I recently taught a graduate seminar on the topic and, at the end of the course, to the question “What can we say of the essay with absolute certainty?,” all of us, armed with our panoply of canonical essay theories and our own conjectures, had to admit that the answer is: “Almost nothing.” But this is the force of the essay: it impels you to face the undecidable. It asks you to get comfortable with ambivalence.
When I say “essay,” I mean short nonfiction prose with a meditative subject at its center and a tendency away from certitude.
"Memoir is not what happened (if we’re lucky, that’s the best journalism). It is what has happened over time, in the mind, in the life as it attends to these tantalizing, dismaying, broken bits of life history. Such personal writing is, as the essay is, ‘an attempt.’ It is a try at the truth. The truth of a self in the world.
"The spring of 1975 I heard for the first time about the Czech philosopher and exile of the seventeenth century (so many Czech centuries, each with its philosopher exile), Jan Komensky, Comenius as he is known in the West. His book, a great autobiographical testimony and philosophical treatise, Labyrinth of the World and Paradise of the Heart, bears in its doubleness the real enterprise of writing a life: not psychology, not even spirituality, and certainly not the American enterprise of ‘finding a self.’ Memoir is trustworthy and its truth assured when it seeks the relation of self to time, the piecing of the shards of personal experience into the starscape of history’s night. The materials of memoir are humble, fugitive, a cottage knitting industry seeking narrative truth across the crevasse of time as autobiography folds itself into the vast, fluid essay that is history. A single voice singing its aria in a corner of the crowded world.”
From “An International Incident,” in The Waterstone Review.
There may be a monkey loose in Kroger.
If you need to let bread dough rise for 90 minutes before you preheat the oven, and your kitchen timer goes for only 60 minutes, and you will be writing and don’t want to have to get up after and hour and reset it, and you might be distracted by its ticking anyway, and you have a programmable coffeemaker, and you think you might welcome some fresh-brewed decaf in the afternoon, and you like the idea of the coffeemaker’s revving up as your signal that “you have a minute or two to bring this sentence or paragraph to a close” and its last satisfied sighs and wafting aroma as your cue and lure to get up and go to the kitchen, you can use your coffeemaker as a timer.
It rained today, then the sun came out.
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I always wonder what the story is when there’s one shoe (or sheepskin slipper) in the road.