Spring and Summer 2017
(Click on the name of the author or simply scroll through the text.)
Spring and Summer 2017: Edward Hoagland, Bret Lott and Linda Taylor, Wendell Berry. Sloane Crosley, Virginia Woolf. Sonya Huber, Thoreau, William Styron, E. B. White, Jean-Dominique Bauby, Annie Dillard, Lewis Thomas.
from “The Courage of Turtles”
in Heart’s Desire
by Edward Hoagland
“Who could resist falling in love with this delightful paragraph by Edward Hoagland?”—THE
My favorite essay by Edward Hoagland is called “The Courage of Turtles” in the collection of his selected essays, Heart’s Desire which is the source of our Paragraph of the Week. Edward Hoagland is an author best known for his nature and travel writing. His non-fiction has been widely praised by writers such as John Updike, who called him "the best essayist of my generation," and Joyce Carol Oates who described him as "Our Chopin of the genre." His most recent book of essays is In the Country of the Blind.
The Paragraph of the Week
Baby turtles in a turtle bowl are a puzzle in geometrics. They're as decorative as pansy petals, but they are also self-directed building blocks, propping themselves on one another in different arrangements, before upending the tower. The timid individuals turn fearless, or vice versa. If one gets a bit arrogant he will push the others off the rock and afterwards climb down into the water and cling to the back of one of those he has bullied, tickling him with his hind feet until he bucks like a bronco. On the other hand, when this same milder-mannered fellow isn't exerting himself, he will stare right into the face of the sun for hours. What could be more lionlike? And he's at home in or out of the water and does lots of metaphysical tilting. He sinks and rises, with an infinity of levels to choose from; or, elongating himself, he climbs out on the land again to perambulate; sits boxed in his box, and finally slides back in the water, submerging into dreams.
Who could resist falling in love with this delightful paragraph by Edward Hoagland? It comes from his essay “The Courage of Turtles” which argues that this creature, which is generally underestimated and often abused by humans, has many of the characteristics of the great beasts such as the lion and the eagle and seems almost human in its philosophical serenity. “Turtles are a kind of bird with the governor turned low,” the essay begins. They “cough, burp, whistle, grunt, and hiss, and produce social judgements.” “Baby turtles in a turtle bowl are a puzzle in geometrics.” They are “decorative as pansy petals” and sturdy as “building blocks.” They build preposterous constructions “propping themselves on one another in different arrangements” with some bullying and tickling “before upending the tower.” When not exerting themselves they “stare right into the face of the sun for hours. What could be more lionlike?” They are given to quixotic “metaphysical tilting” as they lumber on land, “rolling like sailorly souls,” or slip into water “submerging into dreams.” It is in his attention to detail and surprisingly right comparisons that Hoagland honors these amazing, humble creatures reminding us that their place and ours in the grand scheme of things is not as far apart as we might suppose.
April 7, 2017
from Before We Get Started: A Practical Memoir of the Writer’s Life
by Bret Lott
“…we must care alone, in front of our computers, about the characters and the story and the topic and the sentences and the words.”—Linda Taylor
This week’s Paragraph of the Week goes to Bret Lott and I know that it will speak to many of the followers of this site. The commentary is by Linda Taylor, a student of mine in the Ashland University MFA Program. Linda has been a publishing professional for three decades and continues to work as a freelance writer and editor. She is an instructor of professional writing at Taylor University in Indiana. She has her M.A. from Ball State University. Her book about editing titled Word by Word: An Editor Guides Writers in the Self-editing Process will be released through Bold Vision Books summer 2017. She blogs at www.lindaktaylor.com.
About this paragraph, Linda writes the following: “In ten separate but very intertwined essays, Lott shares his successes and failures—racking up 597 rejection letters at the same time having his book Jewel (which he had written ten years earlier) chosen by Oprah for her book club and thus rocketing it to the revered New York Times best-seller list. Lott’s refreshing candor and humility can help all writers understand what only writers know—that writing is hard work, often with little recognition. But if we do it only for publication and/or acclaim, we miss the point. We must do it because we love it.”
Bret Lott is the bestselling author of fourteen books, most recently the nonfiction collection Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian (Crossway 2013) and the novel Dead Low Tide (Random House 2012). Other books include the story collection The Difference Between Women and Men, the nonfiction book Before We Get Started: A Practical Memoir of the Writer’s Life, and the novels Jewel, an Oprah Book Club pick, and A Song I Knew by Heart.
The Paragraph of the Week
And the answer that came to me, while writing a book no one had asked me to write, my family asleep above me, dawn coming up on a day that would involve changing diapers, cooking meals and ministering to around one hundred freshmen who had problems remembering to capitalize the beginning of a sentence, was that I cared. And the truth of this caring was and is and will always be that at the time of invention, in these moments of quiet when the world we see spinning itself out in front of us calls for us to record it, we writers merely amanuenses at the foot of the oracle, the story itself—the truth of this caring is that I will always be the only one in this moment to care.
Bret Lott desires to help writers keep perspective—to remember, as he noted in The Paragraph of the Week, that even if no one else ever cares about the words we put on a page, we must care. Lott describes the vicissitudes of the writing life, offering some techniques and anecdotes, but the bulk of his memoir helps writers understand that publication and great success ought not be our only focus. His final chapter shows a condensed few days filled with many emotions—he knows his latest novel is terrible, his editor calls to tell him it’s terrible, a student in his Vermont MFA program dies in his dorm room, and Oprah calls. He tells of being interviewed for three hours by Oprah and her book club. The final show condensed three hours to eight minutes with the most air time given to the crying book club member “who missed the point of [the] book entirely.” Clearly, success isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. So, Lott wants writers to write the best we can, submit our writing over and over and over without letting rejection stop us (“they don’t call it submission for nothing,” he writes), and eventually the magic will happen. But it won’t be magical if we don’t care first. And we must care alone, in front of our computers, about the characters and the story and the topic and the sentences and the words. The bottom line: Don’t seek to get published; lots of people want that. Instead, seek to write with excellence. Begin by being the first to care.
