David Foster Wallace: Page Engineer

David Foster Wallace understood, possibly better than any other writer of his time, how to manipulate the contents of a page to convey a certain meaning. In all of his essays he uses extensive footnotes, self-descriptive boldface titles, and excerpts from different parts of the essays in order to tell a story that is distinctly his own. Wallace’s organization and structure of his essays is often just as essential to the overall meaning as the central narrative of the story. To put it simply, Wallace knew his way around a page of text.

Wallace’s most interesting way of forming not only a page of text, but also an interactive and dynamic form of essaying, is his long footnotes. In contrast to the normal way of using footnotes to clarify or extend ones thoughts, Wallace utilizes them in a very unique way. His footnotes often go on tangents that sometimes have no direct relation to the content of his writing. In one of his most popular essays “Consider the Lobster”,” Wallace uses footnotes to speak along with his central narrative.

The two main lines that his story follows are his physical observations and his internal train of thought that deals with larger, more introspective ideas. He speaks in the body of the essay about how lobsters are consumed. “For one thing, its not just that the lobsters get boiled alive, its that you do it yourself.” His commentary on boiling lobsters on-site is general at first, but his footnote regarding this sentence delves into the moral and ethical. “We eat these meats without having to consider that they were once conscious, sentient creatures to whom horrible things were done.”

In each of Wallace’s essays, there are AT LEAST two central lines of thought that should be considered equally. Wallace uses footnotes to suggest that each of the ideas that he explores have multiple meanings and multiple reasons why they are important. In a way, he uses footnotes to derail the reader from the normative way of thinking about reading–one that is direct and overly simplified. Wallace wants his reader to know that the written word is a multi-dimensional space that can be explored in many different ways. While normal footnotes add clarity, Wallace’s footnotes add more content for the reader to think about.

Another way that Wallace has mastered the page is by using titles that organize his thoughts. Not only do they provide a well-received mooring for the reader to tie on to, they often highlight parts of a paragraph that Wallace thinks are important and worth knowing. They are not always situated at the bulls-eye of a paragraph and this is done purposefully. One of the most fascinating examples of this is in Wallace’s essay called “E Unibus Plurum: Television and U.S. Fiction.” About halfway through the essay, he uses a boldface title “I Do Have a Thesis.” This caught me off guard when I read it, because I had assumed that his thesis was at the beginning, I was sure I had read it and understood it to be the organizing premise of the essay. Then it dawned on me that this was one of the most brilliant literary decisions that I have never seen. Wallace chooses to shatter one of our greatest predispositions regarding the essay–that the thesis must come at the beginning. This is another example of Wallace challenging the “accepted” version of the essay.

Wallace used lots of different tactics in his writing to isolate and complicate sections of  narratives so his work behaved in a way that was more tedious to read but was also more intrinsically human. Wallace understood how to expand a narrative through footnotes, without losing the central narrative in his writing.

Instead of seeing just a page with some writing on it, Wallace used the entire page as his canvas. He often wrote for journals and online mediums, so he knew just how the reader would view his work. This way, he could design the page the way that he wanted it to look to the reader. This is a fairly new concept because editors and publishers are normally specific about the presentation of a piece of writing. Wallace insisted on being published in a certain way. Publishers of Wallace would often say that they were going to finalize a piece of his work, just for him to look at it and want to make changes.

In Wallace’s essay “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men.” Wallace really makes the reader pay attention to a different form of writing. He mixes direct exchanges of dialogue with normal narrative. In this way, the essay reads part like a play, and part like a normal story. He does this by omitting the questions asked in the interviews and labeling them simply as Q. This leaves the reader wondering what the exact question was and how it relates to the answer. In this way, Wallace presents the reader a sort of puzzle that they must piece together in order to make sense of it all.

Hunter S. Thompson: The Not-Reporter

In my own country I am in a far-off land
I am strong but I have no force or power
I win all yet remain a loser
At break of day I say goodnight
When I lie down I have a great fear
Of falling.

