Someone once said to Robert Vivian that real writers write novels, not essays, fighting words that in part inspired this wonderfully personal essay on essays by my indefatigable and otherwise gentle friend and colleague (at Vermont College of Fine Arts) who herein describes his own turn to the essay many years ago in a London cemetery when he was 22. Robert Vivian is a Nebraska native (now living in Michigan where he teaches at Alma College), and a former baseball player (sorry, I DO have to keep mentioning this because it is 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.” 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. Earlier on these pages, I published is “Thoughts on the Meditative Essay.”
Out beyond ideas of right and wrong doing, there is a field.
I will meet you there. — Rumi
Many years ago I turned to essay writing in a most fundamental and organic way, like some human kind of turning plant whose leaves and petals reached out for the miraculous nourishment of photosynthesis, even though I wasn’t quite aware of it at the time. I was 22 and abroad in London for the first time away from my native state of Nebraska, volunteering at Highgate Cemetery to clean headstones under the guidance of a wise and proper old English lady named Edith. One of my American professors there required that we keep an extensive journal of our time abroad, and so I was doing my part to meet this requirement when a subtle but ultimately life-altering thing happened that I only realize fully now with the benefit of hindsight: I found that having to write about what I saw, thought, felt and experienced or observed without apology or reservation on this first trip out of America was oddly satisfying and absorbing, so much so that I began to care about this kind of writing in a way I never had before; that is, I wanted and was even grateful to do these assignments, and when my professor handed these writings back, I saw that he had responded mostly favorably to them. He liked the way I tried to describe the cemetery and kindly, old Edith and how they registered in my awareness, and no one had ever really communicated such sentiments about my writing ability before this time.
Among the snowdrops and the damp, chilly air of Highgate Cemetery and London, I was reborn, but again I didn’t quite realize it then, for it was the first time someone had ever taken my humble observations about the world at all seriously. About a year before the trip to London I was not what you would call a promising or hardly stellar student, but I had—cliché of cliché’s—been gob smacked one day sitting in a course on the Romantic poets taught by a rather glamorous and beautiful professor and had fallen in love with poetry or with her, and it scarcely mattered which it was. That spark had led to the visit to London and my deepening desire to become a writer as I tried to write poems and prose about what I was observing in England as a wide-eyed visitor. Both professors did me an incalculable service as a human being and incipient writer, and I will forever be grateful to them for catalyzing in me a love of language along with the frame-work to practice at it—in the case of extensive journal-writing—as I tried to make sense out of the English way of life around me. After London I stopped writing essays but turned to writing poetry and then to plays, and it would be several years before I went back to essays as a reprieve from the oftentimes bleak and incomprehensible plays I had hung my hat on at the time.
I mention all this as a prelude to the subject of creative nonfiction today as I wish to give you all some slight idea of how I ended up as a practitioner of the form, or as one of the characters in Edward Albee’s “Zoo Story” says, “Sometimes you have to go a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance correctly.” I would usually resort to writing essays as a reprieve from other forms only to turn to them more often and with greater and deeper dearness that continues to this day. Annie Dillard once wrote that “Essays can do everything a poem can do, and everything a short story can do—everything but fake it,” and I heartily agree: writing those first essays back in London, I sought to make sense of what I was seeing and experiencing, and how a woman like Edith could touch me so profoundly and forever by her dignity and kindness as reflected in her deeply wrinkled face whose every line and furrow bespoke years of living and suffering along with a quiet, ineffable joy. I was pretty naïve and open then, though I still believe that writing essays comes primarily out of a sense of asking and wondering about people and things and speculating on their meaning and significance, including the life that was given to me to live. I wanted to bring up all the aforementioned as an apology of sorts (or maybe species of bemusement is a better way to put it) for my lack of an utter staunch or definitive stand for what creative nonfiction is or purports to be or any pleading stance on this contested form or why it is so often bedeviled as a genre and quite controversial, more so, perhaps, than any other literary genre.
