My maternal grandmother, c.1920
Every era defines its necessities differently. For my grandmother, a clothesline was as much a necessity as her twin aluminum wash tubs and the assortment of scrub boards that hung in the mud room.
Even my mother, blessed early in marriage with an electric washing machine, found her clothesline a necessity. Laundry fed through wringer bars could be squeezed nearly dry, but nearly dry wasn’t good enough. With no gas or electric clothes dryers to finish the task, the piles of laundry — damp, wrinkled, and still heavy after passing through the wringers — had to be hung on clotheslines before being ironed, or folded into closets and drawers. Continue reading
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. Continue reading