—Linda K. Taylor
from “An Entrance to the Woods”
in Recollected Essays 1965-1980
by Wendell Berry
“Wendell Berry leaves the trail and descends into the pathless woods following a stream that ‘seems sunk in a deep contented meditation on the sounds of l.’”—THE
Poet, novelist, and environmentalist Wendell Berry lives on a farm in Port Royal, Kentucky near his birthplace, where he has maintained a farm for over 40 years. Mistrustful of technology, he holds deep reverence for the land and is a staunch defender of agrarian values. He is the author of over 40 books of poetry, fiction, and essays. His writing celebrates the holiness of life and everyday miracles often taken for granted. Learn more at The Poetry Foundation.
Our Paragraph of the Week is from his essay “An Entrance to the Woods” which describes his attempt to leave civilization behind by hiking into the Daniel Boone National Forest near Pine Ridge Kentucky. You can read the entire text of his essay here.
The Paragraph of the Week
The moon is bright and high. The woods stands in deep shadow, the light falling soft through the openings of the foliage. The trees appear immensely tall, and black, gravely looming over the path. It is windless and still; the moonlight pouring over the country seems more potent than the air. All around me there is still that constant low singing of the insects. For days now it has continued without letup or inflection, like ripples on water under a steady breeze. While I slept it went on through the night, a shimmer on my mind. My shoulder brushes a low tree overhanging the path and a bird that was asleep on one of the branches startles awake and flies off into the shadows, and I go on with the sense that I am passing near to the sleep of things.
In “An Entrance to the Woods,” Wendell Berry walks into the Daniel Boone National Forest near Pine Ridge Kentucky to escape the “roar of the highway” that is “the voice of the American economy,” the “machinery and the workings of an insane greed.” It takes a while. The first night he is lonely, and on his second day, climbing zigzag paths to an overlook, he can still hear the Mountain Parkway, “a steady continuous roar.” But he had come to “enlarge rather than diminish the hope of life,” so he presses on. Eventually the highway sound subsides. Free of “all superfluities” that he could not carry on his back, he is reduced to his “irreducible self,” as he walks through “the landscape as one of its details.” He leaves the trail and descends into the pathless woods following a stream that “seems sunk in a deep contented meditation on the sounds of l.” The stream itself is a clear and pristine world. “If it weren’t for the shadows and ripples,” he writes, “you would hardly notice it is water; the fish would seem to swim in the air.” Before dawn on his last day, the moonlight “seems more potent than the air.” The buzzing of insects, which registered as a “shimmer” in his mind as he slept, continues in his waking state. Preparing to leave, he passes “near to the sleep of things.” If he were to stay another day it would be even better, he thinks, realizing that “to renew the life of that possibility” was the reason he entered the woods in the first place. “What I am leaving,” he writes, “is something to look forward to.”
I Was Told There’d Be Cake
By Sloane Crosley
Something in Sloane Crosley’s “evocation of ‘minor fibers that become unintentionally tangled with our personality’ undoubtedly rings true for readers.”—Katy Major
The Paragraph of the Week goes to Sloane Crosley. Katy Major, an essayist and critic from Medina, Ohio wrote the commentary. She is currently working as my student in the Ashland MFA on her first essay collection, tentatively titled Self(ie) Made: American Essays. To read Katy's critical work, you can visit IndieReader.com, where she reviews indie novels and nonfiction, or her blog, WildernessHorrorBlog, where she analyzes and reviews horror films.
Katy writes this about Sloane Crosley’s bestselling 2008 essay collection: “One of the more common ways of writing a self on the page is by identifying the universal in the specific…I Was Told There’d Be Cake, is captivating for just this phenomenon. Again and again, like the best of nonfictionists, Crosley skillfully excavates meaning from the seemingly mundane—and, in Crosley’s case, readers could almost miss the significance of the subjects she wittily considers, so caught up they might be in the hilarity of Crosley’s voice.”
Paragraph of the Week
“I’m not exactly sure how the ponies happened. Though I have an inkling: “Can I get you anything?” I’ll say, getting up from a dinner table, “Coffee, tea, a pony?” People rarely laugh at this, especially if they’ve heard it before. “This party’s supposed to be fun,” a friend will say. “Really?” I’ll respond, “Will there be pony rides?” It’s a nervous tic and a cheap joke, cheapened further by the frequency with which I use it. For that same reason, it’s hard to weed out of my speech—most of the time I don’t even realize I’m saying it. There are little elements in a person’s life, minor fibers that become unintentionally tangled with our personality. Sometimes it’s a patent phrase, sometimes it’s a perfume, sometimes it’s a wristwatch. For me, it is the constant referencing of ponies.”
