Jan 162012


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.

—Robert Vivian

  26 Responses to “Thoughts on the Meditative Essay: Robert Vivian”

  1. It was a real pleasure taking the meditative essay workshop with Bob and Pat. I recommend it for others in the future.

    • Robert Vivian explains the meditative essay in a simple yet meaningful way that puts one at ease. I think I have probably been writing this form of nonfiction, but was not able to define it as a subgenre of nonfiction until now.

  2. Beautifully rendered. And I love that an essay on the meditative essay is so darn meditative.

  3. This definition of the meditative essay reads like a meditative essay itself…and as only Robert Vivian could write it, and envision it. If you haven’t read Vivian’s essay collections, I urge you to do so. Immediately! Both “Cold Snap as Yearning” and “The Least Cricket of Evening” are stunning and will, simply, take your breath away.

  4. I better understand this writing process after reading Robert Vivian’s essay. His description reminds me of painting a self-portrait that needed no mirror to create.

  5. Beautiful, soulful, poetic, a perfect meditative essay in itself. I agree, Anna Maria, and hope that others have the opportunity to study with Bob and Pat Madden in their wonderful meditative essay workshop.

  6. Beautiful.

  7. Mesmerized…sigh

  8. The workshop sounds wonderful! Thanks for this lovely meditation on the meditative essay!!

  9. Beautiful and inspiring. Thank you.

  10. Dear Fellow Writers–
    Thank you for your thoughtful and encouraging replies to this little piece on the m.e. And thank you to Doug Glover who was so quick and gracious to read it and accept it, partial and imperfect though it may be. I wrote to him that Numero Cinq is a veritable tsunami of art, and he’s the catalyst behind this wonderful and ongoing movement. I’m new to the blogosphere and am just beginning to understand how powerful and sustaining it is. warmly, r

  11. I love the image of the essay as a shy wild animal. So often in writing an essay that has been my own experience. Makes me think of something else that Keats said: “let us not therefore go hurrying about and collecting honey, bee-like buzzing here and there impatiently from a knowledge of what is to be aimed at; but let us open our leaves like a flower and be passive and receptive – budding patiently under the eye of Apollo and taking hints from every noble insect that favours us with a visit – sap will be given us for meat and dew for drink.”

  12. A meditative essay sounds like a long pose poem rising from the depths of the writer’s soul to be shared with the world whether understood or not.

  13. And a meditative essay is a lyric one, and a narrative and a reportage. It ebbs and flows, ducks in and out of the other forms of nonfiction. Yes, it surprises–that’s what good writing does. It’s the diamond compressed in the center, the denouement, briefly illumined, and not nearly enough published in literary journals.

  14. Must say, I enjoyed this very much. A meditative write on the meditative essay; dare say, I cannot wait to find Robert Vivian’s book of essays per S. Silverman’s comment. Thank you ~

  15. The often elusive nature of the meditative essay is what makes it such a prayerful and soul-infused work of art—truly a work of art. I find there is less blood and sweat to the writing of meditative essays and more psychological battling—a search for emotional honesty, a patience and faith in the world around you. I am in the middle of Vivian’s The Least Cricket of Evening, currently haunted by the white dog of his essay, “Notes from the Konukevi.” I highly recommend it! Thanks for posting this.

  16. I’d wished I’d had the pleasure of taking your workshop on meditative essay workshop while at the VCFA!

  17. Thank you for this piece. It is refreshing, quiet and thoughtful. How wonderful to hear about something that cannot be defined, is not easily categorized; something that is a lived experience. Like life. Or love.
    Interesting perspective on style-content: definitely something to contemplate.

  18. Thank you for helping this “shy wild animal” finally understand that the stack of randomness which sits on his desk undefined, actually might have some literary value other than simply being a window to my soul. As someone who only late in life discovered an art form which allows me an outlet, I cannot remember a time where I have been pegged so accurately. Sometimes my lack of ability to “create” frustrates me. Other times, as if The Bird being sought, my pen cannot refrain from revealing my innermost emotions and the intimate feelings my heart has been doing its best to define and comprehend. The foot high stack of napkins, papers, torn wrappers and what not carry years worth of my most intimate thoughts. So intimate, my body shutters at the thought of rereading them. Most have been penned and been left to ferment…Seems I am going to need to conjure up some courage and figure out a way to share these….

  19. Absolutely beautiful essay! Thank you for this, and thank you to Doug Glover too.

  20. Thank you Doug Glover for posting this book of gems. Vivian’s essay rings in me like a distant bell. It call me back to what I love about writing–the joy of discovery, the moment of observation that allows me to see the old in a fresh light. I’ll keep returning to this resource Doug. Thanks again. Susan

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