– François Villon

 

“Roll em, boys”

Hunter S. Thompson writes with a dusty and ragtag style. He is kin of the basking lizards and screeching hawks that reside in Oakland. His writing embodies the lifestyles he chooses to write about. In his book that brought initial fame to his writing career, Thompson immerses himself in the notorious Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang. I do not believe that any other writer could have taken on such a daunting task. Not only did he get so close to the gang as to learn many of their trade secrets and gain their trust, he made himself to be one of them. In a similar way, Thompson’s writing seems to don the sleeveless denim, the unkempt hair and the overwhelming feeling of reckless freedom in this book.

Rejecting Objectivity:

This style of writing has since been referred to as Gonzo Journalism. It is a style that was created and exemplified by Thompson, mainly in his most famous book”Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” as well as every other piece. This style is an energetic and participatory take on the original idea of literary journalism. Gonzo Journalism however, is most characterized by a first-person narrative without claims of objectivity. The most interesting thing about this style is that it makes the author (or reporter) the protagonist. Thompson breaks boundaries that have been in place since the beginning of print news. How brave of him to not only saddle up with some of the most notoriously brutish outlaws, but to totally erase the line between reporting and dramatic storytelling is truly a great feat.

Writing in the Raw:

For Thompson, the personality and impact of a piece is as important as the event or actual subject of the piece. Oftentimes, he hits the reader with dirty humor, sarcasm, exaggeration and profanity.  Nothing gets in the way of Thompson telling his story. “Only a few cultivate a noticeable body odor. Those with wives and steady girl friends bathe as often as most half-employed people, and make up for it by fouling their clothes more often.” Nobody else could have conveyed the pure chaos of the Hell’s Angels and characterized the essence of against-the-grain-American better than Thompson.

Fictional Truth:

Thompson said that Gonzo style is “part fiction, part truth. “Although Gonzo Journalism is sometimes considered a sub-genre of New Journalism, Thompson responded to these claims by saying, “Unlike Tom Wolfe or Gay Talese, for instance, I almost never try to reconstruct a story. They’re both much better reporters than I am, but then I don’t really think of myself as a reporter.” The difference between the two forms of literary journalism is clear.  New Journalism such as that of Joan Didion attempts to reconstruct a story as closely as possible through her most pertinent memories and notes. In Thompson’s style of writing, he does not even attempt to be factual or truthful, except for when he wants to be.

Not-Reporting:

The main difference between Gonzo Journalism and traditional journalism is that it involves an approach to accuracy that includes the experiences and emotions of the writer.

Thompson also draws his incredible power from social-critique and self-satire. In his writing, he calls out all the bullshit of the main-stream press and corrupt government.

 

Ralph Waldo Emerson: Master of the Single Thought

 

“A single thought has no limit to its value.”- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson is a master of sentences; he constructs each one with care and purpose. It seems to me as if one of Emerson’s sentences could serve in itself as a great work of literature. He writes aphoristically, meaning that his writing contains a general truth or fact of importance. This is an understatement when referring to Emerson’s writing; it contains powerful truth and facts of immense importance to anyone who wants to live well, think well, and write well. He also writes analogously. Emerson says that “all thinking is analogizing, and it is the use of life to learn metonymy. ”

The way in which Emerson achieves this encapsulating and highly significant writing style is even more incredible. Each of his sentences are a microcosm of his literary whole.

“It is the avowal of the unschooled man that he finds a quality in him that is negligent of expense, of health, of life, of danger, of hatred, of reproach, and knows that his will is higher and more excellent than all actual and all possible antagonists.

In this sentence he suggests that even an unschooled man can, if he believes in himself and his own will, can be more excellent and high than any man or obstacle that may oppose him. He does this by listing some of the largest facets of human existence. Emerson does not speak lightly of any matter, which is what makes his writing so inherently valuable.

