Ana Maria Spagna lives and writes in Stehekin, Washington, a remote community in the North Cascades. She is the author of Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus: A Daughter’s Civil Rights Journey, winner of the River Teeth literary nonfiction prize, and two collections of essays, Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness and Now Go Home: Wilderness, Belonging, and the Crosscut Saw. Her work appears regularly in journals and magazines including Orion, Portland, Creative Nonfiction, and High Country News. After working for fifteen years on trail crews in national parks and forests, she now teaches creative nonfiction and serves as assistant director in the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program. Next year, she expects to release two new books: 100 Skills for the End of the World as We Know It from Storey Publishing and Reclaimers from University of Washington Press.
Instead of writing about teaching a single essay, I want to tackle a collection: Ryan Van Meter’s coming-of-age collection, If You Knew Then What I Know Now (Sarabande 2011). Last year I taught a directed reading course at the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program entirely on first essay collections—we read a dozen of them—and his was, hands-down, the favorite, maybe because it’s my favorite and teacher’s bias is always hard to hide, but also for its plain elegance. The prose is deceptively simple … and nearly all the essays are in present tense.
I know. I know. Don’t groan. Anyone who’s taught the personal essay knows the draw of writing in present tense—the seductive immediacy, the memory-summoned sensuality—and the pitfall, too: it’s damned hard to reflect in present tense.
Oh you can use future tense, the old “someday I will realize” move, but Van Meter rarely leans on that crutch. When he does, as in the culmination of “Discovery” where his grandmother discovers him as a young boy wearing a dress, he slips into past tense first to remind us of the “now” consciousness that’s been behind the scenes in the essay all along.
“We looked at each other,” he writes in past tense, “a woman in her dress, a boy in his, one of us on each end of a table perfectly set for four.” In the next sentence he moves back into present, then future, to reflect in earnest: “Here is a secret we both helped make, and in this moment we feel it dropping fully formed down into each of our bodies, whole and heavy, where it will sit forever.”
Then there’s the overt use of “now” to signal a switch from the narrative present to the reflection present. Van Meter rarely uses this technique either, but when he does, again, he pairs it with that sly past tense slippage as near the end of “Lake Effect,” an essay about a fishing trip with a group of men and boys where Ryan cannot quite fit in.
“But I understand now that the men weren’t just looking at me; they knew what kind of boy acted the way I did. What they wanted to find out was what kind of man my dad was.”
Most often, Van Meter manages to reflect without switching verb tense at all, as near the end of my favorite essay “Practice” about the summer he spent trying, and failing, to play Little League for his dad. (Most often his reflections fall in the penultimate grafs, second or third from the end, in this case a classic move that he returns to often.)
“This summer we’ve been trying to be certain kinds of men we probably weren’t ever meant to be. And sitting together on the field, we both know I’m the only quitter here because he’s trying much harder to be my dad than I’ve tried to be his son.”
The sentence-level craft is worth dissecting, and I urge (implore? demand? force?) my students to do so. But reread those selections. Isn’t there something more going on? Each of them radiates empathy for other characters: the grandmother who is empathetic toward him, his father’s friends who aren’t, his father who is trying. Once I take off my dissection glasses, this is what I admire most about this collection: the essays move inexorably toward empathy then land just this side of sentimentality.
That, I’ve finally realized, is also the secret to his craft.
As much as present tense creates immediacy, it can also create an unintentional solipsism. The focus is too close to let anyone else in. When Ryan Van Meter stretches his sensitivity beyond himself, over and over, we naturally give him permission to stretch the traditional boundaries of tense. It’s as though there’s an omniscient narrator behind the proverbial curtain, one as capable of understanding himself at various stages of development as of understanding others.
The title essay, written in second person (another potentially clunky device) follows Ryan to a high school reunion where he experiences another empathetic epiphany.
“But you see that Jared carries that day just like you do; he carries a shame not much different from yours.”
It’s as impossibly moving as it is, by now, familiar.
The take-away for us writers and as teachers-of-writers is that the same qualities that make us half-decent human beings—empathy, insight, willingness to forgive—are the ones that can make us half-decent essayists, or in Ryan Van Meter’s case, exceptional ones.
“My Favorite Essay To Teach” is on hiatus until the Spring semester begins in January!