tv Discussion of The Contemporary American Essay CSPAN November 26, 2021 2:46am-3:42am EST
because also selling books is very difficult. [laughter] and i would like to take this all the way to the top not for myself, but just show everyone that the people in this book matter the most. pleads help me, i need your help with that. [laughter] >> yeah. so we have fiction we have nonfiction and, of course, we have the yellow hat that says open book for all of you who are like me and just can't decide. >> well, i just want to thank all of you for coming on a sun morning. thank you total brooklyn book festival, which is an incredible event. there's a paper that said something that i'm supposed to say, but i don't have it. >> i stole your paper. but you already said everything. it's that we're going to be over there. thank you for coming, and we have to bring our name tags. >> and emma will be signing too the, so come get your books. >> thank
continues. >> once again i'd like to finish do yes, thank you. he'd like to let you -- i'd like to let you know that books can be purchased from books are magic here in the plaza where the no, sir will be signing their books -- authors will be signing their books. okay. so we're here today to commemorate the pub publication of the contemporary american essay which is the third in a series of anthologies that i edited dedicated to the american essay. the first was the glorious american essay, the second was the golden age of the american essay, and this is the third, the contemporary american essay, which is the essay of the present moment.
which was, in a way, the hardest and scariest one because i knew i would have to leave out some of my friends, and they'd be very angry at me. and also it's easy to tell what's worthwhile and enduring if you're looking at essays from the 19th century or early 20th century. but as soon as you get to the present moment, all you can do is try to give a sense of what the range of the conversation is. so today we have three of the contributors to the contemporary american essay, and each of them is going to read a snippet from theirs say, and then we'll talk about issues involving the contemporary american essay. to my left, sloan cosby who's
the the author of -- [applause] i always tell them look alive out there and other books. and to my right is clifford thompson -- [applause] author of love for sale and what it is. and to my far right is rivka -- [applause] her most recent book, a novel called everyone knows your mother's a witch. so we're going to start out with sloan reading from her piece. >> hi. thank you guys for coming, and thank you, phillip, for including us in this. i'm just going to read a little bit the essay that was selected from the book look alive out there is called the doctor is a woman. the very beginning will give you no clue as to what it's about which is probably not great for an essay, but i set a painting on fire.
so, i guess, just know that happened. but, okay. it's about ambivalence about children. most children are okay once you get to know them. they're like your flakiest, least employable friends who make terrible art and name drop characters you've never heard of. they're also really easy to beat at tag. personally, i like my child's friends to be at least 7 years old as there is the little difference between what amuses me and a 7-year-old. as someone who has pregnant women, i can tell you that babies pound your bladder into a pancake and put your stomach level with your heart. this would be funny if women were men, because the joke with men is the way to their hearts is through their stomach, but women are not men. deep down, i secretly thought that if i ever wanted to become
prime minister if, a doctor would tell me that my quite russ was absentee, a bunch of insulation foam where a uterus might go. the one time i had reason to purchase pregnancy tests, i period on the stick and waited for one blue line or two the blue lines. the window was blank like a magic 8-ball without the magic. i tried again with the second stick, same deal. so i called my mother who is generally useless on such matters but add had recently knocked it out of the park after i lamented a guy i was dating had never heard of gloria steinem. ah, she said, find out if his mother doesn't know who she is, then you're screwed. i thought this had ushered in a new era of wisdom. this is a good thing, she assured me. clearly you're not pregnant. i'm not not pregnant, i said, i'm nothing. which would you rather be, he asked, pregnant or nothing? --
she asked. those were my options? for so much of history to not be pregnant was nothing, and while we have mostly slogged off such belief, some animal part of me was speak up. then another minute passed before a solitary blue line adhered to the window, and i sighed, relieved. we will never know who was the remedial one, me or the stick. and i'm just going to stick ahead to why it's called the doctor is a woman. there's an old riddle that goes like this: a father and son are in a car accident. the father dies instantly, and the son is taken to the nearest hospital. the doctor comes in and explains, i can't operate on this boy. why not, asked the nurse. because he's my son, the doctor replies. now, how is this possible. the riddle is a good litmus test for how we're doing as a society
is. how person does the -- it's hard to imagine a grown individual being confounded by this brain buster, even the language near hence that everyone in the riddle has a familiarity with one another. but i remember being stumped by it as a little kid. probably because my coterie of medical advisers consisted of a pediatrician, an allergist and ott donetist, all of whom were men. i was too oblivious to the patriarchy. but even knowing what i know now, i really don't understand the doctor's reaction. i don't get the setup. why can't a mother just operate on her son? obviously, it's not ideal with. her judgment could be impairedded by motion. someone else should really do it. but i always picture the riddle taking place in a rural town where she is the only doctor on duty. i imagine her pacing the hall while her son bleeds out on a gurney. all because she can't pull it
together. she just seems like a bad doctor and a hysterical woman which transforms the riddle from feminist to successessist. sexist. was this lady responsible enough to have a child in the fist -- first place? >> thank you. [applause] now rivka will read. >> all right. i'm going to read -- first off, thank you guys for being here. thank you, i'm super excitedded to be on the panel with all of you. i'm going to read the opening of an essay called the case of the angry daughter. my 5-year-old daughter has been called the buddha baby by many a stranger if friends, reliable observers. so when she starts kindergarten, she becomes abruptly no longer the buddha baby. at night she weeps and begs not to go to school. in the morning, the same.
