Monday, March 11, 2013

The Balm of the Small Essay: A Guest Post by Eva Saulitis

A new release by Eva Saulitis; her workshop Prose/Poem is March 23

In my blog post last month, I talked about the transition from writing essays to writing a book length memoir, moving from short to long form.  Today, I’m going to go backwards.  I’m going to talk about the beauty of the small.

I was skeptical of the idea of flash-anything when I first heard the term bandied about by my friend and colleague the fiction writer Rich Chiappone.  It seemed like a product of the times, the era of the flash-in-your-face Facebook post, the text, the lol and btw and luv and yo of writing.  And yet, I am a poet as well as an essayist.  And the magic of poetry lies in its compression.  William Carlos Williams famously called a poem “a small (or large) machine made out of words.”  You could use that one short sentence as a case in point.  Each syllable matters.  The parentheses matter.  The word “machine” expands in the brain like a giant thought-bubble.  What kind of machine? A trash compactor?  A canner?  A Rolex?  A sewing machine?  A riveter?  I think the exact definition could be applied to an essay, short or long.  Flash non-fiction is a small machine made out of sentences (which are made out of words).  Because it is so small that you need special tools and a magnifying glass to take it apart and understand how it works, shows you just how intricate a machine it is. 

This is not to say any short block of prose (or anything calling itself a poem) runs deep.  Long or short, any piece of writing can be cliché, predictable, shallow, trivial, throw-away.  But that’s not flash; that’s glitter.  That’s senza flash, the title of a poem by Adam Zagajewski.  Here are a few of lines:

And something unforseen may happen then:
hidden in smooth cotton, the heart stirs,
silence falls, a sudden flash.

“Senza flash!” is what a docent cries out in a museum in Italian when someone holds up a camera to a Caravaggio.  The poem turns it around, asking what a life without flash or risk might mean.  I’ve come to recognize that the power of flash non-fiction is in that word “flash.”  It is that turn, that surprise, that yes, that “whoa,” that top of the head-removing sensation you get when you read a poem and it matters deep, but you can’t explain exactly why or explicate.  It’s what I described in my last post as the sensation you get when you know you’ve found the ending of an essay. The strands you’ve been weaving messily as you’ve composed suddenly tighten and twang.  The poem or essay is saying something you didn’t intend, telling/showing you didn’t know.

Here’s how poet Lia Purpura sees the power of the small, in her short essay “On Miniatures,” in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Non-Fiction:

The miniature is mysterious . . .
Miniatures are ambitious . . .
Miniatures are intimate . . .
Time, in miniature form, like gas compressed, gets hotter . . .

Essayist Judith Kitchen compares it to a snowball:  “You’ve got all this stuff out there called snow but when you gather it all up and really pack it together . . . the effect is a little sting.”  We all know that exquisite sting.  It’s why we read and write.  It’s what we live for, as writers.

I first learned about the non-fiction short from my mentor, poet and memoirist Peggy Shumaker.  She’d just written a book about a terrible accident resulting in a head injury.  I’ll never forget first hearing her speak of it.  She described how memory came back to her in pieces during her recovery.  She was afraid.  Would she ever retrieve everything?  Instead of fretting, she began to write.  She wrote the way a real writer writes, with a piece of coal or nub of pencil, on a rock or a prison wall, seizing whatever was at hand, even a knife to draw blood for ink.  She decided to write the memory fragments down as they came to her.  And hopefully you all know what emerged from that process, an incredible memoir called Just Breathe Normally, which is composed of miniatures.

Soon after its publication, Peggy asked me to teach a workshop with her on short forms of non-fiction.  “Sure,” I said, but I didn’t know what the hell a short form was.   I didn’t learn about them in grad school.  In academia, they hadn’t been invented yet.  “Read this,” Peggy said, handing me an anthology edited by Judith Kitchen called Short Takes.  And there it was, in one short essay after another, compression, metaphor, poetic devices or the plainest speech, but in each case, the flash that comes from compressing something to its ignition point, its breaking point  -- yes, it’s flash point.

How to achieve that is, like anything else, a matter of practice and reading.  My own practice came by surprise.  While undergoing breast cancer treatment outside Boston, I was lucky enough to find a therapist-writer to guide me through the psychological terrain of Cancerland.  (It helped that her name was Wilderness).  She didn’t just encourage me to write my way through treatment.  She MADE me.   She held me accountable each week for poems.  When I left Cape Cod, she suggested I start a blog about my recovery process.  I resisted, but she’d been right about so many things, that I gave in quickly.  What the hell, I thought.  I don’t have to tell anyone.  So I set up a blog and wrote the first post, and kept going.  For months I didn’t miss a day.  I realized early on in the process that writing a blog post, which for me was exactly like a miniature essay, involved all of the same elements of craft.  It involved the same level of trust that writing a poem or essay requires.  It required the balance of control and lack of control.  It required the same shaping, the same attention to each word, to rhythm and pacing.  The same attention out in the world.  But it forced compression on my essayist’s verbose tendencies. 

That’s how I went from flash non-fiction skeptic to believer.  I guess in my case you could even say it proves there are no atheists in the trenches.  The short form didn’t save my life – that’s pushing it too far – but it gave me a way to reconstruct my life after cancer and make sense of it, piece by piece.  It allowed me to enact the words of one of my favorite Elizabeth Bradfield poems (from her book Interpretive Work):  to  "find the balm of the small things all around you.”  And within you.  And now like any recent convert, I’m eager to knock on people’s doors with my copy of Short Takes in hand and spread the news.   I hope you’ll join me for my 49 Writers/AQR sponsored reading/craft talk/workshop on March 22 and 23 to try your hand at building some small, flashy machines made out of words.

1 comment:

Andrew Milne said...

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