(Click on the name of the author or simply scroll through the text.)
July 3, 2015
by Henry David Thoreau
“When we pause at a crossing on a solitary evening stroll, eyeing several paths, the feeling that one invites us, Thoreau writes,‘directs us aright.’”—THE
Tomorrow on Independence Day we celebrate the first anniversary of The Humble Essayist. What fun we’ve had! We have Paragraphs of the Week for 45 Authors in our archive and have created new features such as the “Teachers and Students” tab. We have also grown. In our first month we had 241 visitors to the site, but since January we have begun to have about a thousand visitors each month, and during June we had 1,246 dedicated readers of personal nonfiction drop by! In addition, 643 readers follow us on Twitter @THEsharvey and our more recent Facebook page has generated interest as well.
For our inaugural issue we did a Paragraph of the Week from one of the granddaddy’s of the genre, Henry David Thoreau, and we would like to make that a tradition. Each anniversary of The Humble Essayist we will celebrate the Fourth of July week with this quintessential American writer whose name has become synonymous with Independence. There are enough great paragraphs by Thoreau for a lifetime of such anniversaries. Our selection this month is again from his essay “Walking.” There is a nice annotated version of the text online here. Check it out, after you have read THE below.
Thanks to all who have participated in the site, commented on it on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere. Thanks, of course, to the writers whose work we have used reminding us that the tradition of personal nonfiction is strong in our time. Above all, thanks to our loyal readers who keep the page alive! —THE
The Paragraph of the Week
What is it that makes it so hard sometimes to determine whither we will walk? I believe that there is a subtile magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright. It is not indifferent to us which way we walk. There is a right way; but we are very liable from heedlessness and stupidity to take the wrong one. We would fain take that walk, never yet taken by us through this actual world, which is perfectly symbolical of the path which we love to travel in the interior and ideal world; and sometimes, no doubt, we find it difficult to choose our direction, because it does not yet exist distinctly in our idea.
“Whither we will walk” was not for Henry David Thoreau an idle matter. The choice of direction was a clue to the hidden, spiritual purposes in our lives. Are we drawn to a darkening eastern horizon—the way to town, Europe, and the past—or to a glowing western sunset with its hint of adventure? Which way calls to us? It is worth pondering for a moment before we take that first step. When we pause at a crossing on a solitary evening stroll, eyeing several paths, the feeling that one invites us, Thoreau writes, “directs us aright.” We can discern the “subtile magnetism”—the sense of being drawn to the right path—as long as we can let go of those conscious thoughts of what we ought to do that confuse us as we try to find our way. Not taking heed of this message from the universe about our true natures is a kind of “stupidity,” a word that in Thoreau’s time might have retained some of its Latin associations with “stupor” and its overtones of being stunned, dazed, and bewildered. Often our reason for hesitation is that the sense of direction is only beginning to form “distinctly in the mind” of the walker. Thoreau described his own tentative steps in the next paragraph: “My needle is slow to settle,” he explains, and it “varies a few degrees.” For him, the right direction was southwest, the way of “wildness” and “freedom,” though he would be the first to admit that what is right for him may not be for others. Our inner compass alone can show us the way, and for many the familiar, if darker, horizon may have the stronger pull. Like “the migratory instincts in birds” we must first feel it and yield to its “general and mysterious movement.” Subtle as it may be, this magnetic tug points us toward the ideal world and is a clue from the universe to our better natures. –THE
July 10, 2015
from H is for Hawk
by Helen Macdonald
“There is nothing sentimental about delivering this coup de grâce. She had to 'harden' her heart. But the act does, at least, require a heart.”--THE
Helen Macdonald is a writer, poet, illustrator, historian, naturalist, and an affiliated research scholar at the department of history and philosophy of science at the University of Cambridge. The Paragraph of the Week comes from her most recent book, H is for Hawk, about the death of her father and the training of a hawk during her time of grief. Kirkus Reviews called it “Poignant, thoughtful, and moving—and likely to become a classic.”—THE