she is sad but also enraged. she punches me in the stomach for not being able to find her bumpy red ball. she says repeatedly she is leaving to find a new family. these moods and feelings, i'm told, are normal, but this doesn't seem normal for her. at the preschool she attended for two years, he ran into her classroom in the morning. at most, she wanted me to wear a -- on a post-it. suddenly i am in one moment, quote, the best mama in the world, and seconds later the worst mama in the whole wide world. it was around this time, late september, that -- [inaudible] there will be more to come, though i don't know that then. how do you spell solve?
how do you spell until? i don't know what she's doing, and then she shows me. cases solved until 8ing. the letters or go across the page left to right, beneath them is a spooky figure drawn in black marker who is holding a lollipop? no, she says, a mag magnifying glass. in the upper corner of the page there's there's a rectangle and another figure standing by. that means i'm not available when i'm playing the piano, she says. she tape thes her sign onto the wall of the living room, something she's never done before. this girl, the calm detective and maker of informative signs, is a change from minutes earlier when she slammed her door and shouted, if that ever happening again, you're going to be eaten by fish. so that in this case was i
hadn't yet gotten her a pumpkin for halloween. the imagery came from i have no idea where over coming weeks she shows she's become attached to the idea of being a detective. she finds keys and wallets, she follows prints. but what her detective phase really does is turn me into a detective who is never sure if there's been a crime. thanks. [applause] >> cliff odd thompson -- cliff ard thompson will go next. >> thank you all for coming. clifford. now i gotta the find mys cay. okay. i'm basically going to read the first three pages of this. this is called eric garner and me. please permit me a crude
analogy. the fall of 2014 was like an unforeseen rainstorm, a cracking open of a heretofore cloudless sky of the kind that used to occur on bad sitcoms of years gone by. everyone who was caught unprepared scrambled for the nearest cover. these people heading to that awning, those people to another. the rain in this analogy is the non-indictment of the police officers who choked erin garner to death -- erin garner to death as shown on the videotape seen by the entire world. all right. [laughter] close on the heels of the non-indictment of the police officers who shot michael brown to death and 16 months after the nonconviction of the self-appointedded public guardian who shot and killed trayvon martin. from the crowd urn one awning, this is the kind of justice blacks can expect. in a white society which is no
justice at all. from the other side of the street, the so-called victims must have been doing something wrong. and then there were those of us caught in the middle of the street, i am not merely trying to seem different or special, and i don't mean to suggest that i was neutral in the debate. in fact, i was one of those shutting down traffic on broadway in new york while chnting i can't breathe. but to stretch this analogy further than it will go, i went out to the protest in the falling rain, the squall blinding me to what i had long believed, perhaps bribe -- blinding me to the others drenched along with me. i am black. the unpunished killings got me angry enough to voice an unequivocal statement, this must stop, of the kind i seldom seem able to make. i lack ideological cover. for many, that cover is merely being black.
