Robert Vivian is a good friend and colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts, a Nebraska native, and a former baseball player (a fact that I find endlessly fascinating—Nebraska and baseball: some echo of the American epic in those words). He is a prolific writer of superb meditative essays and a fine novelist, also a playwright and poet. Of the second novel in his The Tall Grass Trilogy, I wrote: “Robert Vivian’s Lamb Bright Saviors is a brave and profoundly moving novel of faith and forgiveness. A closely-observed novel of voices, it speaks the tongues of America’s impoverished underbelly and reveals, amid the squalor, mystery, goodness and salvation.” Robert Vivian teaches at Alma College in Michigan. He is the author of The Tall Grass Trilogy (The Mover Of Bones, Lamb Bright Saviors, and Another Burning Kingdom) and the essay collections Cold Snap As Yearning and The Least Cricket Of Evening. His next novel, Water And Abandon, will be out this fall.
A Few Thoughts On The Meditative Essay
By Robert Vivian
The meditative essay hinges on stillness, on a moment delicately teased out of the cogs of time to live in the timeless present: it is not interested much in opinions or even ideas, preferring instead to live in the realm of pondering and contemplation (though the aforementioned may be used as initiating sparks). Its primary focus is not the self, though it uses the self and all that it has to give as a kind of booster rocket that, once the prose reaches certain insights, is jettisoned or spent, much like shuttles that are launched into outer space as we see those burning hoops fall back into the pearly clouds after they have done their proper work of achieving escape velocity. The meditative essay is comfortable and downright friendly with paradox and has no real axe to grind: it’s too intent on paying attention to what bids it keenest focus and delight, be it a button, a homeless woman, the changing of the seasons, or the prevalence of roadkill in a certain area. It is not concerned with hierarchy or competition or anything that goes by the name of ambition or force and draws attention to itself only for the music of its cadences and what these cadences reveal, which are very often surprising to its practitioners, so much so that this same quality of surprise is the meditative essay’s own intrinsic and unshatterable reward.
It lives most abundantly—thank goodness—in what the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur called a “post-critical naïveté”—a term he coined that, according to Thomas Berry in his forward to Thomas Merton’s lovely book When The Trees Say Nothing, “brings together the response of both innocence and experience as we pass through the unfolding events of these times.” But the meditative essay is also a very elusive creature, as elusive as anything, perhaps, in any genre. Why is it elusive, and what do I mean here by elusive? Because the meditative essay cannot be willed or forced and certainly not argued into existence; it comes, like Keats says about writing good poems, like leaves to a tree—that is, the meditative essay comes organically, holistically, though of course not without the patient practice and observance of its creator. More than anything, the meditative essay is like a shy wild animal that will bolt at the slightest sign of undue ego or aggression, though it may occasionally use tiny bits of these to furnish its lair. When the meditative essay is fully and truly itself, we know its author so intimately that we swap souls with her or him: it is a consummately intimate form of exchange, as tender as a confiding lover propped up on his or her elbow in bed after lovemaking. Fear is not in its nature, nor is blame or accusation; indeed, intimacy may be its single-most distinguishing characteristic, the way it takes us into the heart, mind and soul of its author.
When a meditative essay is really working (i.e., really living) we can trust it completely, trust it so much, finally, that it’s like a kind of betrothal. It is not afraid to love and embrace everything its eye lights upon, which is not to say that it cannot be honest or direct, sometimes penetratingly so; because it is essentially a fearless art form, it isn’t afraid “to tell it like it is,” though the quality of this same telling is markedly different perhaps than other forms of truth-telling, for it does not shout or thunder away or succumb to violent outbursts (which is another reason why we can trust it). Ultimately, of course, a meditative essay cannot be completely defined but only read or experienced: like Merwin writes in one of his poems, “Whether or not you know you will know”—and ditto for reading a true meditative essay. Increasingly, I’m coming to believe that the meditative essay can only be written from a deep well-spring of love, though I know some might object to this because it may not sound literary enough: but like Yeats reminds us, the most important arguments we ever have are with ourselves (and so I do not wish to argue this point, only express it as clearly and simply as possible). I can only share what I have come to know and learn in the process of writing meditative essays, the particular subgenre of creative nonfiction that is my own heart’s darling.
However you personally come to know meditative essays in the process of reading, writing and discussing them in this workshop and beyond (though many of you have been writing them all along, perhaps without even knowing it), it’s good and helpful to realize that there really are no boundaries in this form in terms of style-content (use a hyphen here because I believe they’re actually the same thing) or where they can take you: they are, like we are, personal, quirky, and idiosyncratic—but they also come out of an over-arching universal that ultimately binds all of us together. We must wait for them like an avid bird-watcher with her binoculars and walking stick, attendant to their sudden appearance and reverent as we watch them go about their secret, hidden lives that are temporarily revealed to us before they fly back to where they came from, a region we can never fully know or understand, only experience from time to time.