#AWP17 Panel R169: Imagining the Essay
Description: Imagination, which might be defined as unfettered curiosity, a hunger for inner adventure, and a willingness to incarnate in the other, is at the heart of the essayist’s craft. On this panel, four essayists/teachers of the form (representing personal, lyric, narrative, and hybrid subgenres) discuss ways to imagine into one’s work by reconceiving structure and time, inviting contradictions and collisions, attending to the strangeness of fact, and moving aurally and physically with language.
Panelists: Rebecca McClanahan, Lauret Savoy, Lia Purpura, Ander Monson
I’ve always loved talking, thinking, and writing about the essay’s imaginative power, and the four writers serving on this panel are among my favorite practitioners of the form, so I was incredibly excited to attend this panel. Then, Ander Monson walked into the room wearing a Predator mask. I knew this was going to be good.
Rebecca McClanahan (the panel’s moderator, or, “liberator” as she said she prefers) began by declaring that, contrary to any perceived threat, “the imaginative essay is very much alive.” I certainly wouldn’t argue otherwise after leaving this panel, wherein each writer articulated and reflected on the vital, pulsing, wriggling nature of their work.
McClanahan focused on what she called the primary element of the essay: movement. She said that, in investigating what she admired about some of her favorite essays (citing Barbara Hurd’s “Moon Snail” as an example), she discovered the most of the shifts and turns in a good essay could be described using active verbs. The essayist may pivot, collide, zoom in or out, straddle expanses, and more. In a piece of writing not driven by plot, McClanahan said, “the rocky landscape and terrain of the mind” is more than enough to create movement. She encouraged us to welcome “ifs, ands, and buts” into our essays to create this kind of dance, and ended by saying that the most important question an essayist can ask herself is “at what point am I most divided?”
Next up was Lauret Savoy, who brought to the podium a stone and began: “I’d like to say a few words about ghosts and silence and race and the fugitive pieces of memory and history.” Savoy characterized her own work as uncovering the strata of history, told and untold, and spoke to the imaginative necessities that work often entails. She reminded us that, though we all know history is a privileged narrative, this means some stories have been intentionally eroded and obscured. The imaginative act, then, is to uncover and excavate and put the eroded world back into language.
It was during Savoy’s presentation that my sense of what this panel could be about began to shift. I came largely for craft ideas, and McClanahan’s discussion of movement was an excellent exercise I tried in my class the following week. But Savoy, and then Lia Purpura, reminded me of the larger world and the role the essayist can play in our culture.
Purpura began with a statement that underpinned most of the conference: “Well, everything’s changed, hasn’t it?” She continued by admitting to a recent struggle with the question of how and why we teach the imaginative essay in a cultural and political climate that seeks to decimate language and truth, and spent her time discussing some specific strategies she has found to guide her teaching since the U.S. presidential election. Namely, Purpura said she has been worked to make explicit a discussion of the values we uphold by writing creatively.
Living like a writer, Purpura reminded us, means resisting passive reception, and unchecked consumption; what, in the era of Trump, could be more important? But beyond simply knowing these values are a part of her class, Purpura discussed the idea of teaching specific practices that feed her students and develop their minds. She spoke, for example, of the practice of keeping a journal, not just for the purpose of strengthening one’s writing ability, but as a place to experience and explore shades of perception, to questions of oneself, to welcome doubt and uncertainty. Purpura also spoke of learning to work with art time — the slow, meandering progress of a mind creating — rather than urgent striving for simple production.
Overall, Purpura said, the values at the heart of imaginative behavior are the very things that make us human, and can therefore be a form of active resistance, a “place where the deepest roots of civically important values — empathy, curiosity, questioning — are planted.”
I scribbled like crazy during Purpura’s segment of the panel, grateful for the sense of significance she lent to our writing and teaching work. And even the panel’s closing speaker, trickster Ander Monson, walking to the podium with a mask on his head, continued to reiterate the importance of what we do.
Early in his presentation (after being forced to remove the mask so he could breathe and be heard), Monson spoke about the cinematic technique from the original 1987 Predator film wherein the camera periodically occupies the perspective of the Predator. This, he said, is the central technique of the essay: imagining ourselves into another’s perspective. He praised the “cognitive work it takes to imagine yourself inside another,” to see as another, to speak and tank a different way. And, ultimately, he reminded us that when we occupy these different imaginative spaces in an essay, we are really just exploring playing different versions of ourselves.
What could be more important, in a world that seeks to shun and silence any form of difference, than finding a way to maneuver ourselves into those silenced spaces? Of giving voice to the other and working to build empathic connections across divide?
I left feeling inspired and invigorated, to be sure, but also charged with a sense of responsibility, a reminder that the essay’s imaginative power — always valuable — may be a crucial element to preserving our humanity in these dark times.
Marissa Landrigan is the author of The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat (Greystone Books, April 2017), and her essays appear in numerous journals including Orion, Guernica, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Writing at the University of Pittsburgh – Johnstown.