for many, it determines their responses to life and events externally if not internally. driven there by others' anger at his own lack of faith in what he says, by his occasional struggle even to form a statement by new information that would make that statement offense reit. i -- obsolete. i am mixing metaphors, a need to simplify, step back, breathe deeply, start at the beginning. the beginning is a family i was born into 52 years ago now, becoming its seventh member, joining my parents, three much older siblings and my maternal grandmother in a poor neighborhood of washington d.c. everyone can complain about his childhood, but i have fewer than most. i was cared for, love offed, i was raised though not purposefully to see the world in neutral terms. our small house did not have an
abundance of space, but we had a basement and a backyard where the view of a housing project in which my friends lived reminded me that i was not actually poor. it's the not that i thought i was rich. rich was what you saw on tv. but seeing that most of the tv rich white did not heat me to in conclusions and, hell, the black family on the jeffersons had their own maid. maybe the twin pillars of the neutrality which i viewed the world were the things missing from my little corner of it. one, discussion of white people. and, two, white people themselves. in those formative years, i had no scarring experiences, in fact, very few experiences of any kind with whites unless you count my being told by classmates that i talked like one. i knew, of course, about slavery, but i also knew or sensed that a new day had come. maybe once most white people had
been evil, but that was over. the clock had been reset. and so in the early 1980s in this new era for which martin luther king jr. had died when i went away to the mostly white college in the cornfields of ohio, a surprise awaited me though it wasn't white racism. instead when a black student circulated a pamphlet about the need to address the discrimination we blacks suffered, i ohioanly did not know what he was -- honestly did not know he was talking about. what we all allow to enroll in the same classes, any segregation, it seemed to me, was voluntary. black students tended to eat together, and most of them lived in african heritage house, a dorm id had not chosen. that decision did not reflect disdain, i simply didn't see the need. i was proud of my heritage.
as an elementary school student, i had turned in unassigned reports, but my pride did not require a whole dorm. so i was assigned to a residence where, another surprise, i turned out to be the the only black male. not that it boored me, not -- bothered me not particularly, i dated one and then another. after moving into a different dorm and making a couple of black friends i learned how much contempt a lot of students had for me, and that's when it hardened into a creed, an emotional armor. i would judge people at -- as individuals. if you didn't like it, to hell with you. [applause] >> and now i'm going to read from an essay, people keep asking me aren't you going to put an essay of your own in one of these anthologies, and unit in the first two, but i
succumbed in this one. it begins with a quote from michelle demon town, the qualify of the essay. mountain says there's nothing so beautiful and legitimate than to play the man well and properly, no knowledge so hard to acquire -- as the most bar barrous of abnormalities to ask despy our being of. i would insist great essay. it inspired with its wisdom and balance. he had the knack, some would say bad taste, of benefiting from an experience at every stage of life and achieving a calm, benign perspective with age which i can't entirely seem to do. i have passed my 70th birthday. the alleged physical filament of a life -- fulfillment of a life span. i look back at all that has
happened to me, and it seems as toe it was practically nothing. to quote the last -- on emerson, quote, i have not live, i want to be someone else. on the other hand, i want to be only myself. i think i know what i'm about. i am comfortable with that person, can distinguish good writing from bad, and decent human beings from jerks. less and less do i feel the need to justify my conclusions. i carry myself in public with impervious self-confidence and private is another story. my students look to me for answers, and i improvise, something that -- [inaudible] most of the dilemmas that shape these young people, the existential, religious or romantic doubts, their future professional prospects, their worries that someone will like them roll off my back. it could be that i'm just numbed, unable to summon the
urgency behind what to them constitutes a crisis. mine is a questionable wisdom of a pasivity. what i cannot change, i no longer let myself be insanely bother by. the latest political folly elicits only a disgruntled shrug. i am more upset when my favorite sports team loses, but then i remind myself it wasn't my fault. are you experienced, asked jimi hendrix tauntingly. does he mean have i slept with 50 group byes, humped a guitar on stage, taken so many drugs that i risked dying from an overdose? in that sense, no, i am not experienced. i wake up between 6 and 6:30
each morning having to pee. my cats know this about me and begin to rummage about bed to make sure i will feed them. i put ghaw coma-controlling drops in my eyes if first thing in the morning and the last thing at night. i have no trouble dropping off to sleep, but i wake up in the night more often than i used to sometimes rouse by nosy neighbors, sometimes by snoring -- mine or my wife's -- sometimes by a dream for no discernible reason. i wake up and start picking my nose to clear the breathing passageways. this is particularly true in winter when the heat goes on at night and dries out the bedroom air. because i don't get enough sleep, in the late afternoon i find my eyes drooping when i read. and many times when i'm at the movies or listening to an opera, i start nodding off. it's outrageous to pay so much for opera tickets and hen doze, but i can't -- and then doze, but i can't help myself. sometimes just to keep awake i
rub my scalp where there used to be hair and often find bumps that i try to smooth out by picking off the loose flesh. when i am in a public place such as the subway or at the movies, i'm always worrying about bedbugs latching on to me, ever since we had an infestation of them a few years back, and i had to take extreme measures to rid ourselves, hauling our all the clothing off to the laundry. every time my skin itches, i think it may be bedbugs. i will do anything to avoid telling a lie. this resistance to lying not so much from ab ethical principle as a superstitious dread as though if i ever started, if i
ever start to lie glibly, i would become a creature of multiple personalities. when you lie, you -- [inaudible] and then that third self has to keep watch and add adjudicate te first two. adultery has never been much of an option for me. of course i have lie on some occasions, but i'm not going to tell you when or where. most of my lies are sins of mission like keeping my mouth shut when i could get into trouble by say what i actually thought. if somebody tells me he loved a movie i find abysmal, i smile and nod enthusiastically though with a slight catch in the head so that if god is watching, he will understand and forgive my deception. why should we be transparent though?
