Speaking My Heart – Writing, Vision and Truth

 

José Saramago, Portuguese novelist and winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature, once remarked,  “In effect I am not a novelist, but rather a failed essayist who started to write novels because I didn’t know how to write essays.”  Implicit in his remarks is a refutation of the easy assumption that people write essays  because they are less difficult than novels.  They are shorter, to be sure, and differently structured.  But ease of writing is not necessarily one of their virtues, particularly when the so-called personal essay is involved.

In her Write on Wednesday prompt this week, Becca asks, “Do you enjoy reading and writing personal essays?”  The fact is I do – primarily because I’m most interested in exploring the world around me, rather than inventing a fictional world from whole cloth.  I’m intrigued by the challenges posed when attempting to communicate rich, densely-textured realities through an apparently simple form, and I prefer the freedom to move from one topic to another as my attention is engaged, rather than devoting months or years to the same project.

Alain de Botton, another prolific essayist whose The Art of Travel is one of my favorites, says, “I am conscious of trying to stretch the boundaries of non-fiction writing. It’s always surprised me how little attention many non-fiction writers pay to the formal aspects of their work.”

He goes on, “I passionately believe it’s not just what you say that counts, it’s also how you say it – the success of your argument critically depends on your manner of presenting it.”

The word essay  itself comes from the French essayer, which means “to try”.   Trying to communicate the richness of reality can be difficult at best.  When Anita Diamant, in her introduction to Pitching My Tent, writes that her challenge as an essayist was “to pay closer-than-average attention and then shape…experiences and reactions into entertaining prose”, she suggests what I have come to believe: that vision comes first. 

It is the essayist’s task to say, “This is what I have seen.  This is what I have experienced.  This is what I have discovered lying along life’s shore, waiting to be plucked from the sands of obscurity, turned and examined, magnified for detail, polished until its inherent nature shimmers in the light.” 
 
After this seeing comes the shaping of context as the author seeks connections, probing for relevance, significance and truth. Speaking as directly and intimately as possible, the essayist says, “Here is my interpretation of my vision.  This is how I understand my experience.  I have come to believe this, or that, about these oddities of life which lie strewn about our years, and I offer my conclusions to you.”

It is this combination of vision and truth,  of seeing and seeking, that leads naturally to the essay form.  It is a different kind of writing, focused on drawing connections, plumbing unsuspected depths, turning the kaleidescope of words around and around until discovered bits of life, tiny, jewel-like fragments of reality, drop into new and utterly unexpected patterns.

With vision and truth so intimately joined, speaking one’s heart becomes possible.  The most deeply personal convictions, the most privately held and deeply cherished beliefs about the world around us reside not in our head but in our heart, ready to inform our writing.  For the essayist, conviction and belief are the lenses through which the world is seen, and our words reveal those convictions and beliefs more clearly than we might intend. 

After six months of writing, my own convictions are becoming clear – and sometimes surprise even me.  Despite significant evidence to the contrary, I believe that goodness abounds, and trust is possible.  I believe there is a moral dimension to life, a realm of freely responsible choice far more terrifying than any book of rules.  I believe that pessimism and negativity, like optimism and hope, are choices we make, that cynicism is an acid that eats away life, that problems can be solved and that, in the end, there is meaning and significance to even the most lowly gesture of compassion and care.
 
 
However difficult they might be to sustain in the midst of life, those are among the convictions impelling me to speak my heart, even as I confront and engage other voices which seek to contradict or destroy those convictions.  Together with the visions and voices of others I admire, they have helped me understand my own passion for writing, and the requirements of the writer’s craft.

To put it simply, writing satisfying essays requires clarity of vision – an ability and willingness to see the world as it is, and not as we wish it to be. 

It requires courage – a considered choice to express personal opinion, to roam beyond received wisdom,  to move from feigned objectivity to self-revelation.

Ironically, It also demands a certain caution – a tentativeness, a willingness to suspend judgements and withhold pronouncements when treading through unfamiliar territory.

And finally, there must be commitment – not only to disciplines inherent in the essay form, but also to a lifetime of attentiveness.  Listening for the unspoken word, watching for the half-hidden gesture, feeling the shudder as conflicted human hearts confront their destiny, it is also the essayist who speaks from a heart filled with hard-won knowledge, and more than a little truth.