The Paragraph of the Week
Yet every time the hawk caught an animal, it pulled me: back from being an animal into being a human again. That was the great puzzle, and it was played out again and again. How hearts do stop. A rabbit prostrate in a pile of leaves, clutched in eight gripping talons, the hawk mantling her wings over it, tail spread, eyes burning, nape-feathers raised in a tense and feral crouch. And then I'd reach down and put my hand on the bunched muscles of the rabbit, and with the heel of one hand at the back of its head where the fur was soft and tawny, I'd pull once, twice, hard on its back legs with the other, breaking its neck. A fit of kicking, and the eyes filming over. I had to check the rabbit was dead by very gently touching its eye. Everything stopping. Stopping. Stopping. I had to do this. If I didn't kill the rabbit, the hawk would sit on top of it and start eating; and at some point in the eating the rabbit would die. That is how goshawks kill. The borders between life and death are somewhere in the taking of their meal. I couldn't let that suffering happen. Hunting makes you animal, but the death of an animal makes you human. Kneeling next to the hawk and her prey, I felt a responsibility so huge that it battered inside my own chest, ballooning out into a space the size of a cathedral. —Helen Macdonald
After the death of her father, Helen Macdonald bought and trained a goshawk, a training period that was arduous, anxiety ridden, and—most important—all-consuming. The “H” in the title is not only for the hawk but also for Helen who took temporary solace in shedding her humanity and becoming a wild predator, a transformation that taught her salutary lessons. “I’ve learned how you feel more human” she writes, “once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not.” The measure of the distance she traveled during her ordeal is the killing of the rabbit with her bare hands. “I'd reach down and put my hand on the bunched muscles of the rabbit, and with the heel of one hand at the back of its head where the fur was soft and tawny, I'd pull once, twice, hard on its back legs with the other, breaking its neck.” To be certain it was dead, she committed the taboo of touching its glossed-over eye. There is nothing sentimental about delivering this coup de grâce. She had to “harden” her heart. But the act does, at least, require a heart. It is human to kill this way, unlike the way a goshawk kills by devouring prey alive. The humanity in her would not allow the helpless creature’s death to occur “somewhere in the taking of the meal.” H is for Hawk is about feeling around the edges between human and inhuman as well as life and death, and by the end of the book, when she touches the edge of an envelope with a lost note of love from her father, humanity finally wins. She gives up her hawk and her mourning and crosses back to the world of the living. When she returns it is another act of human responsibility prefigured by the mercy killing of the rabbit when her battered human heart ballooned “into a space the size of a cathedral.”—THE
August 5, 2012
from The Way We Weren’t
by Jill Talbot
“Indie has Kenny’s dimples, legs, and smile as well as a hint of his impishness, and even though she cannot bring Kenny back, Indie is there for Jill ‘every day.’”—THE
The Humble Essayist is back with a brand new Paragraph of the Week from a talented emerging memoirist. Jill Talbot is the author of Loaded: Women and Addiction (Seal Press, 2007), the co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non) Fictions Come Together (University of Texas, 2008), and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (University of Iowa, 2012). Her work has appeared in journals such as Brevity, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, The Paris Review Daily, The Pinch, The Rumpus, and Under the Sun. In 2015-2016, she will join the faculty at University of North Texas, where she will teach creative nonfiction workshops at the undergraduate and graduate level. She is also the nonfiction editor for BOAAT PRESS. The Paragraph of the Week comes from her recently released memoir, The Way We Weren’t published by Counterpoint Press.
I want to thank Ashland MFA students Kathleen Cadmus, Michelle Harris, Elizabeth Wiley, and Denise Wilkinson for their Paragraphs of the Week that ran between July 18 and August 1, while I was working in the Ashland residency. You can find them under the "Teacher & Student" tab above, where they will be permanently archived. Thanks, my friends. My plan is to run more student Paragraphs of the Week and to make them a feature of the "Teacher's & Students" page.