is artness that plant? -- transparent? there is so much we will never be able to understand that we do not need to go in search of mysteries. they will come to us regardless. [applause] so now we're going to open to questions to my fellow panelists about the essays. it turns out all four of us have also written fiction, so what is it that has drawn you to the essay, and how do you know it's an essay and not a piece of fiction? [inaudible conversations] [laughter] >> i'll follow you. >> it's funny, i started, when i set out to to become a writer when i was about 18, i started writing fiction because, to me, that's what writers did, they
wrote -- they made up things. and, you know, sometimes the things were very autobiographical, really autobiographical, but you put this kind of sheen of the made-up on it. i think it was the, i was almost 30, i think, before it even occurred to me to convert any sort of experience i had into nonfiction. i don't know, there was, there was a directness, a kind of, like, an absence of an intermediary i think that appealed to me somehow and that i felt like i had a sort of, i won't call it a knack, but, i don't know, something felt very comfortable about it. yeah -- >> would you say conversational? >> i would, i would, yeah. although it's interesting
because, you know, people is and nonfiction or, like, editors will talk about the, you know, who's your readership. and, you know, for better or worse -- probably worse a lot of the time -- i never think about that. i'm kind of writing to explain things to myself, you know, and to sort of entertain myself. and figure things out for myself. almost the reader, maybe it's a bad thing for a writer to say, but reader's kind of secondary. and i feel like if i can explain things to myself in a way that makes some sense, then maybe if i'm true to that process, then maybe that's where the reader will respond, if they respond. >> rivka. >> yeah, you know, i was thinking it isst like one of the -- when i reads says, here's one of my very favorite forms to read, i sort of read them for a
plot. and by plot i sort of, i guess, like, i can give an example of any of these readings today, but there's this sense that an essay is governed -- not all of them, obviously, but by a certain mood. and you think how is a mood going to shift or move ahead. and i almost find it more suspenseful than, you know, is sherlock holmes going to find, you know, who dropped the five orange pits. i find it simply -- i find that one of the reasons i lo the essay form is because it primes my fiction reading devices more. it's almost like they kind of put emphasis in different places. and so i think both genres benefit at, like, the the edges of the genre are. i love an essay that somehow clears towards another genre, and i love a novel that veers
towards another genre. >> going off of that, i also feel like it's when you talk about the edges of what exist on both, in both form, i think that there is a lot of blur. you might expect especially. as writers of these things that we would go to fiction to make things up and nonfiction to do more reporting. and i think that while that's true, you don't -- we're completely sort of mixed up in how we talk about these things in general. i feel like if i were to give you a novel and say it's just so realistic, it's so real, that would be a compliment. but i feel like the fundamental thing like you're on a sort of granular level. yeah, there are details that could go just because they're observational into either format depending on what i'm working on personally. but in terms of where you going in general, it's like, well,
what's difference between, like, italy and montana. i've actually never been to montana, so maybe it's just like italy. [laughter] i assume vastly different. you go to the operate the same way, just to belabor the analogies, there are certain techniques that are same, but once you're there, you're in an entirely different country, so it's just a matter of where you want to go. >> do you think it's easier to do analysis in an essay than in fiction? and that sort of analysis and speculation is part of the attraction of essay? >> yeah. and i love the kind of cameo thrill of the essay, that it's not just analysis, but like this person is vulnerably revealing that this is their analysis, and it might go wrong in all sorts of ways. just for example, like with cliff or's essay, it's so
terrifying to give feelings on anything everyone already knows how they feel. and it's watching someone like on a high wire. you say this is going to be really frightening, they're going to expose themselves in all these ways, and that's thrilling. and it can't happen with the same intensity, i think, in fiction though other things can happen with the same intensity because i feel like even the most awe to biographical fiction if doesn't have built in the potential for vulnerability than an essay has. i'm already tenning by like, oh, maybe not -- [laughter] but that's part of, for me, the thrill of reading an essay. >> yeah. i mean, you know, it has to move, it has to change. it has to digress, it has to swerve. if it stays on the same plateau, it's not going to work, you know?