We know—etymologically speaking—that poets make poems, that fiction writers invent narratives, that playwrights work on plays and drama, and that essayists try or attempt to articulate through crafted language to arrive at some truth or observation about their own experiences. We know this because the deep history and definitions of these words tell us so. And yet—for good and solid reasons—many people are a little troubled or even put off at the very label of creative nonfiction: How can one be creative with something that is supposed to be factual and true? And why is nonfiction the only genre defined as much by what it isn’t than by what it is? Imagine for a moment genres like non-poetry, non-drama: How could such hypothetical genres hold their heads up or defend their integrity, let alone be taken seriously?
But if you if feel and believe, as I do, that writing about what a person actually sees, feels, and experiences as a human being in this world is relevant, important, sometimes even revelatory as a way to make sense of oneself and others and that this is inherently worth doing, like James Baldwin does in “Stranger in the Village,” chronicling his time in a remote Swiss village writing his first novel Go Tell It On The Mountain and reflecting on the fact that he was the first person of color to ever visit this remote place, or E.B. White in “Once More To The Lake” and his meditation on his own mortality vis-à-vis observing his son’s visit to the lake and the memory of his dead father that hovers over him with a haunting sense of déjà vu and his very own doppelganger, or what Joan Didion does in The Year Of Magical Thinking, articulating and somehow trying to come to terms with her profound grief in the face of her husband’s death and daughter’s life-threatening illness along with countless other moving examples of nonfiction then maybe, just maybe we need not be so unduly troubled by the controversies surrounding CNF and writers like John D’Agata and his books About A Mountain and The Lifespan Of A Fact or James Frey and his A Million Little Pieces or even Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood who admitted in the writing of this book that he was “seeking truth but not necessarily accuracy.” All of the writers I mentioned write essays or kinds of creative nonfiction (or did), and regardless of one’s opinion on the merit of their work or stated credos, they all to a person pay keen attention to the style and impact of their prose just as much as any writer does in any genre, and it is this same artistic emphasis that makes creative nonfiction literary.
Not everyone agrees on this, and to my mind, this is okay: as Yeats instructs us, the most important arguments we ever have are with ourselves. But I remember a good friend in graduate school, a mentor of sorts and one of the most profoundly read people I’ve ever met, tell me one day with great passion and even vehemence, “Bob, real writers write novels, not essays”—a seething pronouncement he leveled at me when I mentioned to him how much I was enjoying teaching Annie Dillard’s Teaching A Stone To Talk. His comment didn’t offend me very much, because the more I read of Dillard in this particular book and the more I tried to teach it, the more I found myself trying to write essays like her, and I found the whole process absorbing and rewarding, joyful even, despite my friend’s scathing disavowal. But the bugaboos surrounding creative nonfiction are not so easily dispatched, especially considering the fact that Justin Beiber has written a memoir: because there will always be writers who do not think facts are sacrosanct in nonfiction, who believe facts can be manipulated like so much clay for a desired effect. John D’Agata, for example, uses 34 for the number of strip clubs in Las Vegas in one of his essays when he knew the actual number to be 31, claiming that 34 is somehow more interesting and artistically pleasing than 31: I don’t quite see or understand his aesthetic argument here, but I do see how this kind of conscious manipulation might offend, anger, or disappoint readers and thus further stain and besmirch the genre of creative nonfiction and call into question its status as a serious art form.
In writing essays myself, by the way, I try to be as factually accurate as possible because I don’t see that very much can be gained by consciously manipulating them; I don’t view them as obstacles or enemies but just another element that can be every bit as mysterious as the imagination and sometimes even more so. I have no beef with the fact that there are 31 strip clubs in Las Vegas anymore than I care overmuch that I had a Subway sandwich for lunch and not lobster bisque. I’m much more interested—infinitely so—in how or why it is that the essays of James Baldwin, for example, an African-American writer who grew up in Harlem, could speak so personally and movingly to me as a young white man growing up Omaha as if in the act of reading his work we had somehow swapped souls. When I read “Notes Of A Native Son”back in Omaha shortly before leaving for England (one year, it seemed, and one class turned me forever in the direction of literature) I knew what he was writing about expressed a deep and troubling truth about living in America, that the color of one’s skin then and now profoundly influences how one is viewed, but I also came to know through Baldwin that despite the outer circumstances and backgrounds that we were somehow also spiritual brothers in a way and that he had so much to teach me about myself and others even as he was writing about his own experiences.