The Paragraph of the Week
This morning, I stood out in the yard, the lingering green of the grass peeking through leaves heavy with yesterday's rain. I tossed a slobbery ball, again and again, for Blue, our heeler/Boxer mix, as she chased it down in the liminal moment of pre-sunrise, the light slicing the slats in the back fence. When I turned to throw the ball in the other direction, I found the moon, sheer white in the darkness of the west. I reveled in the betweenness of it all: night and day, sunrise and moonset, the way Blue never drops the ball at my feet, the way she nearly returns but never comes back all the way. It makes me wonder where the line is between preference and stubbornness. Kenny's like that. I don't know where he is, but every day, he comes back in Indie's dimples or the shape of her legs, the curve of her upper teeth, or the way she holds her mouth the exact same way he did during sleep or the look she gives me when she's not quite sure I know exactly what she has done that she's not supposed to do. In those moments, Kenny comes back, but not all the way.—Jill Talbot
“She left. He did, too.” That is the way Jill Talbot and her lover Kenny were. The way they weren’t is the truth that looms between those two sentences. In the Paragraph of the Week, found near the middle of her book, Jill Talbot hunts for metaphors for the “betweenness of it all” where she spent much of her adult life. She watches Blue, a “heeler/Boxer” mix, chase balls “in the liminal moment of pre-sunrise,” without bringing them completely back. She revels in the betweenness of other liminal times: “night and day, sunrise and moonset,” and wonders whether it was “preference,” which suggests intentionality and other desires fulfilled, or mere “stubbornness” that kept Kenny at the edge of her life, just beyond her reach. In the end, these motives seem secondary to her five-word autobiography: “She left. He did, too.” And yet, the longing for what didn’t happen does matter, and that story of loss, not the desolate poles of her autobiography, is Talbot’s story, though not the whole story. The other half is the serendipity of what did happen while she and Kenny were busy making other plans—Indie, their daughter. Indie has Kenny’s dimples, legs, and smile as well as a hint of his impishness, and even though she cannot bring Kenny back, Indie is there for Jill “every day.” Indie is more than a reminder of Kenny. She is also her own, complete self, the child that Kenny missed out on. At eight she likes “yellow rain boots,” “never wears an outfit without a peace sign on it,” “designs her own haircuts,” and “goes to Rock climbing class every day with her buddy, Jackson.” Jill and Indie live these moments together. When Indie makes a fort of leaves and dances in it, Jill claps her hands and sings “a made up song about the fort, without hesitation.” They are in the moment now, together, all sense of betweenness left behind. That is the way they are, and it matters, too.—THE
August 14, 2014
from “Goodbye to All That”
by Joan Didion
“Clinging to youthful promise—the illusion that all is provisional and nothing counts is seductive, but dangerous.”—THE
The Paragraph of the Week goes to Joan Didion. I have been reading and teaching Didion for many years and am an admirer of her recent work, in particular The Year of Magical Thinking, but when I was looking for a new paragraph for the Humble Essayist I found myself drawn to the opening of "Goodby to All That" from her first book of essays, Slouching toward Bethlehem. It retains a remarkable freshness since it first appeared as "Farewell to the Enchanted City" in The Saturday Evening Post in 1967, nearly fifty years ago. One of the finest writers of our time, Joan Didion is best known among essayists as a remarkable prose stylist. That style—which is knowing as well as witty, incisive as well as concise, and artful as well as apparently casual—is certainly on display in the paragraph below. The complete text of "Goodbye to All That" is available on-line here.
The Paragraph of the Week
It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was. When I first saw New York I was twenty, and it was summertime, and I got off a DC-7 at the old Idlewild temporary terminal in a new dress which had seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already, even in the old Idlewild temporary terminal, and the warm air smelled of mildew and some instinct, programmed by all the movies I had ever seen and all the songs I had ever heard sung and all the stories I had ever read about New York, informed me that it would never be quite the same again. In fact it never was. Some time later there was a song on all the jukeboxes on the upper East Side that went "but where is the schoolgirl who used to be me," and if it was late enough at night I used to wonder that. I know now that almost everyone wonders something like that, sooner or later and no matter what he or she is doing, but one of the mixed blessings of' being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.
When Joan Didion stepped off of a DC-7 in Idlewild wearing “a new dress that seemed very smart in Sacramento, but seemed less so already” in New York, her schoolgirl days were behind her and a period of careless youth began. She loved New York in the way that “you love the first person who touches you.” She had “come out West and reached the mirage”—a metropolitan Xanadu of “lilac and garbage”—and “believed something extraordinary would happen any minute.” It was a reckless time when “[n]othing was irrevocable; everything was within reach.” But what she discovered as one spring of going “to parties, all parties, bad parties” gave way to another, and another is that “it is distinctly possible to stay too long at the Fair.” Clinging to youthful promise—the illusion that all is provisional and nothing counts is seductive, but dangerous since it all does count: “every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it.” Along the way she hurt, insulted, and alienated those she cared about until one day she found herself crying and could not stop. “I cried in elevators and in taxis and in Chinese laundries.” Her doctor gave her the name of a psychiatrist, but she didn’t go. “Instead I got married,” she writes, the cure for recklessness found in love, responsiveness to another, and adult responsibility.
