Category Archives: essay-expository

How should you read a book?

A bookshop in Edinburgh, Scotland, photographed in June 2012.

A bookshop in Edinburgh, Scotland, photographed in June 2012.

 

Virginia Woolf’s reading advice, circa 1926 , remains witty & useful.

In the first place, I want to emphasise the note of interrogation at the end of my title.  Even if I could answer the question for myself, the answer would apply only to me and not to you.  The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.

—Virginia Woolf

Woolf around the time she wrote her essay on reading.

Woolf around the time she wrote her essay on reading.

As these opening sentences of her famous essay on reading show, Virginia Woolf is highfalutin only to those who haven’t read her. The chatty offhand charm and modesty of her essays impress and please. The humbling phase comes when you re-read, and see how simple she’s made complex matters, yet how rounded, deep, and full her expression.

I turned again to “How Should One Read a Book?” because after a while a reviewer tends to ask himself what he thinks he’s doing. What’s fair? Relevant? This weighed on me in wondering how to assess, for my recent review, Ted Kerasote’s Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs. I found this fine book marred by one major flaw in Kerasote’s judgment. I was uncertain how serious my disagreement is for the book, and puzzled by the issues it raised for reviewing in general.

Woolf, in stepping back to see the forest of literature, does provide some guidance in how to asses its individual trees:

1.    Open your mind

 At first, she says, try to move in tune with the author. “Be his fellow-worker and accomplice” rather than his critic: “Most commonly we come to books with blurred and divided minds, asking of fiction that it shall be true, of poetry that it shall be false, of biography that it shall be flattering, of history that it shall enforce our own prejudices. If we could banish all such preconceptions when we read, that would be an admirable beginning.”

Thankfully, I feel I did a good job initially of moving in tune with Kerasote. And even as my hackles rose over his letting his dog roam, I admired him for being himself. For admitting what he must’ve known would upset some readers. Granted, he doesn’t appear fully aware of how maddening his practice is to some of us, but he does explain his thinking; steadily he reveals himself throughout, which is brave in its way.

Woolf addresses this:

How far shall we resist or give way to the sympathies and antipathies that the man himself rouses in us—so sensitive are words, so receptive of the character of the author?  These are questions that press upon us when we read lives and letters, and we must answer them for ourselves, for nothing can be more fatal than to be guided by the preferences of others in a matter so personal.

I take this to mean that my faulting Kerasote on a matter of judgment—and in this case the preponderance of opinion is on my side—was within bounds.

2.    Learn to read by trying to write

Who can’t help but agree that to discern it helps to have done, or tried to do. Some great and famous editors were not great writers, just as many coaches weren’t great players themselves. But in each case they understood their chosen business from the inside.

A practitioner’s tough love, here:

Recall, then, some event that has left a distinct impression on you—how at the corner of the street, perhaps, you passed two people talking.  A tree shook; an electric light danced; the tone of the talk was comic, but also tragic; a whole vision, an entire conception, seemed contained in that moment.

But when you attempt to reconstruct it in words, you will find that it breaks into a thousand conflicting impressions.  Some must be subdued; others emphasised; in the process you will lose, probably, all grasp upon the emotion itself.

Now, she says, read the opening pages by a great novelist—she suggests Daniel Defoe, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy—and see their mastery and the great differences between their reality, their worlds, from open-air adventure to the drawing room’s subtleties to the lonely moor’s dark mysteries.

She continues:

Yet different as these worlds are, each is consistent with itself. The maker of each is careful to observe the laws of his own perspective, and however great a strain they may put upon us they will never confuse us, as lesser writers so frequently do, by introducing two different kinds of reality into the same book. Thus to go from one great novelist to another—from Jane Austen to Hardy, from Peacock to Trollope, from Scott to Meredith—is to be wrenched and uprooted; to be thrown this way and then that.  To read a novel is a difficult and complex art.  You must be capable not only of great fineness of perception, but of great boldness of imagination if you are going to make use of all that the novelist—the great artist—gives you.

3. Read lesser books & even rubbish

These are those lives and letters mentioned above, works of craft—books that don’t necessarily aspire to art. They can be made to “light up many windows of the past,” but also can stoke one’s own creative musing:

Is there not an open window on the right hand of the bookcase?  How delightful to stop reading and look out!  How stimulating the scene is, in its unconsciousness, its irrelevance, its perpetual movement—the colts galloping round the field, the woman filling her pail at the well, the donkey throwing back his head and emitting his long, acrid moan.  The greater part of any library is nothing but the record of such fleeting moments in the lives of men, women, and donkeys. Every literature, as it grows old, has its rubbish-heap, its record of vanished moments and forgotten lives told in faltering and feeble accents that have perished.  But if you give yourself up to the delight of rubbish-reading you will be surprised, indeed you will be overcome, by the relics of human life that have been cast out to moulder.  It may be one letter—but what a vision it gives! It may be a few sentences—but what vistas they suggest!