Crosley’s essay, “The Pony Problem,” from which this paragraph was excerpted, humorously remarks on the speaker’s unsettling collection of toy ponies, a result of the quirk she discusses here, her significant others tending to joke back with the gift of a literal pony. Such a bizarre “tic” is unquestionably unique, yet something in her evocation of “minor fibers that become unintentionally tangled with our personality” undoubtedly rings true for readers, too. The silly things we say, the worn garments we insist on wearing far past their prime, the smells and sounds that collect around us—what Crosley hits on here is the fact of being human, an achievement that essayists since Montaigne have strived for. As the essay goes on, a broader exploration surfaces—the tangible versus the felt, nostalgia versus a desire to move forward—this paragraph being just a microcosm of the masterful balance of the explicitly personal and widely recognizable that Crosley manages to strike.
from “A Sketch of the Past”
in Moments of Being
by Virginia Woolf
“I could fill pages remembering one thing after another. All together made the summer at St Ives the best beginning to life conceivable.” —Virginia Woolf
The St. Ives Series
Virginia Woolf who lived between 1882 and 1941 was one of the major literary figures of the twentieth century. An admired literary critic, she authored many essays, letters, journals, and short stories in addition to her groundbreaking novels. She attributes the impulse to write to childhood events associated with time spend at her family’s vacation home in St. Ives. We will spend three weeks examining three remarkable paragraphs about what summers in the beach town of St. Ives taught her about being a writer. They are taken from her brief memoir, “A Sketch of the Past,” published after her death as part of collection of autobiographical writings called Moments of Being. This week we look at a paragraph that describes her father’s decision, before she was born, to rent Talland House in St. Ives, and the lasting effect it had on her life. You can find "A Sketch of the Past" in a pdf here.
Next week we look at small “moments of being” at St. Ives that had a strong impact on Virginia Woolf as a writer.
Paragraph of the Week
Father on one of his walking tours, it must have been in 1881, I think—discovered St Ives. He must have stayed there, and seen Talland House to let. He must have seen the town almost as it had been in the sixteenth century, without hotels, or villas, and the Bay as it had been since time began. It was the first year, I think, that the line was made from St Erth to St Ives—before that, St Ives was eight miles from a railway. Munching his sandwiches up at Tregenna perhaps, he must have been impressed, in his silent way, by the beauty of the Bay, and thought this might do for our summer holiday, and worked out with his usual caution ways and means. I was to be born in the following January; and, though they wished to limit their family, and did what they could to prevent me, he must have known that they were not successful in the steps they took, Adrian was born a year after me (1883)—again, in spite of precautions. It proves the ease and amplitude of those days that a man to whom money was an obsession thought it feasible to take a house on the very toenail, as he called it, of England, so that every summer he would be faced with the expense of moving children, nurses, servants from one end of England to the other. Yet he did it. They rented the house from the Great Western Railway Company. The distance did prove in one way a drawback, for we could only go there in the summer. Our country thus was canalised into two or at most into three months of the year. The other months were spent entirely in London. Yet in retrospect nothing that we had as children made as much difference, was quite so important to us, as our summer in Cornwall. The country was intensified, after the months in London to go away to Cornwall, to have our own house, our own garden, to have the Bay, the sea, the moon, Clodgy, Halestown Bog, Carbis Bay, Lelant, Trevail, Zennor, the Gurnard's Head, to hear the waves breaking that first night behind the yellow blind, to dig in the sand, to go sailing in a fishing boat, to scrabble over the rocks and see the red and yellow anemones flourishing their antennae; or stuck like blobs of jelly to the rock; to find a small fish flapping in a pool, to pick up cowries, to look over the grammar in the dining room and see the lights changing on the bay, the leaves of the escallonia grey or bright green; to go down to the town and buy a penny box of tintacks or a pocket knife; to prowl about Lanhams—Mrs Lanham wore false curls shaking round her head; the servants said Mr Lanham had married her 'through an advertisement'; to smell all the fishy smells in the steep little streets; and see the innumerable cats with their fishbones in their mouths, and the women on the raised steps outside their houses pouring pails of dirty water down the gutters; every day to have a great dish of Cornish cream skinned with a yellow skin, and plenty of brown sugar to eat with blackberries. I could fill pages remembering one thing after another. All together made the summer at St Ives the best beginning to life conceivable. When they took Talland House father and mother gave us—me at any rate—what has been perennial, invaluable. Suppose I had only Surrey, or Sussex, or the Isle of Wight to think about when I think of my childhood.
How can a writer capture love for a place in a single paragraph? She can make a list! The place is the summer beach town of St. Ives, the “the very toenail” of England, as Virginia Woolf’s father called it. She has little good to say about him in “A Sketch of the Past.” More daughterly affection and respect goes to her obliging mother who died when Virginia was a girl. She describes her father as “severe” and overly cautious and, after her mother died, emotionally dependent on his daughters in a way that drained the joy out of their days, but she relents a bit when she imagines her him “munching his sandwiches up at Tregenna perhaps” while settling on the idea of a summer rental in a beach town miles from London. She realizes that he had, in a moment of largess equivalent to his slips in the matter of keeping his family small, given her “the best beginning of a life conceivable.” “Yet he did it,” she writes marveling at the good he could do in spite of himself. Then, after dispensing with some practical considerations about the rental and its distance from London, she gives us the town—and what it meant to her—in a remarkable single-sentence list. What I love most is the list's desultory feel as if she is ticking things off at the top of her head, starting with the obvious: “to have our own house, our own garden, to have the Bay, the sea, the moon.” This is followed by the sludgy-sounding names of places: “Clodgy, Halestown Bog, Carbis Bay, Lelant, Trevail, Zennor, the Gurnard's Head.” Using infinitives, she drags in verbs with brief stories attached: “to find a small fish flapping in a pool, to pick up cowries, to look over the grammar in the dining room and see the lights changing on the bay, the leaves of the escallonia grey or bright green; to go down to the town and buy a penny box of tintacks or a pocket knife.” The little moment of looking up from her book and watching the play of light on water under a grey-green canopy of leaves is a particularly lovely, contemplative pause in a catalogue rattling with flapping fish, a box of tintacks, and a pocket knife. Mrs. Lanham is remembered for her “false curls shaking round her head” and rumors that she landed her husband “through an advertisement.” And, at the end, the “dirty water” poured into gutters by the town women is set against dishes of “Cornish cream skinned with a yellow skin” and blackberries sweetened with brown sugar. I don’t know enough about English resort areas to get the little dig at Surrey, Sussex, and the Isle of Wight at the very end of the paragraph, but the sentence before it is the highest praise from a writer for a place she loved. As her lovely, meandering list suggests, what her stingy father inadvertently gave her when he rented Talland House year after year during her childhood was “perennial” and “invaluable,” and "the best beginning to life conceivable."