August 21, 2015
from Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy:
Advice and Confessions on Writing, Love, and Cannibals
by Dinty W. Moore
“I have a hot crush on the em dash.”—Cheryl Strayed
This is just what we at The Humble Essayist needed! An advice book named Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy: Advice and Confessions on Writing, Love, and Cannibals in which Dinty Moore answers burning questions about the art of the essay from prominent writers in the form such as Phillip Lopate, Judith Kitchen, Brenda Miller, and Brian Doyle. Enquiring minds want to know! So Sue William Silverman asks “How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman,” in her question about Montaigne and cannibals, Steve Almond asks about the inherent dangers of memoir in his question about “autobiographical essays as the devil’s work,” and Michael Martone creates a page-long paragraph in his question about how many spaces should come after the period—a question causing Mister Essay Writer Guy to space out. Rather than choosing one paragraph and commenting on it—which is the usual way here at The Humble Essayist—I will let Mister Essay Writer Guy speak for himself by reprinting a paragraph (with an additional sentence as a lagniappe) from his his response to the paragraph-long love letter that Cheryl Strayed wrote about the em dash. That should capture the flavor of a little book that we may not have seen coming, but have all, quite frankly, been waiting for.
Dinty Moore is the author of many books including Between Panic and Desire and The Mindful Writer and directs the creative writing program at Ohio University. You can learn more about him and his work at dintywmoore.com. Cheryl Stayed is the author of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail as well as her own advice book, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, and with Steve Almond hosts of the radio podcast Dear Sugar.
Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy,
I have a hot crush on the em dash. Seldom can I write a paragraph—let alone a page!—that isn't riddled with these lovely marks of punctuation that allow me to either set aside or append a word or phrase. I've often wondered if this is a problem, and now I'm asking you, comrade-in-punctuation-quandaries. What does my need to stuff—while simultaneously fracturing—my sentences—with the meandering, the explanatory, the discursive, the perhaps not-entirely-necessary—say about me? And more importantly, what does it give to—or take away from—my work? Is it a quirk I should mindfully scale back? A bad habit I should lose? An original impulse that I should honor without restraint?
Part of Mister Essay Writer Guy’s answer:
…But more to the point, why wouldn't any young women agree to date me between the ages 19-21? I was average looking—well, I'm hardly objective on that topic, am I? —and I was funny—and well, perhaps you don't want to hear any more about my ill-fated romantic life as a young man—and perhaps you think I am being maudlin—and by the way, maudlin is a fascinating word—it means excessively weepy or self-pitying—and is an alteration of Mary Magdalene—who is often portrayed in art as weeping—thus, maudlin—and who, by the way, probably would also have chosen not to date me—and another interesting connection is that Gutenberg's printing press helped to make Mary Magdalene famous, since Gutenberg mainly printed Bibles—Gutenberg Bibles!—though how he resisted the temptation to substitute his own name everywhere it said "God" is a mystery to me—he might have changed the world—and certainly would have spiked an upward trend in his dating life—Golly! I'm hungry!
As you have just observed, excessive use of the em dash can indeed be disruptive to the flow of a piece of writing.
Mister Essay Writer Guy
August 28, 2015
from The Girls, Alone: Six Days in Estonia (Kindle Single)
by Bonnie J. Rough
“Lyricism could only take a writer so far, and ‘the compass needle’ beneath her prose that ‘had flipped from art to truth’, pointed toward the next stage.” —THE
The Paragraph of the Week comes from the new Kindle Single, The Girls, Alone: Six Days in Estonia by Bonnie J. Rough. She is the author of the memoir Carrier: Untangling the Danger in My DNA (Counterpoint), winner of a 2011 Minnesota Book Award. Her writing has appeared in several anthologies, including Modern Love: 50 True and Extraordinary Tales of Desire, Deceit, and Devotion (Three Rivers Press), The Best Creative Nonfiction Vol. 1 (W.W. Norton), and The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2007 (Houghton Mifflin). Her essays have also appeared in many magazines, literary journals, and newspapers, including The New York Times, The Sun, Huffington Post, The Iowa Review, Ninth Letter, Identity Theory, and Brevity.