And yet, we must move on, for lesser works lack the “artist’s power of mastering and eliminating.” Having failed to “tell the whole truth,” having “disfigured the story that might have been so shapely,” they can only offer facts. Not Woolf’s “purer truth of fiction.”

4. Read poetry

“The impact of poetry is so hard and direct that for the moment there is no other sensation except that of the poem itself. What profound depths we visit then—how sudden and complete is our immersion!”

Woolf cites first a heartbreaking lament from the 16th Century song Westron Wynde, which probably is even older in origin—from a fragment if medieval poetry:

 Western wind, when wilt thou blow?

 The small rain down can rain.     

Christ, if my love were in my arms,     

 And I in my bed again!

Her reading essay concludes this collection.

Her reading essay concludes this collection.

And the time to read poetry is “when we are almost able to write it,” she says, going on to cite, so as to show their differing emotional expressiveness, verses of “force and directness,” of “wavering modulation,” of meditative calm,” of “complete and inexhaustible loveliness,” and of “splendid fantasy.”

I love Woolf’s unabashed passion and how it endorses one’s own deeply personal emotional response to literature—which, after all, is made from emotion and is meant to move us, engendering an emotional response its very purpose. Like the blinded Gloucester in Shakespeare’s King Lear, we might, using our great human asset of emotion, apprehend the world fully, “see it feelingly.”

Remember always, Woolf says, that with the lever of his great power to shift our perspective, “The poet is always our contemporary. Our being for the moment is centred and constricted, as in any violent shock of personal emotion.”

5. Wait, then give tough love

Having been open to an author, once “the dust of reading” has settled we must come to judgment. One of Woolf’s most useful tips is to wait till a book, first experienced in varying impressions, floats “to the top of the mind as a whole.” And the book having revealed itself as a “barn, a pigsty, or a cathedral,” she writes, “Let us then be severe in our judgments; let us compare each book with the greatest of its kind.”

Ouch. While judging isn’t as simple as reading and receiving impressions, Woolf admits, the task must be done to complete the reading process. One may be tempted to leave this to the “gowned and furred” experts:

Yet how impossible!  We may stress the value of sympathy; we may try to sink our identity as we read.  But we know that we cannot sympathise wholly or immerse ourselves wholly; there is always a demon in us who whispers, “I hate, I love”, and we cannot silence him.  Indeed, it is precisely because we hate and we love that our relation with the poets and novelists is so intimate that we find the presence of another person intolerable.  And even if the results are abhorrent and our judgments are wrong, still our taste, the nerve of sensation that sends shocks through us, is our chief illuminant; we learn through feeling; we cannot suppress our own idiosyncrasy without impoverishing it.

 6. Learn from experts as you train your taste

Some critics, however, including gifted fellow practitioners whom Woolf enjoys for their inside knowledge, can “steady” us in this difficult task of assessment: “But they are only able to help us if we come to them laden with questions and suggestions won honestly in the course of our own reading. They can do nothing for us if we herd ourselves under their authority and lie down like sheep in the shade of a hedge. We can only understand their ruling when it comes in conflict with our own and vanquishes it.”

And though reading a book “calls for the rarest qualities of imagination, insight, and judgment,” and Woolf considers it unlikely that even after a lifetime if reading someone can “make any valuable contribution to its criticism,” ordinary readers have responsibilities and even importance.

Here Woolf winds down her metaphor-rich advice with a mystical bit I love—it’s so very Virginia in its generous sense of connection and in its vision of ultimate holism:

The standards we raise and the judgments we pass steal into the air and become part of the atmosphere which writers breathe as they work. An influence is created which tells upon them even if it never finds its way into print.

. . .

If behind the erratic gunfire of the press the author felt that there was another kind of criticism, the opinion of people reading for the love of reading, slowly and unprofessionally, and judging with great sympathy and yet with great severity, might this not improve the quality of his work?  And if by our means books were to become stronger, richer, and more varied, that would be an end worth reaching.

And, anyway, reading is its own reward—the closest we can come to heaven on earth, she ends.

Wise, warm, and witty, our fellow reader Virginia Woolf is always so much fun.

Woolf’s essay “How Should One Read a Book?”concludes her collection The Second Common Reader and also is available free around the web by googling it.

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Filed under emotion, essay-expository, reading, REVIEW, Temp

Reading Rilke again at Eastertide

Spirituality, authenticity & Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.

Sunrise, Double x

A work of art is good if it has grown out of necessity. In this manner of its origin lies its true estimate: there is no other.

Letters to a Young Poet

As a broody kid, growing up in a Florida beach town and grieving my family’s exodus from our farm in Georgia, I found a library book by a guy about his hobby farm. I loved it, probably sensing how both my father’s and my own loss might be redeemed. I shared it with Dad. When I asked him what he thought he said, “I think he wanted to write a book.” Nothing else—Dad was always as concise as a telegram—but I grasped the devastating judgment in his unsparing remark.