from “A Sketch of the Past”
in Moments of Being
by Virginia Woolf
“It is only by putting [a painful shock] into words that I make it whole; this wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me.”—Virginia Woolf
The St. Ives Series
We have dedicated three weeks of The Humble Essayist to “A Sketch of the Past,” a brief memoir by Virginia Woolf that was published after her death as part of collection of autobiographical writings called Moments of Being. In particular we are focusing on the role that her family’s summer rental at St. Ives had on her writing. Last week we examined the effect of her father’s decision to rent the place at St. Ives on Virginia Woolf as a writer and if you missed it you can find it here in the archives. In our second installment in the “St. Ives Series,” both The Paragraph of the Week and paragraph of commentary come from her. They appear back-to-back in the text, the second one amplifying beautifully on the first.
Virginia Woolf believed that we spend much of our days in the “cotton wool” of life, the hours that go by without insight, but there are extraordinary “moments of being” when our world can be upended. Her paragraph and commentary here on these moments not only offers insights into the way certain shocks can lead to writing and art, but also the way that art and writing can meliorate the pain—and, in fact, bring great pleasure—by creating wholeness out of the “severed parts” of a shattering epiphany.
Paragraph of the Week
As a child then, my days, just as they do now, contained a large proportion of this cotton wool, this non-being. Week after week passed at St Ives and nothing made any dint upon me. Then, for no reason that I know about, there was a sudden violent shock; something happened so violently that I have remembered it all my life. I will give a few instances. The first: I was fighting with Thoby on the lawn. We were pommelling each other with our fists. Just as I raised my fist to hit him, I felt: why hurt another person? I dropped my hand instantly, and stood there and let him beat me. I remember the feeling. It was a feeling of hopeless sadness. It was as if I became aware of something terrible; and of my own powerlessness. I slunk off alone, feeling horribly depressed. The second instance was also in the garden at St Ives. I was looking at the flower bed by the front door; "That is the whole", I said. I was looking at a plant with a spread of leaves; and it seemed suddenly plain that the flower itself was a part of the earth; that a ring enclosed what was the flower; and that was the real flower; part earth; part flower. It was a thought I put away as being likely to be very useful to me later. The third case was also at St Ives. Some people called Valpy had been staying at St Ives, and had left. We were waiting at dinner one night, when somehow I overheard my father or my mother say that Mr Valpy had killed himself. The next thing I remember is being in the garden at night and walking on the path by the apple tree. It seemed to me that the apple tree was connected with the horror of Mr Valpy's suicide. I could not pass it. I stood there looking at the grey green creases of the bark—it was a moonlit night—in a trance of horror. I seemed to be dragged down, hopelessly, into some pit of absolute despair from which I could not escape. My body seemed paralysed.
These are three instances of exceptional moments. I often tell them over, or rather they come to the surface unexpectedly. But now that for the first time I have written them down, I realise something that I have never realised before. Two of these moments ended in a state of despair. The other ended, on the contrary, in a state of satisfaction. When I said about the flower "That is the whole," I felt that I had made a discovery. I felt that I had put away in my mind something that I should go back to, to turn over and explore. It strikes me now that this was a profound difference. It was the difference in the first place between despair and satisfaction. This difference I think arose from the fact that I was quite unable to deal with the pain of discovering that people hurt each other, that a man I had seen had killed himself. The sense of horror held me powerless. But in the case of the flower I found a reason, and was thus able to deal with the sensation. I was not powerless. I was conscious—if only at a distance—that I should in time explain it. I do not know if I was older when I saw the flower than I was when I had the other two experiences. I only know that many of these exceptional moments brought with them a peculiar horror and a physical collapse, they seemed dominant, myself passive. This suggests that as one gets older one has a greater power through reason to provide an explanation, and that this explanation blunts the sledge-hammer force of the blow. I think this is true, because though I still have the peculiarity that I receive these sudden shocks, they are now always welcome, after the first surprise, I always feel instantly that they are particularly valuable. And so I go on to suppose that the shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer. I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to explain it. I feel that I have had a blow, but it is not, as I thought as a child, simply a blow from an enemy hidden behind the cotton wool of daily life; it is or will become a revelation of some order, it is a token of some real thing behind appearances, and I make it real by putting it into words. 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; it gives me, perhaps because by doing so I take away the pain, a great delight to put the severed parts together. Perhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me. It is the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what, making a scene come right; making a character come together. From this I reach what I might call a philosophy, at any rate it is a constant idea of mine, that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern, that we—I mean all human beings—are connected with this, that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven, certainly and emphatically there is no God, we are the words, we are the music, we are the thing itself. And I see this when I have a shock.
from “A Sketch of the Past”
in Moments of Being
by Virginia Woolf
“While I write this the light glows, an apple becomes a vivid green, I respond all through me; but how?”—Virginia Woolf
St. Ives Series, Part 3
We are spending three weeks on Virginia Woolf, one of the masters of modernism whose finest posthumous work, “A Sketch of the Past,” offers insights into the writing life. Last week we let her speak for herself as she rendered three “moments of being” from her childhood at St. Ives in one paragraph and analyzed them in the next. These were extraordinary epiphanies that fueled her life as a writer. The week before that we considered her father’s decision to rent Talland House at St. Ives and the effect it had on Virginia Woolf as a writer. If you missed either feature you can find it here in The Humble Essayist archives. You can also access the text of Moments of Being here. This week, in the final installment of our St. Ives Series, we look at one of these “moments of being” that happened as she was writing, giving a sense of how these brief interruptions can for a moment take over and how writers can tuck them away for use in the future.
