Amy Wright is the Nonfiction Editor of Zone 3 Press and Zone 3 journal and the author of five chapbooks. The recipient of a Peter Taylor Fellowship to the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, an Individual Artist’s fellowship from the Tennessee Arts Commission, and a VCCA fellowship, her work can be found in Brevity, DIAGRAM, Quarterly West, Southern Poetry Anthology (Volumes III and VI), Tupelo Quarterly, CALYX and Kenyon Review.
“Consider the progression of the ages,” SueEllen Campbell asks of readers in the first sentence of her essay Grubby. Not a softball request for a first line, but she woos us toward that effort with descriptions of tidal rise and ebb, volcanic ejections of new earth, ancient lake beds full of sand and dust. But the reason I love to teach her essay is the metaphor she opens in the third paragraph: “Perhaps you begin with a layer of sunblock.”
“Why doesn’t Campbell begin her consideration here?” I ask my Advanced Composition essayists, whose introductory paragraphs at times incline toward the abstract.
“She’s moving from the universal to the personal,” some will say, or “she’s making this story about more than just a camping trip.” We discuss how this introduction lays the groundwork for the association to come. Some don’t pick up on the parallel between the advancing and receding landscape and a human’s nook-and-crannied body before our collaborative reading, but everyone understands sweating into your shirt, sucking insect repellent from the wind, dropping jelly onto your pants.
That dollop — I always picture grape, though she doesn’t specify —gets me every semester. I can see its glob lolling from a sandwich edge, falling, only to be wiped with a now-sticky palm. I call attention to word choice here, “dribble,” and ask writers to call some other verbs out, which I write on the board: spew, erode, settle, sweat, brush, drift, disappear, tingles, swarm, stripes, slip.
This essay both supports and complicates my point that “Reading is a physical activity; we want to experience a text with our senses,” because we also want to reflect on it. We want to turn that grape coagulum to agate in our minds. Had she begun her essay with the sunblock before layering it with dust, sap, and smoke gathered during a long stretch outdoors, we would grasp the surface meaning of “Grubby,” as grimy, perhaps even rank, but we would miss the other quality she evolves through comparison — of being grub-like and of a place so close you’re wearing it, meaning time.
As such, the essay is a choice example for teaching metaphor as an organizing device, a tool for widening the lens of the self, but what makes it stand out year after year is the writing it inspires. I had no idea how grubby all these writers had gotten before this prompt. They’ve gigged frogs, worked doubles at aus-jus-spilling steakhouses, won campus Mudbowl events, helped goats give birth, blown glass. The exercise encourages vivid descriptions, as writers recollect being crusty or drenched, saucy and tough. It’s such a promising exercise I offered it to Dinty W. Moore’s nonfiction group when I was his fellow at the Kenyon Review Writer’s Workshop, and he too joined in, writing an essay entitled “Buried Alive” that was listed as a notable essay in the Best American Essays series in 2013.
In his essay, Moore uses “the glorious weight of the sweet-scented earth” in his backyard garden to contemplate death. Up to his elbows in weeds, he’s getting to know the worms and inevitable material breakdown they suggest. Compost, he shows, is as natural a memento mori as the skull. A man among his vegetable beds morphs into “A hairless bear who just happens to wear thick eyeglasses and muck-covered t-shirts.” Increasing his access to the world through his animal, creaturely nature, he offers readers his sense of immediacy and greater appreciation for the whole of life. Hands-on an iced tea glass, ingesting the fragrant air of decomposition and growth, he works “with the tools given [him] at birth.” I can’t imagine a better example to surprise beginning writers that they already have what it takes, if they’re willing to sow and dig, bearing their fruits up.
Please join us at AWP! We’re looking for guest bloggers to report on nonfiction-related panels–click here for the Thursday call and here for the Friday call. The Saturday call will go out later this week.