Rilke cover

Writers trying to wrest from their guts that necessary, handmade, human thing called art, which involves (among other things) seeking to see more clearly their lives and those of their fellow humans, might enjoy Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. It’s a slender book, some forty pages, with many admirers and much resonance. Rilke was only twenty-seven, already becoming famous in Germany as a lyric poet, when in 1903 a boy in a military school wrote to him for advice. Rilke had spent five miserable years himself in the same school. His precepts, delivered over an eight-year period, float free of whatever experience or thought process produced them. Yet his judgments feel no less true for lacking explanation.

That’s for you to fill in—you with your private inner inquiry into gender, artistic authenticity, human nature, spirituality, and the concept and definition of what might be termed God.

A key Rilke passage:

Perhaps there is over everything a great motherhood, as a common longing. The loveliness of the virgin . . . is motherhood foreboding and preparing itself, uneasy and yearning. And the mother’s beauty is serving motherhood, and in the old woman there is a great memory. And in the man too there is motherhood, it seems to me, physical and spiritual; his begetting is also a kind of birth-giving, and it is birth-giving when he creates out of his innermost fullness. And perhaps the sexes are more akin than we suppose, and the great renewal of the world will perhaps consist in this, that man and maiden, freed from all false feelings and perversions, will seek each other not as opposites but as brother and sister, as neighbors, and will unite as human beings to bear in common, simply, seriously and patiently, the heavy sex that has been laid upon them.

This is strikingly reminiscent to me of Virginia Woolf’s notion of artistic androgyny with which she concludes A Room of One’s Own, and Rilke’s ideas elsewhere mirror her concept in her essay “Moments of Being” of authentic presence. Everywhere he confirms, completes, and foreshadows manifold later spiritual insights. It appears, for instance, that another German mystic, Eckhart Tolle, owes Rilke a great debt, especially in Tolle’s profound spiritual synthesis A New Earth.

Like Tolle, Rilke advises inner communion instead of identification with ego and form: “What is needed is, in the end, simply this: solitude. Going into yourself and meeting no one for hours on end,—that is what you must be able to attain. To be alone, as you were alone in childhood, when the grown-ups were going about, involved with things which seemed important and great, because the great ones looked so busy and because you grasped nothing of their business.”

Unlike Tolle, he refers directly to God, though only twice and in a most contemporary and Tolle-like way. For Rilke, God appears to arise not from knowledge or even from faith but from intimations from the lost realm of childhood:

And if it dismays and torments you to think of childhood and the simplicity and stillness that goes with it, because you can no longer believe in God who is to be met with everywhere there, ask yourself . . . whether you have after all really lost God? Is it not much rather the case that you have never yet possessed him?

Rilke touches upon the adult task of defining God for yourself:

As bees collect honey, so we take what is sweetest out of everything and build Him.

Of course Rilke wrote to a presumed believer in a time of presumed belief. The important ideas of Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud were afoot but hadn’t yet crushed humans’ self-confidence. Nor had we yet put ourselves through two world wars and the Holocaust. After all that, unbelief and hostility to God and religion—and a pervasive doubt about our own species’ worth—became understandable. I have friends and family members across the spectrum, from those who become enraged at the mere mention of “God” or “religion” to those who dispense Jesus’ name like iodized salt. Just more evidence of humans’ long struggle against their own riven nature: a violent simian substrate; a gentler group mind from a long and at times Edenic evolution among extinct human-like ancestors; and greedy individual egos that arrived with the emergence of our shiny, anxious, hypersexual new species only 200,000 years ago.

Humanity’s puzzle and core dilemma—What does it mean to be human?—Rilke touches upon directly or by implication everywhere in Letters to a Young Poet as he works out for himself and for his acolyte his answers. This is all we can ask of any writer, his sincere testimony, expression seemingly driven by some personal necessity—for Rilke, necessity being art’s acid test. We crave the authenticity concentrated in the fruit of someone’s honest emergency. Oh, the struggle by writers to make something authentic from the necessity that impels them!

And the world’s listeners still draw near to lovely songs, like Rilke’s, that seem true.

///

Austin Kleon has an excellent blog post about the more writerly aspects of Letters to a Young Poet. 

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Filed under essay-expository, honesty, modernism/postmodernism, MY LIFE, NOTED, religion & spirituality, teaching, education

Noted: Annie Dillard’s ‘Childhood’

An American Childhood by Annie Dillard

Dillard's recent "A Happy Man" from her website, http://www.anniedillard.com/drawings-paintings.html

. . . Throughout all these many years of childhood, a transpired sphere of timelessness contained all my running and spinning as a glass paperweight holds flying snow. The sphere of this idyll broke; time unrolled before me in a line. I woke up and found myself in juvenile court. I was hanging from crutches; for a few weeks after the drag race, neither knee worked. (No one else got hurt.) In juvenile court, a policeman wet all ten of my fingertips on an ink pad and pressed them, one by one, using his own fingertips, on a form for the files.