The Paragraph of the Week
Every afternoon we "went for a walk". Later these walks became a penance. Father must have one of us to go out with him, Mother insisted. Too much obsessed with his health, with his pleasures, she was too willing, as I think now, to sacrifice us to him. It was thus that she left us the legacy of his dependence, which after her death became so harsh an imposition. It would have been better for our relationship if she had left him to fend for himself. But for many years she made a fetish of his health, and so—leaving the effect upon us out of the reckoning—she wore herself out and died at forty-nine; while he lived on, and found it very difficult, so healthy was he, to die of cancer at the age of seventy-two. But, though I slip in, still venting an old grievance, that parenthesis, St Ives gave us all the same that "pure delight" which is before my eyes at this very moment. The lemon-coloured leaves on the elm tree, the apples in the orchard, the murmur and rustle of the leaves makes me pause here, and think how many other than human forces are always at work on us. While I write this the light glows, an apple becomes a vivid green, I respond all through me; but how? Then a little owl chatters under my window. Again, I respond. Figuratively I could snapshot what I mean by some image, I am a porous vessel afloat on sensation, a sensitive plate exposed to invisible rays, and so on. Or I fumble with some vague idea about a third voice; I speak to Leonard, Leonard speaks to me, we both hear a third voice. Instead of labouring all the morning to analyse what I mean, to discover whether I mean anything real, whether I make up or tell the truth when I see myself taking the breath of these voices in my sails and tacking this way and that through daily life as I yield to them, I note only the existence of this influence, suspect it to be of great importance, cannot find how to check its power on other people—does Louie feel it? Does Percy? Which of the people watching the incendiary bomb extinguished on the hill last night would understand what I mean if they read this?—I erect a finger post here, to mark a vein I will some time try to work out, and return to the surface; that is St Ives.
Nearly sixty, Virginia Woolf is remembering St. Ives in Cornwall where she and her family vacationed when she was a child, a place, she says, that gave her “the best beginning of a life conceivable.” This paragraph begins with a parenthetical “grievance” about her father whom she resented because of his long dependence on her and her sister, reminding us that all was not joy during her summers at the beach. After her mother’s early death, the family stopped going to St. Ives, and her father’s long period of dependency leads to her dig that his good heath was inconvenient since it kept him, and his “severe love of truth,” going too long. But the paragraph takes a turn when she looks out her window and feels a “pure delight” reminiscent of her Cornwall days. She registers the “lemon-coloured leaves on the elm,” “apples in the orchard,” and “the murmur and rustle” in all the trees and ponders the way nature shapes us. “While I write this the light glows, an apple becomes a vivid green, I respond all through me; but how?” She admits that she is no philosopher who will labor all morning to analyze this experience, deciding whether it is real or imagined. but she does offer metaphors for it. She is “a pourous vessel afloat on sensation” or “a sensitive plate exposed to invisible rays.” The French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty would have called this saturation in sense experience the “flesh” of perception in which there is no separation between the viewing subject and the scene. When she and Leonard talk about it, they hear a “third voice” in the room amid their voices. I think that this moment is one of her “moments of being” when the perception of the world brings the shock of insight. She wonders if others feel shaped by nature’s lush sensuality in the same way, and, since she is writing during World War II she also wonders if such emotional niceties have a chance among her neighbors “watching the incendiary bomb extinguished on the hill last night.” What makes this particular “moment of being” stand out is that it is happening while she is writing, recorded on the spot with the attention to language and detail that she brings to all of her writing but with us looking over her shoulder so to speak. As with all of these moments there is too much to absorb at once, so she erects a mental signpost in her memory in order to return to the spot later when we’re not watching.
from Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System
by Sonya Huber
“Pain Woman takes your car keys and drives away.”—Sonya Huber
Sonya Huber writes through the chronic pain of rheumatoid arthritis which she has had for much of her adult life. Usually she writes a meticulously crafted prose, taking heart from the fact that writing generally requires a “sheer absorption” that allows her to get past the pain. “Writing,” she explains, “has been a solace for most pain in my life, partly because of the focus it requires.” But there are times when the pain takes over and she becomes “Pain Woman” and she “inhabits a strange, altered consciousness brought on by the pain.” It is a voice very different from her usual collection of voices which includes “Academia Woman, the Editorial/Demonstration Pissed-Off Woman, Dreamy Essayist Fragment Girl, and Hayseed/Punk Rock Girl.” None of those resemble the “fugue-state reflection” of Pain Woman. Once, in the Pain Woman state, she wrote a blog post called “The Shadow Syllabus” that went viral, its success raising questions for her about voice and writing.
Our Paragraph of the Week comes from her most recent collection Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System in Sonya’s usual, writerly voice. The commentary is a collage of quotations taken from the rest of the essay that sound a lot like Pain Woman to me.
