other side of this (mercifully) rare confluence of pressures, challenges, and threats that face us today in the American culture and in many of our sister cultures and societies in the world. It comprises the work of 111 writers, activists, academics, poets, and public servants in a collaborative project to imagine a blueprint for a post-COVID America. I commend it to you.
The project signals two issues for me as a writer, and I’d like to put them to you today to consider, if you will.
First, the essay as a form can be fascinating in itself, not least because it’s a form in which a writer – especially one focused in fiction – emerges. No longer costumed in the creative drama of a story, an author-essayist arrives, to some degree, as a person revealed.
Not unlike meeting your favorite film actor, the experience can be jolting.
- Is this a person intellectually shorter or taller than you expected?
- More given to the vernacular than her careful fiction would have suggested?
- More hotly opinionated than the subtle characterizations in that last novel suggested?
These can be reasons, of course, for some authors to sidestep essay work. Sometimes one knows that the higher fire of expression, unscreened by narrative and setting and period, can be off-putting to some (while thrilling to others). Worth the risk?
There can be great power in the mere exercise of essaying, in the verb form – trying or testing a theory or a position or a reason for an action or a comment. There can also be pitfalls. Some courage may be required. And that, of course, means considering writing an essay is worth your time.
If Things Took a Turn
The second point of interest in the coming project for our purposes here has to do with the fact that a turning point was perceived in the development of the exercise.
The initial interest was addressing one thing.
And then another thing happened.
Anyone living in the current moment won’t be surprised at that. “Shocked but not surprised,” as we say so frequently now. Something new turns up hourly, “just when you thought it couldn’t get any …” worse? better? Fill in the blank.
A novelist knows this as a device, of course. Throwing everything possible at your already beleaguered protagonist, stacking tension on every page, ramping up the urgency. It reads better on paper than it feels in life, doesn’t it?
My provocation for you today, though, is just one step to the side of this.
If you were to hear a new voice, a new attitude, a new and unexpected tone come from your characters relative to a “just when you thought” event you hadn’t foreseen, what would it sound like? Have you ever heard it? Have you heard it in yourself?
Look at the piece you’re working on now. If the streets were suddenly filled with protesters, if the air was dust-moted with viral particles, if the economy cratered in Chapter 3, if schools failed to open, if hospitals were overwhelmed, if people were dying at a rate of one per minute as has happened recently in the United States … what voices would emerge in the world of your people?
What would they say to each other. Could you overhear them?
What would those people, themselves, need to do and think and become?
To a degree, of course, a creative work must be protected from the vagaries of a long, long moment like the one in which we’re living. Your selected narrative is devised, rightly, to de-select more than it selects, to carve out its mission and its statement, and tell its tale in the context you’ve chosen. That’s what makes it your book, the fact that it’s not IRL, in real life.
And yet, how much can you recognize in your fiction that sounds like your own voice, even whispering, its concerns, alarm, incredulity? What’s that essay about?
What might happen if the world you’re building crumbled, and not because of a jolt you’d dreamed up? What if someone else killed your darlings and re-edited your narrative? What voices would emerge? And would you hear them as yours?