Our Creative Non-fiction Month is just starting up and our first Tuesday Writing Prompt is by UBC Creative Writing Lecturer Kevin Chong. Kevin Chong is the author of five books, most recently a novel entitled Beauty Plus Pity and the biography Northern Dancer. His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail, The Walrus, Taddle Creek, Maclean’s, Chatelaine, FASHION, Vancouver Magazine, and the CBC Arts website. He’s an editor at Joylandmagazine.com.
I want to talk about the essay, which many describe as the most sophisticated CNF form. It’s also the one that’s the toughest to define. In its purest form, the essays of Montaigne or Hazlitt or Didion, it’s an eloquent conversation with one’s self, where the reader follows the trajectory of the writer’s mind as one would the a storyline or a character arc in a piece of memoir or fiction. In CNF, these essays are often described as “personal essay,” but in some ways this phrase is a tautology, like “free gift” or “one-year anniversary,” made necessary by the essays we are taught to write at school with a thesis, an elaborating sentence, and supporting examples. No pure essay begins with something as circumscribed as a thesis.
Have a look at these three essays about one’s motivation to write. Skim them if you don’t have the time:
Looking back through the last page or two, I see that I have made it appear as though my motives in writing were wholly public-spirited. I don’t want to leave that as the final impression. All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.
I had trouble graduating from Berkeley, not because of this inability to deal with ideas—I was majoring in English, and I could locate the house-and-garden imagery in The Portrait of a Lady as well as the next person, “imagery” being by definition the kind of specific that got my attention—but simply because I had neglected to take a course in Milton. I did this. For reasons which now sound baroque I needed a degree by the end of that summer, and the English department finally agreed, if I would come down from Sacramento every Friday and talk about the cosmology of Paradise Lost, to certify me proficient in Milton. I did this. Some Fridays I took the Greyhound bus, other Fridays I caught the Southern Pacific’s City of San Francisco on the last leg of its transcontinental trip. I can no longer tell you whether Milton put the sun or the earth at the center of his universe in Paradise Lost, the central question of at least one century and a topic about which I wrote 10,000 words that summer, but I can still recall the exact rancidity of the butter in the City of San Francisco’s dining car, and the way the tinted windowson the Greyhound bus cast the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits into a grayed and obscurely sinister light. In short my attention was always on the periphery, on what I could see and taste and touch, on the butter, and the Greyhound bus. During those years I was traveling on what I knew to be a very shaky passport, forged papers: I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas. I knew I couldn’t think. All I knew then was what I couldn’t do. All I knew then was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was.Which was a writer.
And Paul Auster
A German friend tells of the circumstances that preceded the births of her two daughters.
Nineteen years ago, hugely pregnant and already several weeks past due, A. sat down on the sofa in her living room and turned on the television set. As luck would have it, the opening credits of a film were just coming onscreen. It was “The Nun’s Story,” a nineteen-fifties Hollywood drama starring Audrey Hepburn. Glad for the distraction, A. settled in to watch the movie and immediately go caught up in it. Halfway through, she went into labor. Her husband drove her to the hospital, and she never learned how the film turned out.
Three years later, pregnant with her second child, A. sat down on the sofa and turned on the television set once again. Once again a film was playing, and once again it was “The Nun’s Story,” with Audrey Hepburn. Even more remarkable (and A. was very emphatic about this point), she had tuned in to the film at the precise moment where she left off three years earlier. This time, she was able to see the film through to the end. Less than fifteen minutes later, her water broke, and she went off tot he hospital to give birth for the second time.
These two daughters are A.’s only children. The first labor was extremely difficult (my friend nearly didn’t make it and was ill for many months afterward), but the second delivery went smoothly, with no complications of any kind.
Orwell and Didion’s pieces are traditional essays, with personal episodes that spin into ideas, which they pull in unexpected directions.
Auster’s image-driven piece might be described as either a collage essay or a lyric essay. A series of unconnected, vividly written scenes that readers must yoke together on their own. The connections made explicitly in a traditional essay are made implicitly in a lyric essay. Many say the lyric essay and its variants (collage/segmented, braided, hermit crab essays) are as much poetry and memoir as essay.
The writing exercise: In 200-300 words, use a memory to tell me why you write. You can be as expository about why you write as Orwell or Didion, or as indirect as Auster.