Bonnie J. Rough's writing is often marked by an honest probing of her life as a writer in ways that can be instructive to any author. In this paragraph—and in the rest of the book—she recognizes the need for writers to accept who they are at different stages of life and to grow into those changes rather than resist them. Her work has appeared in The Humble Essayist before and her other Paragraph of the Week about finding a cheerful subject for writing can be found in the Winter 2015 archive.
Paragraph of the Week
It had been almost five years since my first book had been published. I was writing a lot, especially about women and girls, but I couldn’t seem to finish anything. My problem seemed to be experience: When I’d had less, I risked more. Now that I had marriage and children and a greater sense of life’s struggles and a body molding to the shape of my history, I had things to say and secrets to keep. Everything I wrote came back to my naked reflection in the mirror, the growing bodies of my two daughters, my sentimental attachments to them, and my wild idealism about their futures. I knew none of this made for original narrative—it was just motherhood. And yet none of it bore intellectualizing without the warmth of sentiment either, in the brazenfaced ways of my pre-motherhood writing. Years earlier, I had emerged as a writer of “lyric” essays, a form in which the writer breaks down an aspect of human experience into prismatic nuggets, stripping them for scrutiny. At the time, it seemed high-minded. It gave my work the sound of authority. But now, in my hands, the form seemed cold and facile, clinical and distant. I no longer felt so authoritative. Perhaps it was simply that my freshly bleeding heart now made such exactitude too difficult. I still found the lyric essay, so near to poetry, more aesthetic than narrative prose. By the time I finished writing my memoir Carrier I was a mother, but in many ways I felt nascent again. Like a child, I gave myself fully to the stories around me. The compass needle beneath my prose had flipped from art to truth. Yet truth from life— especially my safe, mundane one—was harder to find and more perilous to claim. It felt safest to say nothing. I hadn’t yet considered giving up writing. But did that only make me a fool? I was looking for signs.
—Bonnie J. Rough
Bonnie Rough’s new Kindle Single called The Girls, Alone: Six Days in Estonia describes her search for the story of her great, great grandmother, Anna, who was killed during the Stalinist purges. In this paragraph, found in chapter one, she raises the seminal question of the book: Why write memoirs and essays about ordinary personal experiences from a life that is “safe” and “mundane,” especially when that experience is “just motherhood.” The murder of Anna, which wasn’t ordinary and required research and travel, seemed like a way around the issue. One of Bonnie's first stops in her trip to Estonia was to a public sauna where she learned the word for steam, leil, derived from an ancient word meaning “breath” and “spirit of the body.” That “brief, fragile spark of life,” is what she had tried to capture in youthful lyric essays, fragmented nonfiction “in which the writer breaks down an aspect of human experience into prismatic nuggets, stripping them for scrutiny.” But as a wife and mother, Bonnie is past evanescent truths of the moment removed from time, story, and historical context. She frets over her lost youth, a body transformed by childbirth, and a career that seems adrift, and ransacks her past for lessons in how to live. The trip itself is desultory and doesn’t help much. She never finds anyone who recognizes Anna in the photo she carries and learns little about her great, great grandmother’s story. But later, while writing about Anna, she remembers all the mothers in her family, and discovers a lesson about life that offers answers to her question about writing as well. “I could see my old mothers had cast a paradox,” she realizes. “Leil—the breath of life—was merely a beginning.” Lyricism could only take a writer so far, and “the compass needle” beneath her prose that “had flipped from art to truth” pointed toward the next stage. Like mothering, writing is a life’s “work,” an undertaking, done over time, “something to endeavor and to chart across the swells of the body, currents of mind, the push and pull of home.” Experience is not a problem. It is an answer.—THE
September 4, 2015
by Maggie Nelson
“It is the terrified, throbbing blue of her friend’s eyes that reveals the horror. They were the only part of the body that moved”—THE
Maggie Nelson is the author of four books of poetry and five books of nonfiction, including her most recent release, The Argonauts. The Paragraph of the Week is from Bluets, her reflective memoir about suffering published in 2009, and it reflects our theme this week of the value of writing about difficult subjects. Sometimes such writing seems hopeless. "I am writing this down in blue ink," Nelson writes "so as to remember that all words, not just some, are written in water," but in the end the writing seems to make a difference. In an interview for Salon with Chloe Caldwell, Nelson said this about the response to Bluets: “The fact that Bluets has been important to more people than I ever imagined is a source of only joy and solace to me. That book is a souvenir from a very dark time — a time that was not without its beauty, in a strobing, soul-touching kind of a way, but nonetheless, pretty fucking dark. That the book emerged from that place and found so many readers has never ceased to feel miraculous and gratifying to me.”