 

Turning to the French is a form of suicide for the American who loves literature—or, as the joke might go, it is at least a cry for help. Now, when I was sixteen, I had turned to the French. I flung myself into poetry as into Niagara Falls. Beauty took away my breath. I twined away; I flew off with my eyes rolled up; I dove down and succumbed. I bought myself a plot in Valery’s marine cemetery, and moved in: cool dirt on my eyes, my brain smooth as a cannonball. It grieves me to report that I tried to see myself as a sobbing fountain, apparently serene, tall and thin among the chill marble monuments of the dead. Rimbaud wrote a lyric that gently described a man sleeping out in the grass; the sleeper made a peaceful picture, until, in the poem’s last line, we discover in his right side two red holes. This, and many another literary false note, appealed to me.

 

I’d been suspended from school for smoking cigarettes. That was a month earlier, in early spring. Both my parents wept. Amy saw them weeping; horrified, she began to cry herself. Molly cried. She was six, missing her front teeth. Like mother and me, she had pale skin that turned turgid and red when she cried; she looked as if she were dying of wounds. I didn’t cry, because, actually, I was an intercontinental ballistic missile with an atomic warhead; they don’t cry.

 

Why didn’t I settle down, straighten out, shape up? I wondered, too. I thought that joy was a childish condition that had forever departed; I had no glimpse then of its return the minute I got to college. I couldn’t foresee the pleasure—or the possibility—of shedding sophistication, walking away from rage, and renouncing French poets.

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Filed under Dillard—Saint Annie, essay-expository, memoir, NOTED

Essay’s ancient spell, memoir’s transformation

[The essay] should lay us under a spell with its first word, and we should only wake, refreshed, with its last word. In the interval we may pass through the most various experiences of amusement, surprise, interest, indignation; we may soar to the heights of fantasy with Lamb or plunge to the depths of wisdom with Bacon, but we must never be roused. The essay must lap us about and draw its curtain across the world. . . . What can the essayist use in these short lengths of prose to sting us awake and fix us in a trance which is not sleep but rather an intensification of life—a basking, with every faculty alert, in the sun of pleasure? He must know—that is the first essential—how to write. His learning may be so profound as Mark Pattison’s, but in an essay it must be so fused by the magic of writing that not a fact juts out, not a dogma tears the surface of the texture. . . . [and] if the voice of the scold should never be heard in this narrow plot, there is another voice which is as a plague of locusts—the voice of a man stumbling drowsily among loose words, clutching aimlessly at vague ideas . . . the essay must be pure—pure like water or pure like wine, but pure from dullness, deadness, and deposits of extraneous matter.—Virginia Woolf, “The Modern Essay,” from Collected Essays Vol. 2, p. 41

 

At the same time that the power of voice alone has been dwindling, an age of mass culture paradoxically much influenced by modernism has emerged on a scale unparalleled in history, and today millions of people consider themselves possessed of the right to assert a serious life. A serious life, by definition, is a life one reflects on, a life one tries to make sense of and bear witness to. The age is characterized by a need to testify. Everywhere in the world women and men are rising up to tell their stories out of the now commonly held belief that one’s own life signifies. . . .

But memoir is neither testament nor fable nor analytic transcription. A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by the idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom. Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that the power of a writing imagination is required. As V.S. Pritchett once said of the genre, “It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living.”—Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story, p. 90-91

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Filed under essay-classical, essay-expository, memoir, modernism/postmodernism, NOTED

‘Our Secret’ by Susan Griffin

Often I have looked back into my past with a new insight only to find that some old, hardly recollected feeling fits into a larger pattern of meaning.—“Our Secret”

Susan Griffin’s long essay, a chapter in her book A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War, is about the hidden shame and pain humans carry and their consequences. It is an astonishing essay, a meditation on the soul-destroying price of conforming to false selves that have been brutalized by others, mentally or physically or both, or by themselves in committing acts of violence and emotional cruelty.

As an essay, it shows the power of a writer’s voice—the scenes are few and spare in its forty-eight pages—but it’s mesmerizing. “Our Secret” has joined my pantheon of all-time great essays,  along with Jonathan Lethem’s “The Beards,” Eudora Welty’s “The Little Store,” and James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son.” Despite its innovative braided structure, Griffin’s essay is much like Baldwin’s in being a rather classical reflective essay, though Baldwin’s essay’s spine employs a more traditional framed structure (opening and closing in essentially the same scene). Somehow Griffin achieves narrative drive with her segmented approach, perhaps because of her interesting juxtapositions, intense focus, and the quiet power of her language as her family’s own story unfolds alongside those of war criminals and victims.

