Writing an essay is an unwieldy venture that reflects the surprising, unpredictable, and chaotic composition of the human mind’s perspective and recollection on a personal feeling or experience that is not quite in focus. The essay, which is the author’s manifestation of working through these feelings and experiences, can reveal itself in a steady structure of intentional patterns and order, and ultimately, a “circling bent,” to communicate a central thematic idea that illuminates an aspect of what it means to be human. According to Bret Lott in his essay “Toward a Definition of Creative Nonfiction,” the essay’s circling bent is a way of “looking again and again at itself from all angles in order to see itself most fully”: The result is a literary triangulation, a finding of the subject in a three-dimensional grid through digression, full-frontal assault, guerilla tactics and humble servitude, all in an effort, simply, to see. The creative nonfiction form attempts in whatever way it can to grab hold hard and sure its subject in any manner possible (313). Lott goes on to quote Eudora Welty, who claims that she uses the “whole fund” of her feelings and responses to her life experiences and relationships to create her fiction. Lott applies this term to creative nonfiction to show how the application of our “whole fund” can help us achieve the essay’s “circling bent.” This idea is analogous to Philip Lopate’s in The Art of the Personal Essay, who adds the idea of discovering our own limits and the detachment necessary to write from this perspective:
Just as the personal essayist is able to make the small loom large, so he or she simultaneously contracts and expands the self. This is done first by finding the borders, limits, defects, and disabilities of the particular human package one owns, then by pointing them out, which implies at least a partial surmounting through detachment. (xxviii)
While Lott focuses on the essay’s “circling,” Lopate addresses the essayist’s motive “to circle” around the subject:
The essay form allows the writer to circle around one particular autobiographical piece, squeezing all possible meaning out of it, while leaving the greater part of his life story available for later milking. It may even be that the personal essayist is more temperamentally suited to this circling procedure, diving into the volcano of self and extracting a single hot coal to consider and shape, either because of laziness or because of an aesthetic impulse to control a smaller frame. (xxix)
Both Lopate’s description that an essayist examines a “single hot coal to consider and shape” and Lott’s description that an essay must “grab hold hard and sure its subject” affirm the essay’s suitability of zooming in on a single idea of the self or subject to continually return to throughout the essay. Meanwhile, the essay still requires a confinement, or structure, and a shape that allows the circling to be effective in driving the ideas home. Michele Morano’s essay “In the Subjunctive Mood” plays a central role in learning Spanish and understanding her life during her travel in Spain as she considers the possibilities of a relationship she has left behind.
The essay applies a systematic structure and framing as well as a sundry of literary moves to contain the whole fund or “human package” that is relevant to the subject and makes space for the circling bent. Morano offers many angles for the reader to see the essay from and understand the thematic core of how learning grammar in a new context, Spain, serves to shed light on the narrator’s state of mind as she has moved away from her suicidal boyfriend. Michele Morano uses three primary techniques to develop her central ideas: 1) memory and time lapse 2) repetitions, recurrences, and re-weaving, and 3) the subjunctive mood. “In the Subjunctive Mood” is a model essay for understanding how complexly an essay can be constructed, with a circling bent, to illuminate a central idea.
Michele Morano is an Associate Professor of creative writing and Chair of the Department of English at DePaul University. Her essay “In the Subjunctive Mood,” is from her collection Grammar Lessons: Translating a Life in Spain. In the following interview, Morano answers questions about how she developed her central ideas and focus in the piece. We learn that one can take six years to write an essay before it’s just “right”; that one may not be conscious of what she is writing, allowing intuition to do its work; that a number of incidents can lead one to his or her essay’s focus, including reading others’ essays and going out for pizza and beer; and that traveling alone can put things into “sharper focus.”
We also may conclude from this interview that writing an essay is as much about crafting meaning as it is about the reality of what happened. The circular bent is one concept that a writer can, and often, applies to her essay to emphasize ideas on the page, but in arriving to this, there are other “unseen” functions: intuition, reading, taking risks, traveling, creating structure, persistence (“Think harder.”), re-presenting reality, and dogged revision. Morano includes an anecdote describing one of her moments of becoming a writer, when making an expositional claim, about something “beyond” herself, in the conclusion of “In the Subjunctive Mood” gave her confidence: “The subjunctive is the mood of mystery. Of luck. Of faith interwoven with doubt.” It is a reminder that becoming a writer happens in stages. And while it may happen in unexpected moments, finding focus is no accident, but a pursuit.
