When story is not the main concern, what keeps us reading? How can voice, structure, or research provide a pressurizing frame—and a pleasing shape—for nonfiction material? We will explore these questions through readings that rely on elements other than narrative for forward momentum, in the tradition of the idea-driven essays of Montaigne, Shonagon, and others. Essayists who have published nonfiction that depends on something other than narrative will read from and discuss their work.
One engine of a non-narrative essay can be the element of surprise stemming from the use of narrative, said Joni Tevis, who moderated this panel. An essay can work musically, like Annie Dillard’s “Total Eclipse,” for example. In addition to surprise, shape can also move an essay along. The shape of an essay can give the piece the frame needed to pressurize the material.
So, surprise, shape, and self, are three engines that can power the non-narrative essay. By ‘self,’ Tevis said, she means that the movement in the piece occurs within the changes that take place in the narrator as the piece progresses.
Take Didion’s The White Album, for instance. Why does it succeed? One of the reasons the essay works is because Didion’s sentences are so muscular and her observations so particular. Didion draws near to the reader and then she pulls away. In this manner, the essay is like a waltz.
There’s no easy answer to what keeps the reader moving through an essay that is non-narrative, so these writers decided to read from a number of their pieces to show the form in all its dynamic flavors:
First up, was Brenda Miller, reading from her essay “We Regret to Inform You,” which was written in the form of various rejection notes. Miller dubbed this form “the hermit crab essay,” which is one that appropriates another form to live. She said she heard at AWP that someone also dubbed it “the body snatcher essay.” Each type of essay, she explained, “inhabits other bodies in order to move or live.”
Juliet Patterson said she had spent most of her life “outside of traditional narrative” as a poet, but that recently she has been writing a memoir in which the driving agent is lyricism. She said she thinks about lyricism as a “playfulness and manipulation in/with the word.” Her analogy is that lyricism is “like vertigo, which attempts to both embody and destroy allusion for the reader.” Her writing process, she said, is grounded in this lyricism. Surprise and shape she said also help define her work. She went on to further define the “lyric” as a pastiche of “bits of memoir, bits of poetics, and bits of research.” She said that her writing was driven by the “I,” which is, in fact, “the grounding of lyric poetry anyway.” Patterson began to read a short scene from her father’s death from suicide. Both her grandfathers had been suicides as well. In her memoir, she explained, she wanted to explore the parallels of environmental degradation, suicide, what was going on culturally at the time, and how all these things merge.
Tevis read an essay exploring the history of textile mills in North Carolina. The story, she said, turned out not to be the point, but rather she wanted to “re-inhabit the culture of the place and show why the loss of this type of work matters.” Her excerpts embodied intricate and beautiful descriptions of the place and its people, which together, painted a much bigger picture that became the very engine of the narrative.
Kimberly Meyer read excerpt from “The Book of Wanderings: A Mother, Daughter Pilgrimmage.” The architecture of the book follows the actual journey she took with her oldest daughter to retrace a medieval pilgrimage of a friar. It’s a lively and detailed account that explores the resonances with what he was seeing with what they saw. There is a narrative structure, she said, but it is punctuated with meditative and lyric nodes that erupt throughout the book. These allow her to get to the “other journey,” which is the journey within, which included the birth of her daughter when she was unmarried. A birth, she said, that changed the course of her life. Her daughter was setting off on her own, she said, so we set off ourselves and these meditations are a way to grapple with that past, my daughter’s departure, and my other two daughters’ eventual departure.
Whether the engine of the non-narrative essay is surprise, or shape, or self, or lyricism, or meditation, these types of essays work because — like impressionist paintings — the combustion that powers them exists in its part and in its whole. That is especially apparent with these writers given the unique and prismatic angles through which each carefully examines her subject matter.
Megan Culhane Galbraith’s work can be seen in Literary Orphans, Revolution John, and Hotel Amerika, among other places. She lives and writes in a hay field in Upstate New York. Connect with her @megangalbraith or at megangalbraith.wordpress.com.