“A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.”  ~ Joan Didion, essayist

 

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Published in: on November 19, 2008 at 11:56 pm  Comments (5)  
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  1. “Here is my interpretation of my vision. This is how I understand my experience. I have come to believe this, or that, about these oddities of life which lie strewn about our years, and I offer my conclusions to you.”

    Your writing is simply stunning. Each week you astound me with the clarity of thought and perfect beauty of expression.

    Thank you so much for sharing this.

    Becca,

    This little post is really part of a larger story.

    When I began posting on another site, about a year ago, I needed a title for my blog. I called it “Journeys”, a nice, serviceable title for what I imagined would be a few stories about this, or that.

    Later, when I began developing my blog at WordPress, I felt the need for a new title. The words came to me in the middle of the night, quite literally, and I knew they were perfect. The title was “Speaking My Heart ~ Vision and Truth in an Age of Change”.

    But a strange thing happened on the way to my WordPress blog. I discovered I couldn’t use the title, because I didn’t have a clue what I meant by it. My intuition told me it was perfect, and I wasn’t about to let it go, but it was as much a problem as a solution. Since it seemed passing strange to use a title I couldn’t explain, I contented myself with setting up a page here with the same name. For months it has lingered there, with an “Under Construction” sign posted, while I’ve tried to figure out what made the phrase so appealing to me.

    I’ve pondered it for months now, and tried to write some sense into it a time or two, but never succeeded. And then, when you asked, “Do you enjoy reading and writing personal essays?”, I began to write.

    What I wrote for the prompt isn’t a final word on the issues by any means, but it’s a start. And now, I think I’ll be able to find a way to reorganize things over on the side bar a bit, and take down the “Under Construction” sign.

    Linda

  2. Very interesting post. Liked reading it.

    Life in general

    Gautami,

    As always, a pleasure to have you stop by, and I’m really glad you liked the entry. There are so many interesting things in this world to think about – even our own thoughts, sometimes!

    Linda

  3. “The most deeply personal convictions, the most privately held and deeply cherished beliefs about the world around us reside not in our head but in our heart, ready to inform our writing.”

    I’ve appreciated your passion and intellect, the combination of both gives birth to eloquent writing like this post, the fusion of heart and mind.

    Regarding the two different genres of the essay and the novel, I believe they can be viewed as two means to the delivery of a message. The novel may just be an imaginative way to convey reality. While the world inside a novel may be purely a creative concoction, the best novels bring us into these imaginary worlds and lead us out enlightened of our own. At least I think that is the purpose of quality novels.

    Lots to ponder… thank you again for another thought-provoking piece.

    Arti,

    I think there’s a corollary to the little rule that says, “You can have it all. You just can’t have it all at the same time.” The corollary would be, “You can say it all. You just can’t say it all in one essay.”

    I do agree with you that novels are another, equally legitimate way to plumb the depths of reality. The fact is that many of my convictions about life were formed or shaped by exploration of classic fiction – Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter, Faulker’s novels, The Alexandria Quartet. In the same way, the letters and essays of fiction writers can be immensely illuminating, and serve as wonderful guides to what a dear professor once called “the imaginative reconstruction of reality”.

    To put it another way, fiction doesn’t necessarily mean false, any more than factual is equivalent to truthful. Each of us constantly is imposing our own narrative on the events of our lives and the world around us. Which of those narratives is fact, and which is fiction? Sometimes, it’s very, very difficult to say.

    Oh, what fun this is! And I must add – that newest post of yours on “slow blogging” is just terrific. You know where I stand on the issue, of course. Around here, we try to serve up no essay before its time!

    Linda

  4. [...] thought on essay writing was shared on The Task at Hand in her post Speaking My Heart – Writing, Vision and Truth, To put it simply, writing satisfying [...]

  5. I’m enjoying your blog so much, and this essay on essays really summed up what makes them so irresistible to me. I have to go read some more of your stuff, but thanks for this one.

    Moonbeam ~

    How kind of you to stop by! And I’m especially happy you commented here. This is the post that was the most difficult for me to write, the process taking literally weeks if not months of thought and reflection. If you liked this, I’m sure you’ll find another essay or two to enjoy.

    Best wishes for the holiday season!

    Linda


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