Some years ago, I attended an evening “poetry event” sponsored by Sawyer Free Library. Consisting of readings by some of Gloucester’s favorite published poets, it concluded with a workshop, dividing the audience into groups, each one guided by a poet.
The Friend Room was filled to capacity, and when the readings ended, people scrambled to the table of “sign-up” sheets, hoping to connect with their poet of choice. The point of the workshop was for all participants to attempt writing a poem. Since I was close to the sign-up table, I got my first choice — Pat Lowery Collins, whom I greatly admired as a poet, artist, and novelist, as well.
I already knew, and dismissively admitted to my group, that I couldn’t write a poem. But I didn’t know that Pat would send me away from the workshop with an observation that has self-validated any strength and direction I might have as a writer today.
She said, “I’ll bet you can write a poem; but, of course, you are primarily an essayist.” I gave the poem a try, and surprised myself by writing what felt like a not-too-bad poem that night; I’ve not written another poem since. But I liked my new label. Scraping ideas from actual experiences brings my words from a deeper place, a stronger place, a place with more reliable roots.
Since receiving one of my always-favorite gifts at Christmas, the current volume of “ Best American Essays,” I’ve been happily engrossed in writings on the most diverse subjects. I run my finger through the table of contents, checking first for authors familiar to me; then some title catches my imagination, so I go there next.
After my curiosity settles, I read Robert Atwan’s foreword. He’s been the series editor for more than 20 years, and his words regarding this particular volume, form an essay in and of themselves.
Atwan writes an interesting history of the essay as a form that has evolved through the centuries. He credits essayists from Francis Bacon, Jonathan Swift, and Ralph Waldo Emerson to Virginia Woolf, E.B. White (one of my personal favorites), and Annie Dillard, with not only educating their readers, but inviting them to “consider topics from various perspectives.”
There was a time in the last century, he remarks, when the term essay fell into disfavor, giving non-fiction writing less weighty, new names such as “an article, a story, a piece.”
In the “Best American” series, there’s always a guest editor, too. This individual is responsible for gathering the many submissions, reading the material, and making the final selection of those destined to appear in the book. This year’s guest editor is New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks, who stated the criteria for his selections:
“I tried to pick ones that crystallize an emotion, add to your emotional repertoire. I tried to pick ones with new or daring ideas, altering how you look at the world. I tried to pick ones that will be useful to you. That’s a middlebrow activity. But I plead guilty. I want to be improved by the things I read.”
After reading that intention, it was impossible for me to put the book down. Such an informative, fertile range of material awaits the reader: a present-generation Polish teacher defending the right to value objects as “a stay against chaos, darkness, and oblivion;” a man with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) expressing liberation in the face of sure death; the pros and cons of being a “gifted” child; “picking over the carcass of self-reliance” (Gloucester-born Benjamin Anastas!); the tender heartbreak of a woman unwittingly praising her husband through the skewed memory of her father.
The essays (I’m almost done — there’s only one I didn’t like) serve to transport the reader, to stretch the mind and the heart, sometimes digging right under the skin. What could be better?
Susan S. Emerson is a regular Times columnist.