so it has to deepen in some way, and that's participant of the exception of, you know, what is the through line here and, you know, how is it going to surprise us. >> yeah. >> i think it's funny, i know what you're saying, but e also sort of completely disagree. [laughter] >> we like it. >> only because for me personally i think, it might be as fundamental as what comes more naturally to you. to me,st not like, oh, this old thing. the essays at the same time, you know, when you talk about something deepening, yeah, you're not building a world because the world is built for you already, can you're reacting a off of it. for fiction i feel like this is me, everything or is my fault. [laughter] from the ground up, from like that stupid character's name to every activity. so i feel like with nonfiction what i love so much about it is
the ability to, yeah, attack the something that everybody always, already knows about from a slightly different angle. as i was listening to you read, there was a familiar mity, and it was the well written, and all of a sudden i was, oh, this is really interesting. i sort of felt left out of the discourse for so long. just a different angle on it that i hadn't heard, but you knew you were going there. >> i can bring you to it again, actually -- [laughter] interesting what you said about, you know, going against the opinions that people already hold. and there's a line from near the end of your essay, sloan, which i just want to read. when it comes to your own life, there's only one location in the world where the right decisions are being kept. and i feel like some version of that sentiment belongs in every essay, because -- only because that, to me, gets at the essence of who an essay is, which is
your individual take on something. you know, i think there's a kind of, there's a paradox at work in essays because at their best they really, they connect with people and they communicate with people, but that almost can't be the aim, you know? i read a definition of kish once, art that's supposed to appeal to everybody and ends up just being stupid, you know? [laughter] i feel like with the essay the more true you are to your individual self and your individual, you know, vision of things, paradoxically the more likely you are to resonate and to surprise, to resonate with people and to surprise people. and it's, it's a hard thing to do. i mean, it's a hard thing to kind of say to, you know, the world, look, you may not like this, but this is what i think, you know? and it's here in print.
>> so do you think, my answer to that in this current atmosphere of polarization and fanaticism, you might say, you know, the essay becomes a place for people to be, for the writer to be contrarian, uncertain, to assert his or her own doubts. so, yes, you belong to a tribe, but then you're not exactly the spokesperson for that tribe, you know? which is what clifford's piece is all about. so many -- in a way in the present moment it becomes a way to slip the noose of all of that self-righteousness, you might say. at least that's my take on it.