RR. How much of “In the Subjunctive Mood” was written in “real time” and how much from a distance? What difference did this make in writing it?
MM. To answer this question, I’ll bracket the opening section, which is summative and written from a great distance. Once the grammar rule structure begins, the “real time” narrative, which is to say the amount of time covered from start to finish, excluding flashbacks and flash forwards, is less than three months. That surprises me, actually. I had to look back at the essay to figure it out, and I would have thought it spanned a lot longer. That’s because I wrote the essay years after its events, so I brought to it everything that happened after this short period, all the emotion and loss and, ultimately, a sense of sorrowful reconciliation, so time-wise the essay compresses about ten years’ worth of processing into that three-month period.
But that answer is really about structure, about how the narrative moves forward in its surface-level timespan. In terms of mindset as a writer, it’s all written from a distance.
Another way to answer this question is to think about which parts of the essay I could have written right after they happened (not much narrative distance needed) and which parts needed the slow burn of time to crystallize meaning. In that sense, the writing process was about articulating inchoate impressions. Everything I narrate – entering La Mezquita and the swimming and the trip to Tarifa and the airport scene at the end, which felt at the time (and in hours after, when I wandered Madrid alone) very full with meaning – I knew was significant at the time. I just didn’t know why.
How and when did you know what the essay was really about?
I knew before I started writing that the essay was about what it means to be in love with someone who’s potentially suicidal, and all the uncertainty and anguish around that. For more than a year before I moved to Spain, it seemed possible every day that the guy would take himself away from me – not leave me in the usual sense of breaking up but deprive me of his very existence. All I wanted, all I hoped for every day, was that he’d be alive. It was a very strange position emotionally, because there wasn’t an entity – like cancer or some other tangible disease – that threatened him. It was him. He had the power not just to withhold himself but to absent himself permanently, in the most irreversible way.
The idea for this essay came in part as a response to Nancy Mairs’s essay, “On Touching by Accident,” which opens with this line: “Those of us who would be suicides come at odd bits of knowledge about the failings of the human heart.” A few lines later Mairs writes, “The last time I tried to kill myself, a number of things happened to me…” When I first read that essay, I was struck – as I am again now – by the self-centeredness of the perspective, by the self-centeredness of depression, yes, but also of her mindset when writing about it. She recounts her most recent suicide attempt in a matter-of-fact way, noting the bloody, urine-soaked mess she’d made of herself, then offers this breezy comment: “George found me eighteen hours later and took me to the emergency room…” That’s the last mention of George (her husband, though I don’t think they were married at the time). Mairs continues on with the story, all about her, her, her, and I couldn’t stop thinking about what was it like for George to find her, to cart her off to the emergency room, to live with the knowledge of what she’d done – again. A retort kept playing in my mind: “Those of us who would be rescuers of suicides…”
When I had the actual idea for the essay, it was in a bar, where I was eating pizza and drinking beer with a friend who was complaining about the French class she was taking because we had to have two languages for the doctorate. I had recently read John D’Agata’s disjunctive essay, “Martha Graham, Audio Description Of” in The Georgia Review, which is an essay I find maddening because of how coy the narrator is about his personal experience, but it’s organized like an index, with alphabetical subheadings. I’d felt a twinge of envy when I read it because the form was so cool, and I’d been trying to think of some form I might play with (what Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola would call a “hermit crab essay” because it borrows the form of something else the way hermit crabs borrow cast-off shells). When my friend complained about the subjunctive mood in French and I started commiserating with her, everything came together in an instant – the anger at Nancy Mairs; the story of what it’s like to be the discoverer of a would-be suicide, the nurturer, the emotional caretaker; and the form of a grammar lesson. I remember thinking: for once, this is going to be an easy essay write. I’ll just go home, open my Spanish grammar book, type in the rules, and then write a little story to go with each one, and the stories will add up, and voilà! Which is what I did, and the draft was fairly quick to write, but then it took six years to revise and revise and revise until I felt I’d gotten it right.
Could you tell a bit (as much as you’d like) about the process of discovery and articulation of revelations within the essay?
It’s embarrassing to admit that I was on the third or fourth draft of the essay before I realized that I was using a grammatical mood to talk about being in love with someone with a mood disorder. I remember sitting in a computer lab at the University of Iowa, where I’d gone to check email – back in those dinosaur days before email lived in our pockets – and I got a message from a professor who said something like, “Your focus on moods in this piece just kills me.” She meant it as a compliment, but what struck me was the plural: moods. I was writing not just about the subjunctive mood but about emotional moods as well. It was a light-bulb moment that left me feeling pretty stupid, because I’d been operating intuitively and not thinking fully about what I was doing. But it was very exciting.