One means by which Emerson states his ultimate truths is by using metaphor. Without metaphor, it would be impossible for him to convey his ideas effectively, since they are so rich and full of deep meaning. He refers back to etymology and the idea that all writing and language is based off of physical images. “Man is a stream whose source is hidden.” This is a FULL sentence– meaning it is both grammatically complete and also a huge thing to conceptualize. When we read metaphor, we are forced to process the language in a different way from the conventional. “Man is a stream.” What does that mean, in relation to me and in relation to Emerson? This is why Emerson has such a huge impact on the reader– you have to really think hard in order to fully drink in all that he provides us.

Emerson’s sentences often use the term “We” when making judgement or general statements. What does this refer to? Is it the reader and Emerson? Is it the world of scholars? Maybe, but I believe the We  Emerson is referring to is the entire human sphere and he uses the term incredibly respectfully.

“We do not determine what we will think. We only open our senses, clear away as we can all obstruction from the fact, and suffer the intellect to see. We have little control over our thoughts. We are the prisoners of ideas. ”

Because Emerson believes that everyone is equally capable of greatness and understanding of any great truth, he uses the We to encompass all of humanity in his realizations. We who read Emerson have to realize that he comes to these ends simultaneously as he writes them (this is his nature and his way of thinking). To behold the truth is to accept it for what it is, not try to analyze it and change it to suit our own predispositions. When Emerson uses We, he places us in his bedchamber, much closer to him and his thoughts.

Emerson does not bobble or stand on one foot when he writes his sentences; they are always firm and assured, as if coming from somewhere beyond argument or experimentation.

There are many ways that Emerson forms his sentences. One way he starts his sentences is by begging a question of his readership and of himself like in his essay called “Art” in which he asks”If he can draw everything, why draw anything?” In this question he is asking what the point would be to art and artistic talent if you didn’t have to be selective about what you are painting/ drawing/ writing about. What does this question do to a readers mind? Immediately after reading it, you get an idea in your head about what Emerson could possibly mean and how could an idea so convoluted and involved  be stated in such a beautiful and simplistic way? This is the art of Emerson, to say what he is thinking, which is in and of itself a fantastic feat.

It is easy to have a revelation when reading Emerson. Oftentimes, a sentence or paragraph may strike you, catch you off guard, make you think in a way that you hadn’t previously. This is because Emerson himself presents his own uncovering of truth in a way that encapsulates us and wants us to think along with him.

 

 

 

 

Joan Didion: A Lonely and Resistant Re arranger of Things

“I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder.”- Joan Didion

 

In Joan Didions collection of essays Slouching Towards Bethlehem, she uses her skills as a journalist, as a prose writer and as a memoirist to illustrate a distinct form of “New Journalism” that steps outside of any conventional writing style. She uses precise accounts of people, places and situations that invite the reader to come as close as possible to that moment in time. She does not ask the reader to see things her way, but instead she wants the reader to be close to the actual event; close to the voices that have already been heard but are to be heard again. She is so authoritative in her perspective and her recounting of certain times and places that you go along with her without questioning her credibility.

The wonderful thing about Didion’s writing is that she has extensive notes on all the experiences she recounts. Didion knows that memory is fragmented and uncertain, but her notes are often the central guiding line, and she fills in the rest through memory. If she cannot remember something exactly, she simply explains how she remembers it. It is actually impossible to remember something exactly how it happened because our brains are selective. Some things may be left out but others might be highlighted in a certain memory.

In her personal essay titled On Keeping a Notebook, she recounts a woman that she saw in a bar. She first describes her appearance by saying “She is wearing a plaid silk dress from Peck and Peck and the hem is coming down.” Then she goes on to describe who she thinks the woman might be, what her background is and her purpose for being in the bar. “All she can see are the viscous summer sidewalks and the 3 a.m. long distance calls that will make her lie awake and then sleep drugged through all the steaming mornings left in August (1960, 1961?). ” Didion questions her own memory, but her description of the woman in the bar is so beautifully posed and lifelike that the reader does not question for a moment that Didion has known this woman all her life. This is part of the beauty of Didion’s writing, it is unsure yet so certain.

