AWP2018: Making Room for Essayistic Thinking during Hard Times

Panel Participants: Amy Monticello, Heather Kirn Lanier, Kristin Kovacic and Randon Billings Noble (M)

Screen Shot 2018-03-12 at 7.25.10 AMDescription: With the rise of “alternative facts” and an increasing disregard for both science and literature, thoughtful and nuanced essays are more important than ever. But longer, deeper work takes more time than a quick response piece. How can essayists make room for nuanced thinking, for thorough explorations of hard truths, for humor, for slowness, for contemplation? This panel of diverse essayists offers practical suggestions and discusses theoretical concerns. Come, think, and—hopefully—be eased.

Amy Monticello begins her talk with an anecdote. The plane ride, when, for many panelists, the presentation actually begins and the focus on audience starts to feel real. She tells us that she was rereading The Wrong Way to Save Your Life by Megan Stielstra, and, of course, in this reading it resonated a new way. In the anecdote, the reader comes upon a moment when Stielstra is dissecting an animal heart. Her young child walks in and asks what she is doing, and she explains “I’m writing an essay.” Inside that moment, for her and for Monticello, essaying is studying fear through anatomy. And isn’t that the point, that when we write the essay, we understand most central pieces of life in their beauty and function.

Monticello says what I hope we all slow down to think about sometimes—or maybe we can’t stop ourselves from doing so—that the act of the essay is happening in our everyday lives, all the time, and most deeply when we are not staring at a screen or page. And for her, the new tenure-track job she had started in her daughter’s first year, the sleep she was unable to get walking the floors with her daughter from 1-4 AM nightly and the difficulty all writers face when trying to come back to writing after finding a shift in our selfhood. Knowing how measurable the publishing game is for the new job she had taken, her body was living in a state of fear.

And then Trump happened. And it all got worse.

Monticello talks about her gig for writing “hot takes” in which she could, essentially, complain about what it means to be a mother in this insane moment. And how writing those short, quick responses to the tenuous world in which she lived was “survivalist writing.” It helped her begin to look for an in to the more complicated writing that, as a writer, made her feel connected to the world and to herself. She says because she “raged” in hot takes, she ignited a path for something deeper. She was able to open to a process which allowed her to take the time she needed to write quality essays “The problem with quality essays is that they are almost always a gamble,” she says. “But I know the relationship between risk and reward.” And that the risk in encouraging yourself to slow down in the moments that count; the reward is where real growth and understanding occurs.

Heather Kirn Lanier introduces her audience to MASS MoCA, an arts organization to which she finds herself addicted. And specifically, she describes to us an exhibit she has experienced by installation artist James Turrell. In this exhibit, the audience walks into a room that is completely dark. The audience is told to let eyes adjust to the darkness for fifteen minutes as a way of finding a new way to see, that is, in the dark. People stumble into the absent light reaching for the guardrail or for each other, and as Lanier describes this, she acknowledges that the people listening to her presentation might be able make the connection between this art and her own metaphor for essaying. While she is right, we are no less reactive when she tells us of two girls, one of whom reaches into her pockets for her smartphone. Because we know where this going, we gasp. The young girls (and likely the people around them) will need another 15-20 minutes to begin their journey back into darkness. The ways we as listeners and writers are resistance to take the time to adjust to our own thoughts is second to the story. But isn’t that the point?

Seeing in new ways (especially seeing ourselves) is confronting, she reminds us. Disorientation is not an easy thing to sit with. It is much easier to try and attempt an answer to a question that has already asked than answering the question that is true for you. When we stop writing the thoughts we are receiving and have received from the sources around us, when we ask the questions we tend to answer in contradiction, when we stumble upon contradictions and embrace them, that’s where the best moments for essaying are. She reminds us that our media validates quick, flitty ideas. And in that way, essay thinking is countercultural. It gives us strength to question the paradigm of our current time and the ways we are being conditioned to think.
And she gives us concepts to work with from herself and from others. She hopes that can help us step more readily into that wonder. Here are some of the ways she promotes that way of thinking:

  1. Keep seeking the questions that make you uncomfortable
  2. If you make an outline, know there’s still much uncertainty left in fleshing out the idea
  3. Cut yourself off from squeaky media; put boundaries around them. (E.g., one day a week without internet, no social media before 3 pm, no email until after morning writing.)
  4.  Find an old ancestral object and hold it. Feel it. Be with it.
  5. Watch a sunset for longer than it holds your interest
  6. Trust things that take a long time to make. Like trees. Like books.