Somehow it was the intimacy of Baldwin reflecting on his own life and daring to be so honest about it that instilled in me a sense of great dignity and nobility of spirit, which I think are the hallmarks of what the best essays and forms of creative nonfiction can confer every bit as powerfully as any poem, novel, or play. I feel very strongly about this because I’ve worked and published in all the genres and I’ve taught and studied all of them also, and I’m quietly but firmly convinced that the “I” in a serious essay or memoir is not a character or simulacrum of the author but her or his truest self or essence, a claim I understand is not always true in some cases, though those same some examples may prove the rule, not the exception. The essay as a form has been around at least 300 years or so in the Essais of Michel de Montaigne, and some contend the form is even older than that: only the acronym creative nonfiction is new or recent, along with perhaps some of its subgenres like immersion essay, though even this is debatable. So in many crucial ways the controversies surrounding the form do not in any way detract from the deep currents of its tradition, which feels almost scandalous to admit out loud.
For me, the best essays function as places of intimate encounter as we get to know the “I,” the writer at a very deep level even as we come to a better understanding of ourselves. Come with me now to a passage from Thomas Merton’s beautiful book When The Trees Say Nothing: “Again, sense of the importance, the urgency of seeing, fully aware, experiencing what is here… Clear realization that I must begin with these first elements. That it is absurd to inquire after my function in the world, or whether I have one, as long as I am not first of all alive and awake. And if that, and no more, is my job (for it is certainly every man’s job), then I am grateful for it. The vanity of all false missions, when no one is sent. All the universal outcry of people who have not been told to cry out, but who are driven to this noise by their fear, their lack of what is right in front of their noses.” I love this passage, and return to it often; it comes from first person nonfiction prose, and Merton did not even intend to publish the musings in this book. This is one man, one person alive and awake in the world, commenting on his deepest convictions and felt truths in order to make sense of something for himself, and, by extension, to reveal these truths for others like myself, even if he did not intend to accomplish this. This is the unique and personal power of nonfiction prose, for Merton is utterly vulnerable and authentic here on the page for anyone who would read and absorb these words.
That is why my evolving metaphor for the personal essay is an open field where reader and writer encounter each other; like Rumi instructs in his poem, there is a world beyond good and bad doings, and it’s possible to meet someone there. This is what the best of creative nonfiction has to teach or by way of invitation, to meet the “I” of nonfiction prose in the field of an essay only to realize, if the work is real and true, that you are always meeting yourself in the guise of another, and that this same paradoxical encounter is one of the hopeful human lights of this world.
ROBERT VIVIAN’s first book, Cold Snap As Yearning, won the Society of Midland Authors Award in Nonfiction and the Nebraska Center for the Book in 2002. His first novel, The Mover Of Bones, was published in 2006 and is Part I of The Tall Grass Trilogy. Part II, Lamb Bright Saviors, was recently published–and Part III, Another Burning Kingdom, will be published in 2011. His next collection of essays, The Least Cricket Of Evening, will also be published in 2011. His most recent novel, Water And Abandon, will be published in 2012; and he’s just completed another novel, The Long Fall To Dirt Heaven. He also writes plays, over twenty of which have been produced in NYC. Many of his monologues have been published in Best Men’s Stage Monologues and Best Women’s Stage Monologues. His most recent foray into playwriting was an adaptation of Ibsen’s Ghosts that premiered at Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo in 2006. His stories, poems, and essays have been published in Harper’s, Georgia Review, Ecotone, Numéro Cinq, Creative Non!fiction, Glimmer Train, and dozens of others. He is Associate Professor of English at Alma College in Michigan and a member of the faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts.