Note: This post from May 2015 referred to the writing of an essay “Euclid’s Orchard” — it came the title essay for Euclid’s Orchard, published in 2017. But here I am in May 2019 working on another collection of essays, pondering the same either/ors. And agreeing with Rebecca Solnit in so many ways, particularly this: “Sometimes I say I’m an essayist, because that’s an elegant, historically grounded—if sometimes trivialized—mode of literature, while nonfiction is just a term for the leftovers when fiction is considered to be paramount, and creative nonfiction is even more abject a term.”
A year or so ago I began to write something, an essay (I thought), and there were so many things I wanted to include as the pages unfolded before me the way they do, so beguiling in their emptiness, their hopefulness. And after writing about ten pages, I had to put the piece aside. There was so much I knew I wanted to write about but I had trouble finding the language, the open heart (for there was pain in the writing, and damage, and I hoped reconciliation). There was another part to the work which involved a quilt and that too progressed to a certain point and then faltered, stopped. My pleasure in it went quiet.
But while we were in Europe, I found myself thinking about the work again, not in a new way exactly, but with a new enthusiasm for how I might explore its ideas, its large and mysterious terrain. Part of the problem I’d had was in the fatal habit of comparing what I had done in the past with the work of others. My writing never quite fits the current conversation. I’ve watched and listened as other writers discuss the boundaries and requirements and expectations of something that is being termed “creative non-fiction”. It’s not a term I like. Describing something as what it’s not — not fiction — doesn’t interest me. I don’t find it useful. What if you need to use fiction in a piece of writing which is mostly reportage, mostly investigation? Is it less true? I agree that there are pretty clear requirements about accuracy and verifiable information for journalism but do we need to apply those requirements to other kinds of writing that is (mostly) non-fiction? And creative? Please. As though that is something we can claim for one form and not others? (I’m reminded of those courses in the community education flyers that arrive twice a year: Creative Cake Decorating, Creative Home Decorating.) Anyway, I’m 60 and I’m kind of cranky about a lot of things these days. Politics, our inability as a culture to really deal with the huge gap between the rich and the poor, and how so many are willing to give up citizenship to become consumers.
Anyway, I’ve been working hard on this whatever-it-is. An essay which might just become a book. And I’ve comforted by my recent reading, particularly Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby. What a glorious book. I rationed it over the past week because I didn’t want it to end. Because there’s a health crisis in the book, I wanted to be reassured that she became healthy again. (She does.) But where the health issue leads her is so rich and light-filled — and water-filled, too, because she goes to Iceland for a residency at the Library of Water — that the reader realizes the book is a quest in the tradition of the best ones. There is sorrow and loss but also a transcendent trip on a raft down through the Grand Canyon. “The river changed but never ceased, and this temporary life where I was always near that unbroken continuity was an experience of a particular kind of coherence.” And this: “Essayists too face the temptation of a neat ending, that point when you bring the boat to shore and tie it to the dock and give up the wide sea. The thread is cut and becomes the ribbon with which everything is tied up, a sealed parcel, the end….What if we only wanted openings, the immortality of the unfinished, the uncut thread, the incomplete, the open door, and the open sea?” Yes, yes, what if? What if we wrote a book the way we wanted to, what if we never worried about its coherence, the narrative arc, the hobgoblin fact checker hovering over our shoulder as we worked? It’s worth a try. It’s worth more than that. It’s worth our best effort.
I read an interview with Rebecca Solnit in the Believer Magazine and she is both canny and congenial in how she describes her writing process. “I have a very clear sense of what I am here to do and what its internal coherence is, but it doesn’t fit into the way that ideas and continuities are chopped up into fields or labelled. Sometimes I say I’m an essayist, because that’s an elegant, historically grounded—if sometimes trivialized—mode of literature, while nonfiction is just a term for the leftovers when fiction is considered to be paramount, and creative nonfiction is even more abject a term.
I wake up every morning eager to get to work. This is such a joy to me — the prospect of the page, the scraps of paper on my desk where I’ve noted a line, an image (some of them photographs because there’s a particular plant I’m keeping an eye on), a possible equation (because there’s something resembling mathematics in this work), the elements whirling in my heart, my pulse, even my imagination (for some of this is fabricated).