Kristin Kovacic was the biggest surprise. After hearing these two stellar and meaningful talks, she came to the microphone and admitted to the audience she had merely to echo what the previous authors had presented to us and that her talk might sound much the same. But, oh, it did not. Kovacic began by telling us about the new job she had acquired at a private school and the smart young students she was able to work with there. And that how in that time of starting new work, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. I wondered if she felt her writing similar to Monticello in this way, but to me, who recently left the toddler years with my son and also recently lost my grandmother to cancer, the differences seemed quite striking. Not even opposite sides of the same coin.

She found herself fighting to do well in a new position at a time she was fighting for health and vitality and, well, life. Working against the enemy that was inside her, the constant fear, and the cancer treatments that attacked her body in another way. She talked about the difficulties of working through the year teaching, the 6 inch pile of grading that accompanies most writing teachers around. The writing on the board which compromised her scars, filling her wounds with fluid that needed their own treatments to drain. She is raw about how no one told her to be careful of this; no one told her this would happen. And her fierceness in this loneness is what I connected to most as a writer of essays. To be stuck in our own vast realities with the responsibilities to survive, to know what there is no way we could have known.

She was trying to make it to the summer for the real writing life to begin. And then as the writing began, there was a thread about writing irony and how ironic some of the situations she was finding herself in were and how she was teaching irony to her classes. Her power was strong in her prose, and I’m sorry to say, I took few notes as I listened to her talk because the language, the weaving of tale and experience and poignancy of what she said was so moving, I forgot that notes was a thing to which I had committed.

But as she began to talk about the active shooter training that she and her students received, I began to write in my notebook simply as a way to step back from the power of her talk. She was becoming too vulnerable for me, she was hitting too close to home with my own teacher fears as she discussed the process of her colleague in a black cloak and (hockey?) mask walking the halls with a toy gun. He was playing the role of the shooter and giving students a context for where to go and what to do if this were more than a drill. If one of the “bullets” hits you, you’re out. After, there is a tally and session for reflection, for grief and (one hopes) relief. And while she and her students were playing the roles of victims, another school shooting was taking lives in real time. Here she says is “where irony disappears, when exactly what you’ve been practicing is what actually happens.”

She quotes Audre Lorde: “I am saving my life by using my life in the service of what must be done.”

She brings this back to her writing by sharing with us how she teaches Baldwin’s _Notes of a Native Son_, and asks her students to think and write about it. One of the lovely moments of breath in this part of the talk is when one student says “This isn’t, like, an essay essay.” And Kovacic agrees. She is taking them far away from what they know about the essay (likely of the five-paragraph garden variety) and inviting them deeper into their own experiences. She talks about her own experience last summer as she was making it past the first school year for herself and into that lovely time to write. And without giving us the details, she describes an essay she wrote, one that took time and told her hard truths about herself. A time in her younger years when she saw somethings she didn’t like about herself in the arena of racial language and equity. As her students read _Notes of a Native Son_, she invites them to write about race. She asks them to write a personal essay about race tying the work they do here to the generative mind. She says “writing about cancer is easier than writing about race, because when writing about cancer, you know who your enemy is.” As a nearing middle aged white woman, she may be alluding to the enemy as herself or the culture she has believed in. It’s a thing I struggle with, and maybe you do you. And I wonder, if I were real with myself, if I could write this essay. Would be brave to fight that unseen enemy within as she has been and is being? Would I be brave enough to share it with my community? These are questions I will be asking myself for some time.

Our moderator, Randon Billings Noble, finishes our time and prepares us for questions. She reminds us to read Becket and Wendell Berry and everyone.
She reminds us to go out and look at THINGS (not screens).
She reminds us that while we are out, we should write by hand. Essaying moves at handspeed.

And then she opens the room to question:

“How do you separate your privilege to pause with the need to act?”
Monticello answers: We have to signal we’re listening, but we have to think if we’re the right person to answer. When are you the listener?

“How do you keep your audience when the news cycle shifts?”
Panelists answer together and through conversation: 1) Know when it’s your time to work quickly, but practice self-care. 2) Short response pieces are valid too. 3) Some pieces are complicated enough that the news cycle will come back to them. Take your time if time is what you need to do the piece and the subject justice.

“Is there a place for humor in essayist voice at this time in our culture?”
Monticello: Yes. Humor is most needed when the joke can point to the center of the issue’s absurdity.
Lanier: Absolutely. Try a humorous voice. Try many voices.

And a final thought from the panel: Explore your thoughts for your thoughts’ sakes without publication in mind. There is great value to this.


Haley Lasché is a yoga teacher and writing professor. Her poems have appeared such places as Drawn to Marvel: Poems from the Comic Books, Hartskill Review and Dossier Journal. She has two poetry chapbooks _Where It Leads_ (Red Bird Chapbooks 2016) and _Blood and Survivor (Moria Press 2017).


Visit Assay’s Spring 2018 issue for more!

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