The Paragraph of the Week
22. Some things do change, however. A membrane can simply rip off your life, like a skin of congealed paint torn off the top of a can. I remember that day very clearly: I had received a phone call. A friend had been in an accident. Perhaps she would not live. She had very little face, and her spine was broken in two places. She had not yet moved; the doctor described her as "a pebble in water." I walked around Brooklyn and noticed that the faded periwinkle of the abandoned Mobil gas station on the corner was suddenly blooming. In the baby-shit yellow showers at my gym, where snow sometimes fluttered in through the cracked gated windows, I noticed that the yellow paint was peeling in spots, and a decent, industrial blue was trying to creep in. At the bottom of the swimming pool, I watched the white winter light spangle the cloudy blue and I knew together they made God. When I walked into my friend's hospital room, her eyes were a piercing, pale blue and the only part of her body that could move. I was scared. So was she. The blue was beating.—Maggie Nelson
In Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, a meditation on agony in 240 numbered paragraphs, blue is the color of unbearable loss, or, more precisely, the color we are given in consolation for our loss. Most of the book is about the loss of Nelson’s lover: “I would rather have had you by my side than all the blue in the world,” she writes. But it is the suffering of her friend, the victim of an accident which turned her into a quadraparalytic, that is the most compelling story of loss in the book. On the way to the hospital to visit her friend, our forlorn narrator is inundated by blue: blue periwinkle blooming beside a gas station, an industrial blue under the peeling walls of a gym, and the blue bottom of a swimming pool seen through a nimbus of clouds and sunlight on blue water. But it is the terrified, throbbing blue of her friend’s eyes that reveals the horror. They were the only part of the body that moved, and the "blue was beating." Most of Bluets is about the agony of such loss. Words of condolence don’t help. Grief seems endless and pointless, as her quoting Emerson makes clear: “I grieve that grief can teach me so little.” Writing about loss does little more than add “a blue rinse” to our sorrow, she notes, quoting John Ashbury. “I would rather have you...than any of these words,” Maggie Nelson explains addressing her lover. But over time, the blue objects in her window collection begin to fade, allowing her to become “a student not of longing but of light,” and her friend, who roundly asserts “that she continues to suffer,” admits that her “life can change, does change,” and witnessing her friend’s struggle to make “a livable life” helps Nelson love green again. –THE
September 11, 2015
in Blessing of the Animals
by Brenda Miller
“Miller’s essays offer glimpses of the author at ‘her most intimate,’ with ‘all of her imperfections not exactly exposed—that’s not the word for it—but rather just there…’”—THE
Brenda Miller is the author of three collections of creative nonfiction including Listening Against the Stone: Selected Essays from Skinner House Books (2011) and has received six Pushcart Prizes for her work. She co-authored Tell it Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction, and The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World. She is the editor-in-chief of the Bellingham Review and teaches creative nonfiction at Western Washington University in Bellingham. The Paragraph of the Week comes from her second collection, Blessing of the Animals.