“Our Secret” is a hybrid of memoir, history, and journalism, and is built with these discrete strands: the Holocaust; women affected by World War II directly or indirectly in their treatment by husbands and fathers; the harsh, repressive boyhood of Heinrich Himmler, who grew up to command Nazi rocketry and became the key architect of Jewish genocide; the testimony of a man scarred by war; and Griffin’s own desperately unhappy family life and harsh, repressed girlhood. In between these chunks are short italic passages of just a few sentences on cell biology—for instance, how the shell around the nucleus of the cell allows only some substances to pass through—and on the development of guided missiles in Germany and, later, by many of the same scientists, in the United States, where nuclear warheads were added and the ICBM created.

Griffin returns often to the thread of Himmler’s life, going back to his boyhood diary, a recording of times and trivial events, that his father Gebhard, a schoolmaster, required him to keep. Griffin reflects on her own life in relation to Himmler’s:

I was born in 1943, in the midst of this war. And I sense now that my life is still bound up with the lives of those who lived and died in this time. Even with Heinrich Himmler. All the details of his existence, his birth, childhood, adult years, death, still resonate here on earth. . . .

In the past few years I have been searching, though for what precisely I cannot say. Something still hidden which lies in the direction of Heinrich Himmler’s life. I have been to Berlin and Munich on this search, and I have walked over the gravel at Dachau. Now as I sit here I read once again the fragments from Heinrich’s boyhood diary that exist in English. I have begun to think of these words as ciphers. Repeat them to myself, hoping to find a door into the mind of this man, even as his character first forms so that I might learn how it is he becomes himself.

It is not easy. The earliest entries in the diary betray so little. Like the words of a schoolboy commanded to write what the teacher requires of him, they are wooden and stiff. The stamp of his father’s character is so heavy on this language that I catch not even the breath of a self here. It is easy to see how this would be true. One simply has to imagine Gebhard standing behind Heinrich and tapping his foot.

Griffin comments on the ordinary “mask” Himmler’s parents usually wore in photographs, like anyone—the father kindly, even. But this contrasts with the advice of German childrearing experts at the time that parents should crush the child’s will, dominate and suppress him. Braces and straps were used to correct posture while standing and sitting, and to prevent masturbation. “The child, Dr. Schreber advised, should be permeated by the impossibility of locking something in his heart.

Of course there cannot be one answer to such a monumental riddle, nor does any event in history have a single cause. Rather a field exists, like a field of gravity that is created by the movements of many bodies. Each life is influenced and it in turn becomes an influence. Whatever is a cause is also an effect. Childhood experience is just one element in the determining field.

As a man who made history, Heinrich Himmler shaped many childhoods, including, in the most subtle of ways, my own. And an earlier history, a history of governments, of wars, of social customs, an idea of gender, the history of a religion leading to the idea of original sin, shaped Heinrich Himmler’s childhood as certainly as any philosophy of child raising. One can take for instance any formative condition of his private life, the fact that he was a frail child, for example, favored by his mother, who could not meet masculine standards, and show that his circumstance derived its real meaning from a larger social system that gave inordinate significance to masculinity.

Yet to enter history through childhood experience shifts one’s perspective not away from history but instead to an earlier time just before history has finally shaped us. Is there a child who existed before the conventional history that we tell of ourselves, one who, though invisible to us, still shapes events, even through this absence?

In this I recall a cast-off thought: what was I like before relationships and opinions hardened, my own and others’, and took irreversible and unchangeable form? Griffin, on the track of Himmler’s soul that was lost in boyhood, buried under a rage turned inward as much as outward, speaks to a rabbi in Berlin who appears to have lost his faith. Yet here in this somber essay there’s a shard of hope: “Still, despite his answer, and as much as the holocaust made a terrible argument for the death of the spirit, talking in that small study with this man, I could feel from him the light of something surviving.”

Himmler’s stilted diaries remind Griffin of life in her grandmother’s home, where she was sent at age six when her parents divorced. She says, with chilling simplicity, “We were not comfortable with ourselves as a family. There was a great shared suffering, and yet we never wept together, except for my mother, who would alternately weep and rage when she was drunk. Together, under my grandmother’s tutelage, we kept up appearances. Her effort was ceaseless.” In particular, her grandmother worked to reshape Griffin. Grammar. Manners. Memorization. Drill.

The Griffin family was terrified, like Himmler’s, that its modest origins would be discovered, and had managed to forget one side’s Jewish roots. Just so, young Heinrich was taught to befriend boys whose fathers held prestigious jobs; he was taught to be punctilious in manner and increasingly harsh.

Griffin reflects on how boys are shaped into men:

Most men can remember a time in their lives when they were not so different from girls, and they also remember when that time ended. In ancient Greece, a young boy lived with his mother, practicing a feminine life in her household, until they day he was taken from her into to the camp of men. From this day forward the life that had been soft and graceful became rigorous and hard, as the older boy was prepared for the life of a soldier.

