AWP2019: Que savent-ils?: What Classic Essays Can Teach Contemporary Essayists

Panel Participants: Randon Billings Noble, David Lazar, Dinty W. Moore, Kyoko Mori, Beth Peterson

AWP19ThumbnailDescription: When’s the last time you sat down with an essay by Lamb? Or cracked open The Rambler? Maybe not recently enough. With so many exciting new modes of the essay being written today it can be easy to forget those of the past. But writers like Montaigne, Rousseau, Hazlitt, and Woolf have more bearing on contemporary essayists than you might think. This diverse panel of essayists writing in a variety of sub-genres shows how the “classics” inspire them—as perhaps they will inspire you, too.


Randon Billings Noble is the author of the essay collection Be with Me Always and Devotional, a lyric essay chapbook. Noble is the founding editor of the literary magazine After the Art.

She explained that Que savent-ils translates to What do they know? Noble didn’t get an MFA in Creative Nonfiction, and never took a course in Montaigne or any of the other classic essayists. She found Virginia Woolf on her own, whose work became an important influence. Noble finds lyric essay more intuitive, less expository/narrative based, more questioning. She loves how the lyric can show a shift in thinking, explore ideas, become more than the sum of its parts. Often fragmented, or hermit crab (which borrow another form) the best essays offer us a glimpse into the writer’s mind, whether that be snobbish, heavy, or smallminded, they reveal what it means to be human, not the glossy facade we hold out on social media. Our soft inner belly—our weird, ugly, and deep darkness—can be safely examined through rigid forms and revised to reach out of them.

Kyoko Mori is the author of three works of creative nonfiction: Dream of Water, Yarn, and Polite Lies, as well as several novels. She teaches at George Mason University and has two cats, Miles and Jackson.

Mori detailed her time as a Visiting Writer at the Vermont Studio Center, where she noticed that most of her students were women writing about rites of passage or painful secrets. The majority wrote in a fragmented, non-chronological hybrid form to counteract the heaviness of the material. But Mori argues that the pleasure of reading about rites of passage is in the linear progression—the pursuit of an idea to its inevitable conclusion. Looking to the classic essayists, Virginia Woolf sets the parameters of situation, launches the query/quest and takes us along to its conclusion. Along the way. Woolf gives us random thoughts—I love, I hate, I suffer—as she smoothly launches into a steady, comfortable pace, even as the essay’s path wanders.

An essay is an eight-mile run that takes us through a variety of terrains, enabling us to hear birds, see shops, yet always brings us back to where we started. Yet at our return, we are changed—even the angle of light will be different an hour later. In contrast, a short story is a point-to-point run, the characters can’t return to who they were. An essay brings us back to the same place, we are safely the same yet thrillingly not the same.

David Lazar is the author of nine books, including I’ll Be Your Mirror, After Montaigne, and Who’s Afraid of Helen of Troy. Lazar is professor at Columbia College, Chicago, founding editor of Hotel Amerika, and is the co-editor of the 21st Century Essays Series from Mad Creek Books with the University of Ohio Press. David Lazar was awarded the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship for 2015-16 and six of his essays have been “Notable Essays of the Year” according to Best American Essays.

Lazar opened his segment by reading the essay “Three ‘Fine Companions’ for the Classic Essay, Or One Woman’s Classic Ceiling is Another Man’s Floor.”

Lazar finds that classically the essay cannon is the most porous of vessels—it can instruct and deconstruct. Liquid forms can extend into the length of a novella. He states, “Nothing is as interesting as a perfect sentence.” Lazar cautions that form always follows thought—don’t start with form.

Beth Peterson is the author of Sound of Something Breaking, forthcoming with Trinity University Press in 2019.  Her essays and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in: Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Post Road, the Mid-American Review, the Pinch, Newfound, Passages North, Flyway, Sky Island Journal, Alchemy, the Great Lakes Review, the Ocean State Review, and other publications.

Peterson states that while the mosaic or braided essay can replicate the gaps of experience, she wanted to write into clarity, or at least into potential answers. Yet, the linear essay seemed impossible. Peterson stated, “I needed a different way of moving, both on and off the page.” She discovered the form she was looking for—the ramble essay—in Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker.

Walking provides narrative momentum—we have to see where this is going. The movement from place to place provides connective tissue for the essay. The ramble essay requires a different attentiveness to the world for the reader as well as writer. Thoreau made famous the walking essay, but contemporary rambles have been written by Bill Bryson, and Cheryl Strayed.

In her own writing, Peterson found that moving made different things happen for her. Suddenly the experience was able to be told slant through the ramble. Sometimes the forgotten form is perfect for a certain essay.

Dinty Moore is the author of 11 books, including Crafting the Personal Essay, The Story Cure, and Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy. He has been published in The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, Harpers, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, Gettysburg Review, Utne Reader, Crazyhorse, and Okey-Panky, among numerous other venues.

 Moore explained how he discovered humorist Robert Benchley as a child, who then became his secret obsession. “[Benchley] was a New York dandy of another generation but he made this weird little kid feel validated.”

Years later, at the first meeting of Nonfiction Now in Iowa City, Phillip Lopate gave a cranky, erudite, witty, and delightful keynote address in which he discussed Benchley. Benchley and Lopate both got their style from Max Beerbohm whose personality permeates every word he wrote.  As Moore explains, “Never to be yourself and yet always. That is the problem.”

Beerbohm was obsessed with style and social insight; not confessional, but forthcoming. Moore advised us to follow Lopate’s advice, “Write about small daily subjects dismissed as too trivial by important people.”

Dinty advised us that if we are cleaning up what is odd about ourselves, then we are making a mistake—our ears pick up when we hear something unexpected.

Value your obsessions and let them lead the way.


Lara Lillibridge is the author of Mama, Mama, Only Mama, Girlish: Growing Up in a Lesbian Home, and co-editor of the anthology, Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Invisibility  with Andrea Fekete. Lara Lillibridge is a graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College’s MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. In 2016 she won Slippery Elm Literary Journal’s Prose Contest, and The American Literary Review’s Contest in Nonfiction. She is a reader for Hippocampus Magazine and judged AWP’s Intro Journals Award for 2019.


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