Didion says that even though at first she only has a general notion of why she was in that bar and what year it was and what state the bar was located in, she definitely “remember[s] being there.” For Didion and the reader, this is all that matters. Her notes presumably have some importance to her (since she decided to write them down in the first place), but she questions why she writes down certain things. “Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why keep a notebook at all?” She suggests that people who keep notebooks are a different breed, “lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents.” Didion takes notes in order to make sense of a world that might otherwise be considered senseless. Her notes and her memory give relevance to her experiences purely because of the fact that she is thinking and writing about them.

Her first notebook entry was when she was five years old. She wrote about a woman who believed herself to be freezing to death in the Arctic, only to wake up to find herself in the middle of the Sahara–doomed to burn in the intense heat. This first entry does reveal a predilection to the extreme that undoubtedly followed Didion into her adulthood. Although the story was completely made-up, she says that “If I were analytically inclined I would find it a truer story than any I might have told about Donald Johnsons birthday party or the day my Cousin Brenda put kitty litter in the aquarium.” In this sentiment, she suggests that our minds often fabricate our memories, so who is to say that a memory about a birthday party is any less valid than a story about a woman roasting in the desert?

Didion says that “the point of keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking.” For her the facts do not matter as much. Her memory will certainly lie to her, obscuring the actual truth. She instead abandons the need to be truthful and  says that “not only have I always had trouble distinguishing what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters.” So what are her purposes? Why doesn’t the distinction between fact and supposed fact matter to her? Here is where Didion gains her inarguable authority as a writer. It doesn’t matter if her accounts are entirely factual, because that moment in time has already come and gone, and no one can reclaim it or hope to actualize it. The only way that a moment from her past exists is in her own mind, and she is here to tell the reader how she thinks it might have happened.

“Perhaps it never did snow that August in Vermont; perhaps there never were flurries in the night wind, and maybe no one else felt the ground hardening and summer already dead even as we pretended to bask in it, but that was how it felt to me, and it might as well have snowed, could have snowed, did snow.”

Didion exists as a reporter and a writer of prose simultaneously. Sometimes when reading Didion, it is difficult to believe that an event she is describing happened many years ago. This is partially because a lot of her experiences that she writes about were documented and her many conversations taken down. The reader feels a closeness to her because her writing is very close to what she was feeling or experiencing at the time. When she writes about the dusty Mojave or the messy curls hanging out of a hippies headband, it is because she was so immersed in the moment that we get immersed in it as well.

When does writing become a relevant act? Joan Didion is fascinated and frustrated by this question. For Didion, writing has been part of her life since she was very young. Her mother gave her a notebook for her to record thoughts and experiences.  Maybe that is why her writing seems so natural and consistent. Events that Didion describes are the lifeblood of her writing. She has a great need to “remember what it was to be me.”

She can capture a moment in her writing like taking a video with a camera; she uses her grammar and vocabulary to change the angle and fit it to her exact meaning. To continue the metaphor, Didion uses this lens to partially separate herself from the events that she describes. She is somewhat objective, but there are still hints of purposeful stylistic choices. She crafts her voice, changing her tone, adding inflection, similarly to a skilled interviewer or even a Broadcast reporter.

This is a distinct and unique style of writing. She writes with a tense and unsure chronology, while also picking and choosing what to describe and what not to describe with precision. In this way, her writing is what a good essay should be, or at least attempt to be. However, Didion is meticulous in her stylistic choices. She chooses to remain in the moment, giving her personal account like any good reporter. One of the reasons Didion’s writing is so authoritative is because she is reporting through prose. Reporting is inherently trustworthy, that is, worthy of the the readers full trust. So we go along with Didion as she brings back all the feelings or non-emotion of an exact moment or string of moments.

Unlike the conventional reporter or journalist, Didion allows herself to not only inject her opinion (which does not exist in AP style or reporting in general), but to let her opinion be a major guiding force in her writing. She keeps some distance when describing a person or place and doesn’t say what she thinks outright. Her opinion comes through her present tense, in-the-moment style. She describes a young panhandle girl in the moment she saw her. “The boots do not look like an affectation, they look like she came up off a ranch about two weeks ago.” She writes as if she is narrating and commentating on her own life and experiences. That is one reason her style makes the reader feel close, without giving too much away.