The Paragraph of the Week
But I know as I stood at that window—Rita bending to vigorously towel-dry her hair—most likely my brain just stammered naked! naked! naked! like the three-year-old it is. I'd like to think I was trying to decide what to do—how to be a Good Samaritan rather than just a petty voyeur. Should I go inside, figure out her room number, knock lightly and say, Excuse me, ma'am? I don't mean to interrupt, but I thought you should know we can all see you... She would already have donned her bathrobe to open the door, and so perhaps I wouldn't have to say anything at all, just knock and run away, then go back to the sidewalk to see if my ruse had rescued her.—Brenda Miller
The loveliest paragraph in the essay “Naked” by Brenda Miller is probably the next one, the last in this short piece, in which she decides that she will in fact do nothing to warn the clearly visible naked woman in the hotel room across from hers. Instead, she will instruct herself to remove all prurience from the scene by aestheticizing it, “the way one might look at a Renoir: a girl climbing out of a tin bathtub, say.” She even composes a few names for the painting in her head: “Still Life with Towel and Mascara” or “Rita Named after a Bath.” All through the essay Miller has felt the urge to aestheticize the naked body she saw, one that, perhaps like her own when she was younger, might have been “gazed at with only an artist’s eye.” But it is the Lucille Ball moment in the Paragraph of the Week that wins me over, and reveals the true artistry of Miller’s work. Watching the woman she has named ‘Rita’, Miller admits her own befuddlement as “her brain just stammered naked! naked! naked! like the three-year-old it is.” Caught between being a “Good Samaritan” and a “petty voyeur,” she realizes that one possible solution would be to knock on the woman’s door. She could even knock and run, knowing that the woman would throw on her robe at least. This fumbling, self-deprecating admission of being far from perfect, which is the hallmark of the personal essay, takes us to the beating heart of Brenda Miller’s style in the collection, Blessing of the Animals. In these essays, she is “not trying to be beautiful, but wholly ordinary.” Like the image of the woman in the window, Miller’s essays offer glimpses of the author at “her most intimate,” with “all of her imperfections not exactly exposed—that’s not the word for it—but rather just there,” as an indispensible part of a convincing aesthetic whole.—THE
September 18, 2015
from “The Boys of My Youth”
in The Boys of My Youth
by Jo Ann Beard
“On the night that JoAnn Beard figured out that her husband was having an affair, she lit her first cigarette in four years and ‘launched’ a smoke ring in his direction.”—THE
The most famous essay in The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard is probably “The Fourth State of Matter,” a stunning piece about the 1991 University of Iowa school shootings first published in The New Yorker and later selected for The Best American Essays series. But it is the collection’s title essay about the disintegration of her marriage that drives home a truth about Beard characterized by Janet Steen in her review of the book for Time Out New York: “Beard pulls off a neat trick: She shows tragedy for what it is in life—plain old moment-to-moment misery.” This vision of life as an accumulation of inevitable losses is the essay's, as well as the book's, achievement. Sarah Wells has written a new piece on The Boys of My Youth called “The Memoir Inside the Essay Collection” for Assay magazine, which argues that the entire collection of separate pieces has the hidden structure of a coherent memoir offering fascinating insights into the way an essay collection can be “a superb memoir in essays.” You can find it here. But Wells is the first to admit that even though this collection may be greater than the sum of its parts, the essay featured here still “sparkles and crackles” on its own.—THE
Paragraph of the Week
I put one arm out my window, to feel the night air and create some drag. He presses harder on the gas. The sky is distinguishable from the ground only because it is blue-black, and the land is black-black. There are stars. This is what they mean by barreling down the road. Not only could this be certain death, but we may take somebody else out, too which is troubling. He isn't thinking of any of that, in fact he's got his eyes closed, or else just the one I can see—he's trying to freak me out. That settles it. I put my foot on top of his and press it to the floor. I close my own eyes and imagine myself leaning into it, certain death. Darkness and his girlfriend, Darkness, are out for a ride through the countryside in the summer night. We hit the dip and are airborne for a breathless millisecond, then there’s that long, terrible dope-inspired instant that stretches out forever, where you don't know if there'll be a train on the tracks or not, whether you'll get to continue living.—JoAnn Beard
“This time we do,” the author writes in the next paragraph—she and her boyfriend, “Darkness,” survive this wild and dangerous ride. Her marriage to someone else years later did not, and the point of “The Boys of My Youth” is that the events are connected. On the night that Jo Ann Beard figured out that her husband was having an affair, she lit her first cigarette in four years and “launched” a smoke ring in his direction. His face “twitched, like a horse’s hide” and “turned into clay.” After he left, the house settled over her shoulders “like a stucco cape.” Later, during her nervous breakdown, Elizabeth, her best friend since childhood, says, “I think you’re this upset because you want to leave him,” a conclusion that makes sense to JoAnne in a “grain-of-truth-to-it way.” The marriage had become loveless. In the world of Beard’s essay, men and women are dangerous for each other, a lesson reinforced by her various relationships with the boys in the essay. Whether it’s Dave Anderson, the middle school sweetheart that she and Elizabeth tormented with phone calls, the boys at the high-school party who whipped up “concoctions of lemonade and Everclear,” or her boyfriend Darkness who lifts her “airborne for a breathless millisecond” before careening toward the train tracks, the boys of her youth were “dangerous,” the word her friend Elizabeth offers when asked. Her relationships with them did not prepare JoAnn for love. Instead, she and her boys entertained each other for a time with silliness, sex, drugs and alcohol as they hurled themselves toward the inevitable crackup.—THE