The other thing that was interesting about writing this piece was that I put in moments that had stayed with me for reasons I didn’t understand when I started writing. Like learning to swim laps. The university pool was crazy, because there were no lane dividers and it was always busy, and the swimmers, no matter what time of day you went, were about half serious lap swimmers and half people like me, floundering. It was kamikaze swimming. You couldn’t just put your head down and go, you had to be constantly watching for who was coming at you or veering in from the side. In retrospect, it was good training because now I can swim anywhere, no matter how crowded or choppy the water, but it was an intense experience at the time. When I first wrote that scene, I kept thinking, “Who cares?” Why is this important? And then I thought, well, you have to make it important. What’s the metaphor in this situation? That’s how I got to the idea that lap swimming is about moving and moving and not getting anywhere, which is how I felt emotionally in that relationship.
The essay is filled with moments like that, things I didn’t understand until I was writing. The final scene, for example. I knew it was important, the emotional peak of the story, and I knew I wanted to capture what I’d felt in that moment, that things could go either way for us and I was already grieving the possibility that we’d never come together again in the same way. It seemed equally possible that he would die before I saw him again or that one of us would decide to end the relationship or that we’d reunite as planned. I had the use of the subjunctive at the very end, which was OK, but the final lines weren’t landing with enough power. I was due to give the essay to a writing group the next day – importantly, it was a group of colleagues at DePaul, all of them scholars, not writers, so I felt an extra pressure to have the essay mean something big. I remember sitting at my desk at home and reading the last page over and over again and going, “You have to think harder about this.” Think harder. Think harder. And then I went back to the opening and looked for a clue as to how to end…which bleeds into the next question…
How conscientious of continually circling back and through your ideas were you while writing?
I went back to the opening and looked for a clue as to how to end, but it wasn’t there in the introductory section. It was in section 1. With Ojalá, in the part about the mosque. There was something in that sacred feeling of entering the mosque with the guy and feeling something profound, some sense of time and memory working together, that was also present in the airport scene. So I picked up the prayer motif and got the lines, “The subjunctive is the mood of mystery. Of luck. Of faith interwoven with doubt.” Writing those lines was actually a big moment for me as a writer because it involved claiming authority over something much larger than my own personal experience. It was an expositional leap that gave me courage.
English doesn’t have a full subjunctive mood, and although I’ve studied and studied it in Spanish, I really had no business writing a “how-to” essay because I can’t use it worth a damn. I try, but except in certain set phrases, I have about a 50-50 chance of getting it right in any sentence. So to make huge claims about what the subjunctive is and how it works felt not just dangerous but arrogant. It was one thing to say here’s a rule, here’s how it applies to this situation. I could have Spanish-speaking friends double-check that for correctness. But for me, not a linguist, not someone who’s even close to fluent in a language that uses the subjunctive, for me to say: here’s what the subjunctive means, here’s the metaphorical, philosophical truth of language, felt beyond brazen. And now I look at those lines and think: they’re not particularly profound. Nicely phrased, a good rhythm, but there’s nothing here that should have given me pause. I’ve made bigger claims since about things I know even less about. And yet, after writing those lines, I sat up a little straighter in my desk chair. They were part of the real “becoming” of a writer.
Perhaps you remember the Scott Russell Sanders essay, “The Singular First Person,” which I’m sure I made you read in one of my classes here at DePaul, in which he describes the essay as “an amateur’s raid in a world of specialists.” That’s how I felt writing about the subjunctive mood.
But to answer your question, I was very conscious of the circling nature of the essay. Partly that’s because of the form, which is such a strong beat under the essay – it gave me the freedom to wander away from the essay’s center because I knew I’d be coming back in a definitive way with each new section. That’s why I’m so focused on form when I write and teach, because form equals freedom, the way a jazz beat allows improvisation. When you’re writing an essay that doesn’t have such a rigid or artificial form, you have to think a bit harder to figure out what the form is, but there’s always an architecture you can push off from and come back to.
You speak about the intuitive aspect of writing – how you knew a moment was significant, but you didn’t yet know what it meant. Can you link this power of intuition to revision or to the circular bent? In other words, does it take one six years to write an essay partly because she knows, intuitively, that it’s not ready yet because some life cycles or experience need be complete before they can be written?