Sonya Huber is an associate professor of English at Fairfield University. She is the author of Opa Nobody, Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, Two Eyes Are Never Enough, and The Evolution of Hillary Clinton. If you haven’t read “Shadow Syllabus” you must, but only after you read The Paragraph of the Week and commentary.
Paragraph of the Week
This has been wonderful but strange, because the Pain Woman who wrote [“The Shadow Syllabus”] doesn't feel like the woman I know who has been writing with my hands for twenty years, the woman who tries so hard to build essays with complex and multilayered sentences. Pain Woman has a different voice. She has a kind of messianic confidence that I do not have in my normal writing or even in my normal living, and this is the most shocking thing. The "me" I know or have inhabited most of my life is so ready to apologize for my point of view. I come at my writing sidelong, midwestern, nerd-female, postbullying, still gun-shy of ever saying something directly.
—Sonya Huber as Sonya
Pain Woman gives no shits. Pain Woman has stuff to tell you, and she has one minute to do so before she's too tired. Pain Woman knows things… Pain Woman takes your car keys and drives away… Pain Woman's emergence and her strange rhythm, her simple plodding confidence, all make me wonder how each writer's voices develop and morph and ferment and merge over time… Pain isn't making me a better person. It binds up my concentration, chops it into tiny pieces, thus requiring me to speak on the fly with thoughts made strange. This strange-making is often said to be the task of art: to cast the world in an unfamiliar light… Pain Woman is unable to access the routines and habits I've picked up, the automatic scripts, of what I see as my style. She can find the shadows and scraps of them, but she has to use them to make something else. I don't know what I would have to say about any of this, but Pain Woman would say: You have more options than the writerly self you think you should be writing through. Take your own voice and destroy it. Shatter it and look at yourself in each of the glinting pieces.
—Sonya Huber as Pain Woman
in Walden, Or Life in the Woods
by Henry David Thoreau
“Somewhere deep in the woods the wind that merely flutters the leaves near him is howling and night predators have begun to prowl.”—THE
We will begin the party early this year. On the Fourth of July The Humble Essayist will celebrate its third birthday with another tribute to Henry David Thoreau whose Paragraph of the Week in the summer of 2014 started it all. Since then it has been a tradition here to choose a paragraph from this masterful essayist on Independence Day. Unfortunately I will be away from the computer that week which simply means that we have to start the celebration now and keep the party going for two weeks. While the host is away, the guest of honor will be Thoreau. You can read Walden on-line here. We’ll be back with another Paragraph of the Week on July 7.
The Paragraph of the Week
This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore. I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself. As I walk along the stony shore of the pond in my shirt sleeves, though it is cool as well as cloudy and windy, and I see nothing special to attract me, all the elements are unusually congenial to me. The bullfrogs trump to usher in the night, and the note of the whippoorwill is borne on the rippling wind from over the water. Sympathy with the fluttering alder and poplar leaves almost takes away my breath; yet, like the lake, my serenity is rippled but not ruffled. These small waves raised by the evening wind are as remote from storm as the smooth reflecting surface. Though it is now dark, the wind still blows and roars in the wood, the waves still dash, and some creatures lull the rest with their notes. The repose is never complete. The wildest animals do not repose, but seek their prey now; the fox, and skunk, and rabbit, now roam the fields and woods without fear. They are Nature’s watchmen,—links which connect the days of animated life.
I have always loved the first sentence of this opening paragraph from “Solitude” in Walden by Henry David Thoreau though it resists explanation. The idea that “the whole body is one sense” which is drinking in a “delicious evening” through “every pore” may seem a jumble, but it does suggest the way we sometimes feel enveloped by natural beauty and completely absorbed in it, even on a night when not much is happening. The sounds are common: the “trump” of the frog, the call of the whippoorwill, the wind rippling the water. The scene is serene, the “alder and poplar leaves” sounding in the breezes, and the lake, though “rippled,” is a glassy mirror. What surprises Thoreau is that, in spite of the seeming calm, there is a hidden turbulence here, reminding him that nature is never just one thing, and he, as a part of it, is never having one feeling about it as well. Somewhere deep in the woods the wind that merely flutters the leaves near him is howling and night predators have begun to prowl. There is alarm among “Nature’s watchmen” who are out to kill, and he himself in his shirt sleeves knows that his feeling of being free in nature is “strange” because its repose is “never complete” and its beauty is both calming and breathtaking at once.
from Darkness Visible
by William Styron
“When I was first aware that I had been laid low by the disease, I felt a need, among other things, to register a strong protest against the word ‘depression.’”—William Styron
One of the services great writers do for us is to “purify the language of the tribe.” Not only do they use language to telling and memorable effect, providing models for the rest of us to follow, they also, like a carpenter frustrated with a dull blade, point out the limitations and weaknesses of their tools. William Styron in his dismantling of the word “depression” certainly shows us how it is done. Although he cannot find a word to suit him, he reminds us that the coining of a term matters. It is hard to use the word “depression” for the storm that rages in the mind after reading Styron’s dismissal. Both the Paragraph of the Week and the Commentary come from his classic illness memoir, Darkness Visible.