In her writing, Didion focuses on the odd specificities that both blur and illuminate the universal. Life for her is full of substance, even when the lives that she is documenting are legitimately bleak or not exemplary. Her style sometimes verges on the pessimistic, but in most cases she writes as a realist. For her, meaning is ominous and unclear. She searches for meaning in the 24 hour casinos where you can’t tell what time it is and everyone’s eyes are baggy and glossed over; she searches along the dusty road where signs advertise “Cheap weddings, witnesses available.” She searches in the old drafty warehouses where joints are being passed around. Didion searches to make sense out of the apparent nothingness of existence.

Didion’s writing seems to prove to itself that every moment in life is worth recording, reflecting on, and referring back to. Why is Didion able to write as if the moment she is describing is happening in simultaneity with her thought, her experience and her reflection? It is because for her, every moment is worth experiencing, and every moment has a huge impact on her life. So why is it necessary to write, and what gives writing relevancy? For Didion, writing is imperative to anyone who wants to understand themselves and society.

Instead of being a reporter, she was a keen observer of life. Her experiences show the many “triumphs over nothingness” of people who are not larger than life. Her perception is one of her greatest tools. In her title essay Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion explores the counterculture of the Haight-Ashbury District of San Francisco. Didion is incredibly knowledgeable about the topics that she covers. Not only does she do extensive research (a skill no doubt acquired from her career as a journalist), but she brings the reader directly into the moment that she is describing.

Didion describes scenes and landscapes so well that it seems that she has interviewed them as well as the people that live there. The reason Didion is able to wield her subjectivity with such power and grace is because she knows that there has to be a voice in her writing. Didion said that people are “uneasy about a story until we know who is telling it.” When reading Didion, we know the voice that is on the page, we feel her presence sitting in the corner of the room with a notepad and pen.  Her descriptions are so accurate that it seems like they are beautifully written notes taken at the moment of conversation or observation.

 

Some Thoughts on Surfcasting

 

It was a long haul down the winding path with my too-large tackle box and my brand new Penn surfcasting rod. There were stakes that lined the pathway, placed in an uneven row and webbed together with chicken wire.  This was meant to keep children and dogs from straying into the dunes where plovers, Terns and seagulls have made their scrapes among the dense beach grass. As I walked, I tapped each stake with my rod and found myself counting them. After making it to beach, I took off my sandals and dug my heels into the sand. The sun had just begun to cast an orange haze across the water that made it look like very thin ice near to breaking. With my eyes I traced the shoreline, where the sand meets rippling shallows, in search of any birds that might give my heart a jump and send me trudging across the beach. The good angler keeps a keen eye and takes in everything; every call of a gull or sloshing of a wave.

It is good and easy to take your time. My phone was safe in my car that was parked alongside the road. The only way to recognize the passing minutes was by watching the sun set over the water-color horizon. I followed the sound of a chirping tern to a small jetty. The birds were diving into the water and re-surfacing with minnows, shad, pebbles and whatever other tiny objects or animals could fit inside their beaks. Shore birds like these are a lone fisherman’s only company. I sat down adjacent to the feeding terns and placed my tackle box in the sand. My rod was already assembled and my lure was already chosen, but one of the great beauties of fishing is experimentation. I snipped my long range bomber from my line with a pair of nail-clippers and replaced it with a full-metal shiner. I stood up from my spot and held the rod in my hand, noting its heft along with its bending action. Just before I was going to take my first cast with my new rod, a wave of dismay washed over me.