Not at all. The six years was about writing, not so much in terms of the circular bent, but in terms of thinking harder and pushing beyond surface-level interpretations to arrive at a deeper understanding of what I was trying to say. Not a deeper understanding of the events as they happened, although that was a by-product, but a deeper understanding, on the artistic level, about what I was creating.
I can’t emphasize that enough. The writing of this essay had zero effect on the relationship I was writing about (and which continued as a friendship for many years, until he did kill himself in 2008). But writing the essay had a huge effect on my writing life, and that’s what took six years. I was teaching myself how to finish it. The circular aspect of the form was there early on. I learned in graduate school how to structure and how to walk a tightrope without a net. I became very daring then as I tried to show off for professors and classmates, taking risks on the page that sometimes worked and mostly didn’t. But it wasn’t until after graduate school that I became a different kind of daring, when I was slogging through the lonely life of revision, revision, new writing, more revision and when I really learned to challenge myself on the idea level and to make something on the page that was bigger and more important in some ways than its real-life counterpart.
There is an underlying theme that the essay implies about foreign language and travel. That is, the unfamiliar breeds possibility, and therefore, hope. When one is in the familiar, the perception of possibility is cloudier: it is much harder to imagine different outcomes in one’s life within the regular routine. Why did writing about this relationship end up in a travel essay?
The easy answer is that travel played a significant role in the demise of the relationship, not only because the guy was unfaithful while I was gone but, more importantly, because while I was gone, I got to experience myself without being tethered to someone else’s emotional states. I mean, that’s why I went. I’d felt suffocated by the weight of his psyche, and I needed recovery time. But I also went because I thought he needed to separate from me in a big way, and I knew that our relationship might not withstand that. Being in Spain, developing a life there and enjoying it so much, showed me that I’d be OK no matter what happened. Travel has that power sometimes.
Travel also offers, as you say so well in your question, a way of honing perception, un-clouding it. In our daily lives, it’s easy to develop what Temple Grandin calls “situational blindness,” the state of familiarity in which we don’t see things that are right in front of us. Dogs and small children don’t have this: if your boy toddles into a room and there’s an object on the floor that wasn’t there before, he’ll probably go right to it. But adults often do have it, and travel – especially to someplace really unfamiliar, where customs and language require us to think constantly – releases us from that blindness. It literally allows us to see things. We marvel at doors and, as Cynthia Ozick says, teapots, all the things that seem uninteresting at home. But learning a new language in a new place, or learning to become fluent in it, is another order of magnitude, I think. Mind you, this is all assuming that travel is voluntary and not the result of trauma. None of this applies to an economic or political refugee who lands in a new place and is trying to learn the language to survive. But if you travel willingly to an unfamiliar culture and try to communicate in a new language, it energizes and taxes your brain, and it makes you reflective. When you’re working so hard for meaning with every sentence you speak and hear, I think the quest for meaning grows larger, more philosophical. There’s a certain naiveté I always feel when traveling, like: “All these people have been going about their daily lives so differently than I’ve gone about mine for all this time, and I didn’t know it! The self-centeredness of existence shifts a little bit.
That’s why I like traveling alone so much. It’s uncomfortable and hard and very often embarrassing, but when we travel with others, some of the familiarity of home comes with us. When we travel alone, the world is a little bigger and stranger and appears in sharper focus.
Morano’s answers were as illuminating as they were surprising. I was left thinking how reality is so different from our essays, and how easy it is to get stuck in the “real” that I forget how much crafting creates a whole new world that “alters” the experience somehow. That as Vivian Gornick writes, “the way the narrator — or the persona — sees things is, to the largest degree, the thing being seen” (7). So here we come back to the essay, which was crafted many years later, with much processing: finding focus is not only tied to what really happened; it is tied to the story that one wants to tell. This can be revolutionary to a writer who has been committed to recreating reality and sticking to the type of truth that reflects that as closely as possible.
Rima Rantisi is a faculty member in the Department of English at the American University of Beirut. She is the editor and co-founder of Rusted Radishes: Beirut Literary and Art Journal, which publishes artists and writers from Lebanon, the region, and its diaspora and is currently in its sixth circulation. A student again, she is an MFA in Creative Writing candidate at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, cohort 2018. She has published interviews with novelist Patricia Ward and artist Kasper Kovitz. Her essays can be found in the anthology Arab Women Voice New Realities and forthcoming in the online literary journal Sweet: A Literary Confection.