Paragraph of the Week
When I was first aware that I had been laid low by the disease, I felt a need, among other things, to register a strong protest against the word “depression.” Depression, most people know, used to be termed "melancholia," a word which appears in English as early as the year 1303 and crops up more than once in Chaucer, who in his usage seemed to be aware of its pathological nuances. “Melancholia” would still appear to be a far more apt and evocative word for the blacker forms of the disorder, but it was usurped by a noun with a bland tonality and lacking any magisterial presence, used indifferently to describe an economic decline or a rut in the ground, a true wimp of a word for such a major illness It may be that the scientist generally held responsible for its currency in modern times, a Johns Hopkins Medical School faculty member justly venerated—the Swiss-born psychiatrist Adolf Meyer—had a tin ear for the finer rhythms of English and therefore was unaware of the semantic damage he had inflicted by offering depression as a descriptive noun for such a dreadful and raging disease. Nonetheless, for over seventy-five years the word has slithered innocuously through the language like a slug, leaving little trace of its intrinsic malevolence and preventing, by its very insipidity, a general awareness of the horrible intensity of the disease when out of control.
As one who has suffered from the malady in extremis yet returned to tell the tale, I would lobby for a truly arresting designation. “Brainstorm,” for instance, has unfortunately been preempted to describe, somewhat jocularly, intellectual inspiration. But something along these lines is needed. Told that someone's mood disorder has evolved into a storm--a veritable howling tempest in the brain, which is indeed what a clinical depression resembles like nothing else even the uninformed layman might display sympathy rather than the standard reaction that "depression" evokes, something akin to "So what?" or "You'll pull out of it" or "We all have bad days." The phrase "nervous breakdown" seems to be on its way out, certainly deservedly so, owing to its insinuation of a vague spinelessness, but we still seem destined to be saddled with "depression" until a better, sturdier name is created.
from “Once More to the Lake”
in One Man’s Meat
by E. B. White
‘The illusion that things remain the same as time passes is reinforced in E. B. White’s essay “Once More to the Lake’ by the notion of doubling.”—THE
Each summer we dedicate a week to a paragraph from my favorite essay, “Once More to the Lake” by E. B. White. White was a legendary editor and writer for The New Yorker during the magazine’s heyday and this essay is his masterpiece. The three past paragraphs of the week from White are in the archives, and You can find White’s essay on line here.
I will be teaching at the residency for the Ashland University MFA for several weeks and away from the computer so this feature on E. B. White will remain up until August 4 when I return with a new Paragraph of the Week. You can learn more about Ashland University’s MFA in creative writing by clicking on the tab Check Out the Ashland MFA above.—THE
Paragraph of the Week
We caught two bass, hauling them in briskly as though they were mackerel, pulling them over the side of the boat in a businesslike manner without any landing net, and stunning them with a blow on the back of the head. When we got back for a swim before lunch, the lake was exactly where we had left it, the same number of inches from the dock, and there was only the merest suggestion of a breeze. This seemed an utterly enchanted sea, this lake you could leave to its own devices for a few hours and come back to, and find that it had not stirred, this constant and trustworthy body of water. In the shallows, the dark, water soaked sticks and twigs, smooth and old, were undulating in clusters on the bottom against the clean ribbed sand, and the track of the mussel was plain. A school of minnows swam by, each minnow with its small individual shadow, doubling the attendance, so clear and sharp in the sunlight. Some of the other campers were in swimming, along the shore, one of them with a cake of soap, and the water felt thin and clear and unsubstantial. Over the years there had been this person with the cake of soap, this cultist, and here he was. There had been no years.
—E. B. White
The illusion that things remain the same as time passes is reinforced in E. B. White’s essay “Once More to the Lake” by the notion of doubling. The dragonfly hovering over the tip of the adult’s fishing pole appears to be the same as the one that hovered there when he was a boy. The waves “chucking” the bottom of the rowboat seem unchanged. So does the old boat. The lake, “an utterly enchanted sea,” obliges by staying “exactly where we had left it,” White explains, “the same number of inches from the dock.” It is a theme that he wrote about in his essay “The Ring of Time” where the girl on horseback going around the ring is “too young to know that time does not really move in a circle at all.” Such doubling is an illusion: the dragonfly is not the same fly, the waves are not the same water, and the boat, littered under the floorboards with “dead helgramite,” continues its slow disintegration. To me, the essay, which ultimately rejects the illusion of time continuously doubling back on itself and ends with the word “death,” signals that turn with the lovely image of the school of minnows seen in the bright light of midday summer, “each minnow with its small individual shadow, doubling the attendance, so clear and sharp in the sunlight.” Here the doubles may be exact, echoing perfectly each movement of the school of fish as they dart about, but they are shadows of the originals, not replicas. Darkness creeps into the enchanted sea. This paragraph, about midway through the piece, may end with this sentence: “There had been no years.” But E. B. White knows better and that nostalgic illusion of time as endless repetition is not where this essay is headed.
from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
by Jean-Dominique Bauby
translated from the French by Jeremy Leggatt
“What I admire about this unassuming tribute to his alphabet…is its gratitude for language as his only way out of abject loneliness.”—THE
In December 1995 Jean-Dominique Bauby, the forty-three year old editor of Elle magazine, suffered a massive stroke that left him paralyzed and unable to communicate except by blinking his left eye. Letter by letter, he wrote The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a remarkable memoir about the liberating power of consciousness. Early on in the memoir he pays tribute to the rearranged alphabet that was used to allow him to write his book in one blink of an eye after another.
The Paragraph of the Week
The jumbled appearance of my chorus line stems not from chance but from cunning calculation. More than an alphabet, it is a hit parade in which each letter is placed according to the frequency of its use in the French language. That is why E dances proudly out in front, while W labors to hold on to last place. B resents being pushed back next to V, and haughty J—which begins so many sentences in French—is amazed to find itself so near the rear of the pack. Roly-poly G is annoyed to have to trade places with H, while T and U, the tender components of tu, rejoice that they have not been separated. All this reshuffling has a purpose: to make it easier for those who wish to communicate with me.