It was a feeling that sat in my stomach and made my hands clammy. I love to eat fish. My friends mother owned The Net Result fish market just down the road from the beach, I probably could have gotten a great deal on some fresh Alaskan salmon or maybe a beautiful cut of swordfish (my favorite fish to eat). I then began to feel sad, sad that I had never caught a swordfish and might never get the chance to. Swordfish are powerful and require a lot of heavy equipment and experience to catch. Why was I sitting in the sand, so early on in the season, when 80 percent of the fish are nothing but babies, when I could get half off at the fish store down the street. Surely, the currency of my time and effort would be far greater than the amount of money I would spend on a pound of swordfish.

Then I started thinking about a videogame I loved to play on the Wii when I was a little kid. It was a fishing videogame where you used the nunchuck controller to cast your line and when you got a hit you would swing the controller backward in a yanking motion in order to set the hook. I hadn’t played videogames in a long time, partly because I thought they were a waste of time. What a fruitless endeavor, to hold a piece of plastic in place of a rod. To stand in your living room instead of digging your heels into wet sand seemed ridiculous. But then again, if I catch no fish, or if I lose a lure, or if my car gets a parking ticket, I would have been disappointed I did not stay inside and do some virtual fishing.

I still could not figure out what shape this mixture of emotion was. At this point, I had entirely convinced myself that there would be no fish today. I had convinced myself that there was no point. I had to find my reason for driving out here and putting myself through physical exhaustion and emotional angst. I had to find the reason why I felt dismay even before my first cast.

I stuck my rod in the sand and dug through my tackle box in search of something that had to be missing– pliers, wire leaders for bluefish, a flashlight for when it got dark, it was all accounted for. I kicked myself for being so doubtful, but if I hadn’t forgotten any equipment and the plovers were indeed indulging, then why had I begun to feel so melancholy? Shaking my head, I gathered my rod back up and took my first cast. I watched the lure fly across the sky and land in the water directly below a diving tern. It was a well-placed cast for sure, and my heart lit up with excitement at its accuracy. I began to fish– reel, cast and set, then repeat. With every retrieval I could feel the tickling of fish on my lure. “Why the hell wont you take it you dumb fish.” It seemed like the fish were taunting and teasing me, laughing at my frustration and misfortune.

My frustration was not rooted in any failure. Fishing, in particular surfcasting with a lure or jig, is special because you are constantly doing something, whether it be casting or reeling or pulling seaweed off of your lure. When doing this repetitive motion for a long time, it begins to feel rhythmical. People who meditate often use a similar type of repetitiveness: they sit a certain way; make particular hand gestures; and often use an ancient chant to regulate breathing and focus the mind. Fishing involves this sort of odd concentration where you are fully involved with the action, but your mind floats freely. The most experienced meditators like Buddhist monks will absorb all of the external world, not missing a second, but will be focused inward. This is the duality of being present, while also not being present. When fishing, you begin to fall into a trance. Time passes quicker without you even realizing it.

I swapped lures again and again, tried different retrieval speeds, walked along the shoreline and casted in all different directions; still nothing but cruel nibbles and rubbing scales. I began to feel fatigued, as if I had ran a marathon but could not tell the finish line from the starting line. I had tried every piece of tackle in my arsenal. The only option that was not exhausted was a small piece of squid in a plastic bag that I had neglected to use while deep sea fishing in Nantucket Sound the day before. Shrugging my shoulders, I wrapped the slimy piece of squid around a large J-hook. I wound up extra far and launched the bait out past the shallows, to where I could see a sandbar shining through the water. I sat down and rested the rod on my tackle-box, not all that concerned with the possibility of having to grab at the handle in order to save my expensive piece of graphite and steel.

The sun fell below the horizon, at which point a full moon cast a sleepy glow over the entire beach. I had brought a Switchback Ale with me to drink on the occasion that I actually did catch a fish, but it seemed to me then that having a drink in place of a fish was a sufficient compromise. As I sat next to my rod in my sand-seat and listened to the lapping of the waves and the calls of the various birds getting comfortable in their nests, the feelings of frustration and impatience left my mind. Yes, I did have all the time in the world, or at least all the time that I needed. I had caught many fish before at this exact spot, using similar technique and equipment. This thought had originally upset me, but at that moment it seemed to relax me. I was reminded of memories of catching fish and weighing them, of filleting them by cutting along the spine and gill to harvest the delicious meat. I was also reminded of times where I would fish from sun-up to sun-down with nothing but an empty cooler to show for it. Both memories made me smile, silently appreciating the humbleness and virtue of fishing.

