Assay@NFN15: “Performing the Essay”

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Can a song, a drawing, or the smell of soap be integral components of something we could call an essay?  Would that influence how we define the essay, or even the purpose of essay?  Five writers presented their attempts (their “essays”) at alternate presentation forms at the NonfictionNow! session entitled, “Performing the Essay: Combinations and Permutations.”

Lucinda Strahan described finding her voice for a long piece in her newly discovered (“never mind where”) anger.  She’s aiming for something to fit music critic Greil Marcus’ description of punk music: “the voice of teeth ground down to points.”  Lucinda earned the right to that description; she was a member of a rock band profiled in a fashion magazine in the early 2000s, where she was described as “angry and expressive.”  Never mind that her band was so superficial they had photos, stickers, a website — but no music.  Lucinda compensates by playing her own guitar songs — albeit without knowledge of chords or scales and without benefit of musical ability.  Her neighbors tell her how much they appreciate that, but she must do something with “this murderous rage.”  

Sophie Cunningham is driven by the inability to find words to describe her father’s slide into dementia.  For her the words are there, but her father loses words every day.  Can she capture this — a death so slow, so cruel that it escapes any narrative shape?  She tries to walk or run from her father’s decline.  Walking introduces new facts (“this neighborhood was once an island in the Hudson”), but maybe those facts don’t need to be organized and put in perspective.  Maybe walking itself is enough of an essay; maybe she’ll keep walking and stop writing.  And maybe that’s just bluster.  Either way, that’s the only way she can think: “on her feet.”

Papatya Bucak outlined her attempts to define “collage,” not in rhetorical terms, but in reference to visual art.  Collage is disturbing, deliberately out of place, “ugly” — but revealing.  And if we produce Frankenstein’s monsters with our words, the ugliness by today’s standards may become a future norm.  Visual collage is layering — covering one complete image with parts of other images.  Not one thing next to another, but many things on top of one another.  Can this be done with the written word?  Bucak is uncertain, but thinks the concept worth pursuing, because “collage can be confusing and hard to figure out…just like the truth.”

Francesca Rendle-Short, who facilitated the discussion, also presented her take on performance essay, again drawing (literally) on a reference from the visual arts.  She read seven sketches of her father — snapshots from various stages of his life and hers.  Accompanying these verbal sketches, Rendle-Short’s hand drives a pen, scrawling outlines of a craggy face, with wrinkles shading deep eyes above an unyielding mouth.  The physical portrait is reproduced with slight variations during each verbal sketch — the same subject differently rendered, exactly as her words render different aspects of the relationship between herself and her aging father.

Peta Murray brought out an “Essayesque Dismemoir” valise from which she extracted bits and pieces of her life.  Leveraging her background as a playwright, Murray’s gloved hands reverently removed a bunch of plastic flowers and a bar of pear soap — those elements that trigger memories of her Aunt Connie who died of old age, “with all her marbles, but problems in her legs, like me.”  A “student of the year” scarf brings stories of the things she wrote as a child (a play in the style of Beckett, some bad poetry) and the things she did not write (the school compositions her mother would complete).  In ten half-improvised minutes Murray introduced her fears, her favorite words, her record of caring for her mother as she faded from life, and the Essayesque Dismemoir itself — an art form that “has already forgotten what it sets out to be.”  

In the final panel discussion Strahan maintained that the written page is an unnecessary constraint whose form limits the essayist.  The alternatives appear to be more ephemeral, moving away from mass-distributed records towards the realm of performance art.  Perhaps Murray spoke for them all when asked if she lamented that a “perfect” performance would not reach further than the audience in a single room.  “I don’t need to ‘bottle up’ the perfect performance,” she said, “I’m past that.”


Richard Gaughan (@rgaughan_writer) is a science writer whose intermittent posts can be found at, and who will soon be launching a general-interest science site at

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