There are more moving passages in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby than this description of his alphabet. There is the terrifying story of his stroke that left him paralyzed with “locked-in syndrome” and unable to communicate with others except by blinking his left eye as letters of the alphabet are read out to him. Or the paragraph in which he cries at the realization that he will never be able to ruffle his son’s hair. There is the funny part in which he explains his love for the smell of greasy fries cooking because that is as close as he can get to tasting anything. But what I admire about this unassuming tribute to his alphabet—arranged by the frequency of each letter’s use in French—is its gratitude for language as his only way out of abject loneliness. His delight that E “dances proudly up front,” B is “pushed back next to V,” and J has to content itself with being somewhere “near the rear of the pack” shows his affection for a code that can unlock his syndrome. His observation that T and U—“the tender components of tu”—remain lovingly united is a reminder that when all else fails words can convey the intimacy we crave. The letters may be a jumbled chorus line but in his remarkable book the dancers tip their hats to the human miracle of written communication.
from “Total Eclipse”
in Teaching a Stone to Talk
by Annie Dillard
“From her hilltop Annie Dillard saw ‘a wall of dark shadow’ sweep over the planet, causing her and those around her to scream.”—THE
Annie Dillard has written nonfiction of extraordinary beauty in books such as Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Holy the Firm, and For the Time Being. “Total Eclipse” which is the source of our Paragraph of the Week is from Teaching a Stone to Talk and was chosen for Best Essays of the Twentieth Century. You can read the essay in full on line at The Atlantic magazine site here until the day after the ‘Great American Eclipse’ on August 21.
The Paragraph of the Week
The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us. We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder. It roared up the valley. It slammed our hill and knocked us out. It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon. I have since read that this wave of shadow moves 1,800 miles an hour. Language can give no sense of this sort of speed—1,800 miles an hour. It was 195 miles wide. No end was in sight—you saw only the edge. It rolled at you across the land at 1,800 miles an hour, hauling darkness like plague behind it. Seeing it, and knowing it was coming straight for you, was like feeling a slug of anesthetic shoot up your arm. If you think very fast, you may have time to think, “Soon it will hit my brain.” You can feel the deadness race up your arm; you can feel the appalling, inhuman speed of your own blood. We saw the wall of shadow coming, and screamed before it hit.
For Annie Dillard, a total eclipse of the sun was a blow, “as though an enormous, loping god in the sky had reached down and slapped the earth’s face.” It disoriented her, causing the familiar world of human significance to yield. It lent darkness of night to colors of the earth so that all was draped in a platinum tint. “The hues were metallic; their finish was matte.” It “bears almost no relation” to a partial eclipse; one is prelude to the other, but they are as incommensurate as “flying in an airplane” is to “falling out of an airplane.” From her hilltop she saw “a wall of dark shadow” sweep over the planet, causing her and those around her to scream as she registered as lived experience what she had known intellectually. “This is the universe about which we have read so much,” she writes, “the universe as a clockwork of spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorized speeds.” When it was over and that “bead of light” appeared, the “real world” returned. In a few minutes the shadow that had changed everything rushed on changing nothing, leaving the familiar world behind. “I remember now,” she writes, “we all hurried away.” The partial eclipse was still in progress, “but enough is enough” and one “turns away at last even from glory itself with a sigh of relief.”
from Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony
by Lewis Thomas
“Lewis Thomas imagines the places he loves, from San Francisco to the Alpine Moloja Pass, destroyed by thermonuclear war and can no longer take comfort in the ‘familiar cycle of living and dying’ that the music had once evoked for him.”—THE
Lewis Thomas was physician and a writer whose articles regularly appeared in magazines such as The New Yorker, Scientific American, Atlantic Monthly, and Harper’s. He was the author of a number of collections of essays: The Lives of a Cell, The Medusa and the Snail, and The Youngest Science. The Paragraph of the Week comes from his collection Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.
The Paragraph of the Week
Now I hear it differently. I cannot listen to the last movement of the Mahler Ninth without the door-smashing intrusion of a huge new thought: death everywhere, the dying of everything, the end of humanity. The easy sadness expressed with such gentleness and delicacy by that repeated phrase on faded strings, over and over again, no longer comes to me as old, familiar news of the cycle of living and dying. All through the last notes my mind swarms with images of a world in which the thermonuclear bombs have begun to explode, in New York and San Francisco, in Moscow and Leningrad, in Paris, in Paris, in Paris. In Oxford and Cambridge, in Edinburgh. I cannot push away the thought of a cloud of radioactivity drifting along the Engadin, from the Moloja Pass to Ftan, killing off the part of the earth I love more than any other part.
At the end of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony listeners barely hold onto life through “spider-web strands of music,” Leonard Bernstein famously said. Those threads of sound, “as close as music can come to expressing silence itself,” gave comfort to Lewis Thomas when thoughts of mortality “transiently knocked” him down as a young man. “Now,” he explains in Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony published in the last decade of his life, “I hear it differently.” The “door-smashing intrusion of a huge new thought” shatters the near silence of the music. “All through the last notes my mind swarms with images of a world in which the thermonuclear bombs have begun to explode.” He imagines the places he loves, from San Francisco to the Alpine Moloja Pass, destroyed and can no longer take comfort in the “familiar cycle of living and dying” that the music had once evoked for him. He understands why a younger generation, my generation, “would begin thinking up new kinds of sounds, different from any music heard before,” abandoning high art for rock and roll, and literature for cacophony. “I would,” he says, sympathizing with the youth culture of the sixties that he otherwise disdains, “be twisting and turning to rid myself of human language.”