Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Frank Soos: Essaying the Essay

The essay is, I think, the messiest of forms.  Which might be why I like it so much.  There are no set rules for length or structure, certainly not for content.  In her introduction to the very first Best American Essays collection (that would be in 1986), Elizabeth Hardwick wrote that an essay “at least has to be well-written.”  Agreed.  Outside that expectation, there are no others.  And we should be suspicious of folks who suggest there are, or even that there are subcategories of essays.  With a form so flexible, so versatile, why apply any restrictions or definitions that might make it less so? 

So let’s get down to the mess itself.  My favorite essay for explaining to myself the kinds of permissions the essayist allows him- or herself  is Montaigne’s “Of Practice.”   That’s where you’ll find, after a long description of a brain concussion and a meditation on practicing for our deaths, Montaigne getting around to what he hopes this and most of his essays will accomplish:  “…each man is a good education to himself, provided he has the capacity to spy on himself from close up.  What I write here is not my teaching, but my study…”   

I had another brain concussion a couple of months ago, and came to myself in a hospital emergency room not knowing how I got there.  Of course, I wondered how.  Wrecked my bicycle, the simple answer was available soon enough.  Why?  I don’t know and can’t know because that’s what happens when a person has a big concussion.  But what I can’t let go of is the loss of my conscious memory of my accident.  We forget much more than we ever remember; in fact, we forget almost everything we say and do.  But I like to think, well, the stuff I remember is the stuff I choose to remember.  And when I was coming around from my concussion, I did not have such a choice.  There’s the little seed for an essay. 

We’re not talking about self-expression whatever that might be, but self-exploration, examination, analysis.  The essay is about trying to figure out who we are.  And for Montaigne, our thoughts, no matter how disorganized, are the better indicator of who we might be than our actions.  I’m not sure I’d go that far.  For one thing, I find myself wondering, too, not just about what I think (thinking about thinking, you might say, a little up in the clouds), but about what I do.  My crash, my bonk on the head was a triggering event for wonderment.  We all have such moments, such opportunities if you want to think of them that way.  Because I think we’re all capable of doing things, saying things that surprise or mystify even ourselves. 

How about you reader, are you mystified by my bonk, too?  Because this essayist must be betting you are.  When Montaigne says, “What is useful to me may also by accident be useful to another,” he is trusting that what he’s said will be close enough to your experience to keep you reading.

Writers, this is the permission we have to give ourselves, the permission to probe our lives in print and to assume our cogitations will hold the attention of others.  At this point we have to be fearless because the cogitations we must offer involve a number of risks:  the risk of exposure of the self as silly, vain, foolish, flat wrong in its thinking, the risk of being misunderstood and misread, the risk of losing control of the very questions we came to ask ourselves.   If the essay is often an exercise in critical self-examination, it’s the equivalent of taking our clothes off in public.  Admittedly, I’m not too much to look at, but I still have to put myself out there on display without allowing myself to fear embarrassment. 

Making an essay is for me a long-term project.  It was for Montaigne as well.  If you read the Collected Essays in the Stanford University Press volume, you’ll see the “a,” “b,” “c” superscripts indicating the material  (the “a” sections) Montaigne used in his first printed version of each essay combined with “b” and “c” material from subsequent versions. It seems like once and idea took hold of Montaigne, it would never let go of him.  I know the feeling.

 I find myself slowly examining the things that happen to me, the things I think are worth exploring through writing.  On my computer right now are six essays in progress on subjects as disparate as my (forbidden) love of cars, the simple act of walking, memory and the need to save mementos, the dangers built into storytelling,  the idea we call love,  my resemblance to my father.   None of these essays is close to completion.  I add a paragraph here and there, going slowly because the ideas in each continue to grow, often turning on themselves and contradicting themselves.  None of these explorations seems to have found its center.  Some of them won’t.  Some will actually mature into essays a reader may be willing to sit still for and read. 

Either way, success or failure, the essay—the attempt—is the point, the struggle to explain myself to myself.   And maybe as Montaigne would have it, accidentally explain something useful to you, reader, too.   

Frank Soos has lived in Fairbanks for almost 30 years, for the past eleven with wife Margo Klass. His next book of essays, 
Unpleasantries, will be published by the University of Washington Press in the spring of 2016.  He is the current Alaska State Writer.   


Eric Troyer said...

Thanks for letting us peek over your shoulder while you explain yourself to yourself, Frank. (And I didn't know about your forbidden love of cars! Woo! Woo!)

llynskyn said...

And, reader, should you ever be so lucky as to find Soos in your sights, he is a whole long lot of a lot to look at. He is several inches above six feet with a slender darkness that towers like an old black spruce snapped at the bole and making his way through the trees on skis. Tall, willowy, gentle, waving and determined, like his writing, Soos has slowly swooped into my ways of learning to write and [self] explore. Most of us see sandhill cranes at a distance. If ever you stand in front of this writer (and most of us will be) looking up, you will see a fine kind bird tilting his head to read you. Frank thank you for the great read and the way you write and ski.