Researching her book in Paris, Griffin meets a woman, Helene, who survived one of Himmler’s death camps. She’d been turned in by another Jew and tracked down using a net of information—a system tracing back to Himmler’s boyhood diaries—collected on cards and sent to the Gestapo for duplication and filing, the work of countless men and women. “One can trace every death to an order signed by Himmler,” writes Griffin, “yet these arrests could never have taken place on such a massive scale without this vast system of information. What did they think, those who were enlisted for this work?”

She leaps ahead: “The men and women who manufacture the trigger mechanisms for nuclear bombs do not tell themselves they are making weapons. They say simply that they are metal forgers.”

Many learn this ability in childhood, to become strangers to themselves, she points out. And outwardly the Nazi mechanism of death was cloaked in legality: “These crimes, these murders of millions, were all carried out in absentia, as if by no one in particular.” Others inflict more directly upon others the suffering they have endured. Leo, a Russian refugee, brutalized in a German prison in World War II, made his way to America. In high school, he and his friends decoyed and beat up gay men for sport. Later he was drafted for the Korean War and assigned to interrogate Russian prisoners.

He was given two men to question. With the first man he made every kind of threat. But he carried nothing out. The man was resolutely silent. And Leo learned nothing from him. He left the room with all his secrets. You can never, Leo told me later, let any man get the better of you. With the second man he was determined not to fail. He would get him to tell whatever he knew. He made the same threats again, and again met silence. Then, suddenly, using his thumb and finger, he put out the man’s eye. And as the man was screaming and bleeding, he told him he would die one way or the other. He was going to be shot. But he had the choice now of seeing his executioners or not, of dying in agony or not. And then the man told him his secrets.

Sharing his sins, Leo does not break down until he tells Griffin of how, after the war, he killed an innocent black man with the butt of a pistol. Looking into the man’s broken face, Leo sees “he’s just like me.” Griffin breaks down as she finds the core of her own rage, her memory at eight years old of the injustice of a punishment by her grandmother. In her desire to make the woman feel the same pain, her imagination takes over: “I am forcing her to feel what I feel. I am forcing her to know me. And as I strike her, blow after blow, a shudder of weeping is released in me, and I become utterly myself, the weeping in me becoming rage, the rage turning to tears, all the time my heart beating, all the time uttering a soundless, bitter, passionate cry, a cry of vengeance and of love.”

This powerful, inspiring essay lingers in the mind.  “Our Secret” took courage to write, and it bravely asks a reader to consider unpleasant subjects and to slow down. Slowly it teaches one how to read it and begin to appreciate its many layers, its juxtapositions, its depths.

I’m grateful to my blogging friend Paulette Bates Alden for giving me a copy of “Our Secret” while trying to help me with one of my essays. Googling Griffin’s name and the essay’s title reveals a cottage industry among writing teachers and students. I sampled a few student reactions to “Our Secret” and was impressed by their insights; though there are many essay services that supply slacking students with interpretations, I like to think the ones I read were original.

I found a full text of the essay (at: learning.writing101.net/wp-content/readings/griffin_our_secret.pdf ) that a teacher uploaded (often you can find these by googling the author’s name and the essay’s title and “pdf”); and I also bought her book.

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Filed under braids, threads, emotion, essay-classical, essay-expository, essay-narrative, essay-personal, evolutionary psychology, NOTED, teaching, education

Interview: Dinty W. Moore on essays, essaying & earning self-knowledge

Dinty W. Moore’s books include a popular spiritual inquiry, The Accidental Buddhist, and an award-winning, nontraditional “generational memoir,” Between Panic and Desire. His new book—his sixth—is Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction (Writers Digest Books, 262 pages).

“The personal essay is a gentle art,” he writes, “an idiosyncratic combination of the author’s discrete sensibilities and the endless possibilities of meaning and connection. The essay is graceful, wise, and always surprising. The essay invites extreme playfulness and almost endless flexibility.”

Indeed, Moore, head of creative writing at Ohio University, discusses many types of essays, including: contemplative, memoir, nature, lyric, spiritual, gastronomical, humorous, and travel. To show how they work, he dissects some, inserting commentary in places; this includes some of his own work, and throughout the book he includes parts of an essay he’s currently writing to show his thinking and decisions as he tries to practice what he’s preaching. The essay-in-progress is about walking, specifically Moore’s quixotic attempt to walk to a campus in Boca Raton, Florida, where he was a visiting writer, only to find himself almost getting squashed like a bug on six lanes of concrete. While poking fun at himself, Moore exposes the unfriendliness of much of suburban America to walking and to human-scale, neighborly life. His enjoyable essay is printed in full at the book’s end.