i wonder what your response was to reading the book and seeing your fellow contemporary essayists. i'm assuming you didn't just read your own entries. [laughter] >> i remember feeling so, i mean, one thing -- sloan's essay start thes, i mean, to someone who's going to summarize saying it has something to do with being about this psychic experience she has which she basically makes something, it's just so -- i was thinking, like, to use that word uncertainty, i loved way that in the essays in this book and in the say forms you're -- essay forms you kind of stumble and you don't know -- what ride did i just get on, i don't even know. and that's part of, again, just
the thrill of being destabilized because i feel like we all kind of walk around with, like, 11 op-eds sort of in our hearts. [laughter] and these kind of throw them by the way psi. and because they have -- wayside. and because they have sort of startling ways to get into you, they get past your defenses. i don't know, that was something i loved reading these us says was that i didn't -- i can't summarize them, i didn't know they were going. i felt really destabilize inside a good way. i felt like a relief, a relief from my kind of, you know, cage of pretty stable opinion. >> i felt, i thought a couple of things while i was reading these. one is that, you know, it's like you get a random, you know, to some extent ran tom group of essays together the, and the -- but even with that randomness,
surprising kind of, like, echoes among -- the barry lopez piece is about traveling with indigenous people, and he says that, like, when he's with them, he notices that they tend to observe things in context more than barry lopez did. so if they came across a bear eating, he would focus on the bear whereas the people he was with would kind of see the bear as part of this larger context. and then i read john mcfee's essay which is not about all or any of that, and yet it has this line in it, it was the vision of a whole land with an animal in it, which is, which might be, you know, that one sentence might be in barry lopez's essay. so i was really struck by kind of connections and echoes like that. and the other thing that occurred to me was actually about your essay, rivka, which
is that that it's almost like your essay, the case of the angry daughter, like formalizes what essays do. i feel like on some level every personal essay is an aa tempt to find out something, you know? and you just kind of, like, okay, this is a mystery. i've turned this into a mystery, is so i'm going the try and find out a what this is about. so i neal applied to many -- applied to many, most of the pieces in the book. >> you're the most generous reader. [laughter] but it's the true. no, all of this is true. it's funny, on a very basic level i was very excited, and i thought i sort of walk around thinking that most of my heroes for what i specifically do are dead. so i was really happy -- [laughter] to find, to just partially find new ones, you know, and find
people who i do, you know, associate with fiction, writing and these sort of powerful pieces, but have that sense of deepening and have that sense of suspense that i do think is actually for better or worse an influence on the american essay. too much tv? it's a really good result of it. but then also you reminded me of others that i really liked, the charles -- [inaudible] really liked. maggie nelson. she's in there, right? i thought i saw -- okay. >> yeah. [laughter] >> it's like -- but i think it was just at first -- and, again, to sort of use a humor analogy i remember when i first took a gander at the table of contents, a duck walked into a bar, what do these things have in common? that's the beauty of it. i know you weren't going for theme in that way. but there was something, it did
feel like this, like are, lovely, unified voice, and i was just very surprised by that. >> you know, as part of that unified quality may be my own limitation which is that i veer towards humor and irony. anything too solemn kind of turns me off, you know? and i noticed way all three of you work with humor, you know? so it just seems like one of the specialties of -- potentialitis. >> oh, yeah, the self-depracation, i think, has become biggest tool in the toolbox. >> [inaudible] >> everything i'm saying, but it's basically become so extreme that i think what's great about
the essays in this book are just successful contemporary essays in general, balance it with the lady doth protest too much. i think a way of doing that is actually to have meat on the bone of all of your essays. the people here, they definitely do. they have actual topics and points, beautiful. >> yeah, i think one of the hardest things for an essayist to do, instead of just self-depracating, suggesting the strength and accomplishment that he or she has, you know? that they're not just do-dos, you know? because the whole question of how does an essay assert authority if you're not a scientist the, you're not a, you know, a government official or anything, how do you assert
authority if it's just yourself, you know? >> right. it seems like the process of working things out on the page, you know, i think the authority comes from having just thought about something so deeply that you have arrived at this point. and the source of the authority is just having thought about it and debated it with yours. and, you know -- with yourself. your point might even be, what's word, preliminary or tentative, but it's, you know, it's like this is what i think i think, you know? [laughter] >> the essay tracks your thoughts. >> yeah. >> yeah. what do you think of establishing authority? >> and i'm thinking about it in terms of the past authority of kind of self-depp -- depracation. and i think it has something to do with companionship, there's
something about it's not the authority of someone who knows more about you, it's the authority of someone that you've had a really long conversation with, and you've kind of gotten to watch all the -- and you can even, i mean, i sort of feel like it's sort of inviting you to have, like, to disagree or have an aversion or to feel bad you agreed a minute ago because you're going to turn it on you. and i feel like that dynamic relationship that it kind of goes by sentence is sort of, it's almost like a companion kind of authority as opposed to a someone you don't know. there's something about essays you feel you know them when you read them or i do. that's my experience with them. >> even though the voice on the page of the narrator of an essay isn't exactly the same as a writer, you know? so you have to construct a persona in order to be that
convincing or believable. it is an artificial process in a way, you know? it isn't just transparency. .. conversation with your dead ancestors. so, how important is it to know the lineage? to know the canon of the essay you might say. >> guest: it certainly helps, it certainly helps. if only kind of to distinguish yourself from it. it is great in europe you
invoke this of the essay. but you put daylight between you and him, i noticed the site which is partly about baldwin too, he uses a baldwin as a lens through which to look at a lot of things. he also again, this is where we part company this is where baldwin and i part company. that can be a very useful way to look at it. >> directly in conversation with baldwin. exactly. so yes, you do not have to reinvent the wheel. a lot of the tools have already been provided by these wonderful dead authors for who
i like especially because you do not have to pay them residuals. [laughter] >> i do not think you need, it depends what you're writing. special if your writing narrative and first-person stuff which is personal which i imagine some people here probably are. it is not necessarily about getting out some textbook you can hold your door open with its having some awareness of who's shoulders you are standing on and again to your point, at the bare minimum you imitated and then embarrass yourself. >> sometimes you have to start by imitating. i am not against imitating. i think we fail to imitate our curios that gap between what we like and they wrote is the measure of our originality. >> that is true.
