Monday, January 12, 2009

The Highway Of Ideas

(Note: Now that I'm finally settled in my new apartment, posts and comments on other blogs/sites will be resuming on a regular basis. It has been a hectic few weeks, and I have quite a bit of catching up to do.)

In the interest of getting my first post of the new year completed, I recently checked out The Best American Essays 2008, hoping to find an essay or two to analyze, therefore getting back into a more disciplined posting schedule. There was an ulterior motive at hand as well. For the most part, I classify my posts as "essays," save for the occasional review, link, or announcement. So, what better way to get back on the essay train than by reading a collection of them? Granted, this can seem pretty obvious, perhaps even pointless, to a degree, at least in the sense of being a sort of revelation. There really is no revelation in that statement. It's no different than a painter becoming inspired by an afternoon walk in a gallery, or a woodworker getting ideas from a craft book. While inspiration can seem sweeter when found in unexpected places, sometimes, you have to take what you can get. Luckily, I didn't have very far to go. Adam Gopnik's introduction to the collection was affirming, as well as right, at least in my opinion and situation.

"The ideal essay has facts and feelings, emotions and thoughts, an argument about and an anecdote from, parallel and then crisscrossing, all over it. It is a classical form for short-winded romantics, a way of turning a newborn feeling back into a series of pregnant sentences (Gopnik xv)."

How true this is. My consistency with essays (and this blog, for that matter) sprung from a need to refocus on both kinds of writing, both fictional and non-fictional. Since I was in a fiction-writing dry spell at the time, I felt that essays would jump-start my creative practices, and so far, they have helped immensely. While I do my best to keep memoir essays and anecdotes to a minimum, Gopnik stresses that personal events and emotions are vital to the craft. Journalism (Gonzo aside) requires neutrality, while essay-writing can be more relaxed. As much as I have a tendency to apologize for my own notions of memoir/anecdote additions, I have to realize that their inclusions are not always forbidden. I think this goes back to when I interviewed Chuck Palahniuk while in college. I remember him shaking his head as he commented that "even teenagers are writing memoirs now." As long as my essays stay focused on the main subjects, a dash of personal reflections or asides, appropriately placed, are acceptable.

Gopnik cites three types of essays: review, memoir (already discussed above), and odd-objects. The latter is "perhaps, the, well, oddest of the essay forms, but one that thrives in strange places. This is the kind that takes a small, specific object, a bit of material minutia...and finds in it a path not just to a larger point but also to an entirely different subject (xvii)." Again, these classifications brought me some much-needed solace, since I think that a bulk of my non-fiction is a hybrid of review and odd-object. When I discuss older works, I hesitate to call them "reviews," since the statute of limitations (or, more simply, the "newness") has long passed. For example, writing on Casablanca falls into the essay category. Since the film came out in 1942, and hundreds have already written and discussed it, calling a new look on it a "review" would be greatly outdated. The notion of "odd-object" is one that I feel I've used pretty regularly. While I haven't written about any piece of art strictly as its own metaphor, I enjoy making somewhat odd connections between vastly different works. This may not fit the definition completely, but it's the best of the three categories which Gopnik lists.

With respect to editing and (most importantly) feedback, I'm going to be doing away with an annoying habit that I've developed. Usually, when I post an essay that I'm not particularly proud of, barely a day passes when I add my own comment, either apologizing for or rationalizing the poor effort. While I'm not absolving myself of sometimes subpar writing, I fully believe that "when the essayist goes wrong, it's with too long a trip down the highway of ideas (xxii)." I can think of a few instances in which I either tried to fit too much information into a single, short piece, or I didn't fully express the main theme of the article at hand. From now on, instead of immediately apologizing, I'll let readers take the good with the bad, and to comment favorably as well as negatively if needed. As I mentioned above, more readings and writings are forthcoming. In my haste to get caught up, reading a few pages like Gopnik's introduction has proven very helpful, not to mention affirming. As I'm sure I've mentioned numerous times here, my focus needs to be on quality.

Work Cited:
Gopnik, Adam. The Best American Essays 2008. Introduction copyright 2008 by Adam Gopnik.

1 comment:

Joshua said...

I have the same inclination to add a disclaimer to my lesser writings, but I think it's better for the essays' consistency to just to let it go. That way you try to keep the standards higher. Even though it totally doesn't work all the time.