Crafting the Personal Essay also propelled me belatedly after two great essays I hadn’t read, Virginia Woolf’s famous “The Death of the Moth” and Richard Rodriguez’s poignant study of cultural assimilation “Mr. Secrets,” both available online through google searches.

The second part of Moore’s book deals with practical writing issues, such as forging a regular routine, blogging, overcoming writer’s block, getting useful feedback from other writers, effective revising, and persevering through life’s vagaries. “Well first, you have to love the work itself,” Moore writes. “If you don’t truly enjoy moving words and sentences around on the page—similar to the way you delighted in moving wooden blocks and plastic trucks around on the living room carpet when you were five—then you are going to have a hard time persevering through the ups and downs and inevitable setbacks. . . . The rewards of publication are fleeting, while the rewards of a regular writing practice are countless.”

Crafting the Personal Essay will make a terrific textbook for students of all levels; I’m a fiftysomething writer and found

Dinty W. Moore

it interesting and inspiring. It makes me want to try writing different types of essays than I’ve attempted and to develop new skills, to grow. Like all of Moore’s work, it is characterized by a light touch, good ideas, a wry sensibility, and a deft concision.

He answered some questions for Narrative.

RSG: What did you learn writing this book?

DWM: I was forced to learn much more about the personal essay tradition than I knew going into the book. My introduction to creative nonfiction, like that of many people who discovered the genre fifteen years ago, was focused more on memoir and literary journalism than it was on the British essay tradition or on Montaigne.  But I’m not too old to learn new tricks, it turns out.

RSG: I realized in reading Crafting the Personal Essay how narrow my definition of the essay can become. But you discuss many approaches within the genre, ways to tell stories and entertain that rely on humor, observations of common experiences and foibles, clever insights, fleeting feelings, research and reporting. How does a writer remain open to the possibilities of the form without getting overwhelmed by them?

DWM: I’d advise that a writer examine the familiar patterns he or she finds in her writing—I am always funny, I am always ruminative, I am always logical, whatever—and gradually try to introduce new modes into works in progress. You don’t need to juggle the whole set of fifteen balls at once, but you won’t grow as a juggler if you stick to the same three balls every time you take the stage. Eventually, putting research or reporting into your nonfiction—even if you haven’t been doing it up to now—will become a common move in your repertoire, one that you can call on whenever needed.

RSG: Much of your own work is characterized by pursuing something you notice that interests you, such as the explosion of the internet or the growing practice of Buddhism in America. You’ve leaped into the unknown with only an idea, and you’ve participated, interviewed, and traveled. Do you have any advice for writers who want to attempt such a fusion of the personal essay and old-fashioned reporting?

DWM: Left to my own mental devices, I only have one or two interesting thoughts a year, and that’s not nearly enough to sustain a writing career, but I find that I can increase the number of interesting thoughts that I have by trying new things, learning new facts, visiting new places, attending lectures, getting lost in a zendo for five days.  Sometimes the reporting, or observing, ends up in my writing, but at other times it just leads to a fresh thought – fresh for me, at least – and suddenly I have an idea. This has, as you pointed out, led me to a few book ideas, but it also leads sometimes to a 500-word essay. Keep the mind nimble by constantly throwing new experiences in its direction, in other words.  I’m not the first writer or artist to note this, of course, but it sure works for me.

RSG: There seems currently to be a surge of interest and enthusiasm for the personal essay. Great talents are experimenting, playing around, melding influences such as lyric poetry and the classical contemplative essay pioneered by Montaigne. Is this upwelling real from where you sit, or is this simply the effect of those with passion for personal nonfiction seeing what they’re looking for?

DWM: I think you are noticing an actual phenomenon. This goes back to my earlier answer.  New Journalists like Didion, Wolfe, Talese helped to create an explosion of fact-based literary writing in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and a few years later Lee Gutkind helped to popularize “true-story as literary narrative told cinematically” with his journal Creative Nonfiction, and suddenly there were dozens of graduate programs and hundreds of undergraduates classes springing up in creative nonfiction. Much of that activity focused on memoir until certain people started to say, “Wait, the genre is older than that, and there is more flexibility that that.” So in academia, at least, and in literary journals (but actually I think the phenomenon goes beyond that to commercial magazines and book presses), the field is in an opening-up phase, which is good, good, good, I think, for writers and for writing.

RSG: You write, “Self knowledge is the true prize for the writer.” Could you elaborate a bit?

DWM: Why do so many people devote themselves to writing, or to the arts in general?  It is not the monetary rewards, certainly, or the support and praise one gets from one’s family when we announce our love for poetry or dance.  No, we are drawn to art because it makes us feel more alive, makes us feel that we are experiencing and engaging life, makes us feel that we are looking at our lives and making choices based on our hunger and passion for understanding, rather than merely being dragged along by circumstances beyond our control. That’s what I believe, anyway.