>> that is true. >> exactly. >> any other thoughts you might have? i think one question i have, the essay in the present moment. a lot of people are experimenting with hybridization, with mixing fiction and nonfiction with visual forms of the essay. even with essay films there is a lot of interest in deconstructing and awake now, what do you think about that? >> i feel like there are irreducible in this. and i think it is absolutely -- i have trouble with rules
against doing this or this. i think anything you want to do is fine. but you are right when you identify a sort of shift at some point in the essay as the thing you're looking for. so it does not stay on one emotional plane. i feel like there has to be some sort of change at some point. however subtle that might be. i read a lot of student essays and i really like most of them. often what i find is missing is this is an interesting event but why are you telling me about it? what does this mean to you? i think that is the other irreducible element for me.
>> host: so how do you get your students to say why? they are very uncertain how do you get them to say that? >> revision. that is where the action is. what is this about one, and to what you have to say about that? and that process, figuring out what you have to say about it, figuring out what it is about if you can look through that lens of what you have written you start to see what you need to keep and what you can throw away and what you can enhance. >> this is a port in the story the situation is what happened, the story is what you made of what happened. we have time for just a few questions if there are any in the audience.
guess? [inaudible] [inaudible] [inaudible] could you repeat that one more time? >> what separates what we are proud of from. [inaudible] how do you accept your own work? [laughter] i think that's an interesting personality question. our member once i was interviewing a writer who's written like 90 novels and he sticks with he does not revise them. >> i was interviewing one of my favorite dead writers. >> no, i member this is a
personality thing, his take on and his method worked for him it would not work for a lot of other people in his take was who might essay whether my book is a good? that was his take when i. reporter: my book and i decide if it's good or not or if i should change it that was quite radical and i am not like that. i thought that was an interesting extreme he was a sort of saying i am the last to know i do not advocate it but i thought it was interesting. [laughter] >> i think as an essayist, what you don't want to do in the work of mind that never sees the light of day as i wrote a couple weeks ago showed it to my wife and a friend of mine they both said you are kind of complaining. [laughter] nobody wants to read that. [laughter] sometimes like a first draft if you realize you are complaining, okay i need to go through and see what i'm really trying to say that is beyond complaint. people have complaints of
their own they do not need yours. >> i am sort of looking for density of intelligence. if i am reading something i wrote and i feel like the intelligence is condensed the fact that there is any intelligent startles me like gee i was so smart when i wrote that, what happened to me? [laughter] so i am looking for that and sometimes it really comes about through happy, some of his talk on the phone, why don't you say something? >> i was just going to say it's like the vivian gornick thing with the fiction version virginia woolf station of rambo and granites. there are two elements especially for narrative stuff. you have the story i guess you have what happened, you have what happened and to me the other half is a point.
they tend to come, sometimes one comes first sometimes the other comes first i have this amazing story or i have a point is there any bullet points of experience i can put underneath that? it is like magnets or electricity, if they don't match over well enough or if they are not touching well enough is the best way i could think to describe it, you end up complaining. or you end up pontificating. you have stopped both entertaining people or making a point. and with that i will stop. [laughter] [laughter] >> we have time for more question. yes? [inaudible]
>> my first read your question one of your anthologies of essays was about ten or 15 years ago in the world has changed so much in terms of social media and everyone having a platform. i am wondering, even now when i read modern love columns thing start to sound repetitive. i am wondering if you think the artform has suffered from overexposure of or a lowering of a barrier to entry? all of your included in that comment. >> i don't think technology has affected the really literary essays. there are blogs that are beautifully written blogs that are terribly written. it has always been a real minority it's a good work has been a real minority. i don't think the standards have been lowered. just like how many novels are good, how many poems are good come home and essays are good