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America’s greatest essay

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a very bad novel, having, in its self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women. Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.”—James Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” from Notes of a Native Son

When he was seventeen, James Baldwin began writing his great, autobiographical novel about growing up in Harlem, Go Tell it on the Mountain—today it might be sold as a memoir—and would publish it after more than ten years of effort. A couple years later he wrote America’s greatest essay, for my money, which appeared in November 1955 in its first incarnation in Harper’s Magazine as “Me and My House . . .” and became the title essay of Notes of a Native Son. I quoted above from the book’s first essay because it pleases me how Baldwin struck at the sin of sentimentality with such vigor, precision, and beauty (as a boy he had reread Uncle Tom’s Cabin so obsessively his mother hid it from him; he knew its sins well).

“Notes of a Native Son” opens with the funeral, on August 3,1943, of Baldwin’s stepfather, a Harlem preacher, the father of eight younger children—the last born on the day of his rites—a colorful, contumacious, and bitter patriarch. Baldwin, a gifted Pentecostal preacher himself when only fourteen, had by seventeen turned away from the pulpit and toward literature, a shift that exacerbated tensions with his difficult stepfather. Baldwin’s portrait of him is unforgettable:

“He was, I think, very handsome. Handsome, proud, and ingrown, “like a toenail,” somebody said. But he looked to me, as I grew older, like pictures I had seen of African tribal chieftans: he really should have been naked, with warpaint on and barbaric mementoes, standing among spears. He could be chilling in the pulpit and indescribably cruel in his personal life and he was certainly the most bitter man I have ever met; yet it must be said that there was something else buried in him, which lent him his tremendous power and, even, a rather crushing charm. It had something to do with his blackness, I think—he was very black—and his beauty, and the fact that he knew he was black but did not know he was beautiful.”

To write like that: the rhythms, the conversational yet elevated rounded diction, the hint of oratory, the punctuation—and that surprise at the end! The essay is famous for the soaring grandeur of its elegiac close:

“It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, of men as they are. . . . [T]he second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart and now it had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair. This intimation made my heart heavy and, now that my father was irrecoverable, I wished that he had been beside me so that I could have searched his face for the answers which only the future would give me now.”

One pictures Baldwin rejoicing, or at least smiling all day, after writing that paragraph and especially its last line, a gift. Maybe he cried.

The essay is beautifully structured, opening with the funeral and returning to it after scenic flashbacks and exposition. Many students love it, and it teaches well, with two caveats. The first is that Baldwin writes so gorgeously that he gets away with much exposition—his essays are classical in that sense, meditations relying on voice, and far more rhetorical than his fiction. Second, like any masterpiece it can’t be pigeonholed. Does one tell students it’s a memoir or a personal essay? (This hair-splitting will puzzle non-teachers, but students struggle with telling apart these categories, and there is a worthy if subtle distinction.) “Notes of a Native Son” is poised between its subject—perhaps America’s greatest subject, race—and personal history, the story of a man embittered by white prejudice and of his rebellious stepson who fears that he has inherited that bitterness. For teaching purposes I currently call it a personal essay because, though it is a great memoir, Baldwin’s intent is to show the human burden of racism. He uses his own and his stepfather’s life to explore that much larger subject, and makes white prejudice real and its effect painfully clear.

For Vivian Gornick, who discusses the essay at length in The Situation and the Story, it is a “perfect bridge between the essay and the memoir,” both exploring a subject and defining a conflicted self. She notes its “powerful commonality” with Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” which also pivots around race, interweaves the personal and political, and features a “murderous truth-speaking” and civilizing voice. Ultimately Baldwin’s essay is about the burden of being civilized, Gornick says, and he forges a form that in its content and expression becomes a civilizing instrument. “. . . Baldwin found he could be everything he had to be—rational, humane, and cutthroat—all at the same time,” she writes. “The narrator’s tone of voice is, in fact, the true subject of the piece.”

In the preface to Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin writes, “I want to be an honest man and a good writer.” As far as I can see, he was both. Until his death in 1987, during self-imposed exile in France, he was also close friends with one of my favorite writers, William Styron. Baldwin’s eloquent prose is much like Styron’s, a burnished, erudite King James Bible colloquialism, but perhaps even more elegant.

Fiction writer Cynthia Newberry Martin has an interesting new post about Baldwin, Look Again,” with a link to Baldwin’s Paris Review interview, on her blog Catching Days.

Baldwin wrote in longhand, on yellow legal pads, and at night, beginning after dinner and continuing until three or four o’clock in the morning, he told The Paris Review. “When you’re writing,” he said, “you’re trying to find out something you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway. . . . ”

“I don’t know what technique is. All I know is you have to make the reader see it. I got this from Dostoyevsky, from Balzac. . . . Every form [fiction and nonfiction] is difficult, no one is easier than another. They all kick your ass.”

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