At the mouth of the brackish Sengekontacket
The bass feed joyfully on darting shad.
Poke the line through the screw-eye
No less than five twists, just to be safe.
Flip the bail and prepare to fire.
The enamel scales flash and glitter through the sky.
Then plop, set the bail and begin to reel.
Don’t strain your hand
The fish are hungry today.
Tap your foot and nod your head.
Smoke your cigarette no-handed.

Self Reflection:

This piece is lacking something fundamental, but I cannot quite put my finger on it. I believe that this piece seems too much like a simple narrative or a personal anecdote than a personal essay, which is what I wanted it to be. It is very difficult for me to break from my personal narrative and write about my overarching idea, which is that fishing is a meditative experience that teaches you patience, concentration and acceptance. I don’t know where to inject my personal beliefs about fishing or how to relate fishing to another experience I had in which I was getting frustrated or could not accept my situation. Fishing has taught me a lot about how to deal with certain situations, like writing and focusing too much on the product instead of the process and the experience. Fishing is very personal because you set goals for yourself that you already know might not be reached. When surfcasting in particular, you are often depleting your energy and you can feel drained pretty quickly. I wanted to relate this feeling to being drained when writing. Fishing is a lot like writing in that you can often get discouraged if you do not get what you want. But an important aspect of writing is that it isn’t easy and your end product will not usually look like what you expected. I want to know where to go with this piece, but I think the idea has to be more solid and I have to use other aspects of my life to describe it. I think that fishing has a lot of valuable lessons to teach, which is why it was so hard for me to choose just one or two. If I can find a way to break from the narrative and write more about my actual idea, I think this essay could be really great.

On the Essayist’s Attire

In the world of the essay, one might  suggest there to be three different distinct occupations that seem to categorize all other essay-writing imperatives. There is the politician, who uses objective and precise language to discuss and comment on certain noteworthy concepts; there is the philosopher who lets his mind stroll through the meta and, using algebraic style, searches for a grasp on some faint truth; and the personal, autobiographical writer who allows thought, emotion and experience to shine through the prism of his mind and refract many different vibrant ideas. I would go out on a limb, away from the stringent classifications of one type of essay versus another, and suggest that the most incredible essays are written by those who can shift effortlessly between occupations, all the while experiencing for themselves the beauty of thought transcribed into form.

There are assuredly some great writers and thinkers who tend to favor a certain voice, a certain style of writing that may directly or indirectly hold the form of a pamphlet, a thesis, a personal essay, etc. But these brands are confining– they do not fully describe the essay as something that is alive and can not be shackled in such descriptions. Michael Hamburger says in his journey-like “An Essay on the Essay,” that “This field will not be ploughed or cultivated. It will remain a meadow, wild. One walker is interested in wild flowers, another in the view, a third collects insects. Hunting butterflies is permitted. Everything is permitted.” Hamburger gives us the image of a vast meadow to explain the essay and how it is an ecosystem; a constantly changing, interacting, interactive, world with many different possibilities. It would diminish the essay in its purest sense, to label it as one thing that should be seen as merely a gear working in conjunction to form a larger, more complex assembly.

The old names of essayists like Locke, Pope, Kant, Aristotle and Socrates, to name a few, have written distinct forms of the essay. Each form has its values and its drawbacks. I am not one to argue with the ancients and their bright minds. They have all contributed greatly to the field of the essay, and each are shining examples of their craft. Contemporary writers such as Hamburger and Huxley recognize the greatness of these essayists, however Hamburger suggests that the essay is “a game that creates its own rules.” Since essays are more concerned with the process through which one learns and thinks, there is very little sense of an ultimate destination. Maybe this is a good thing! If we are thinking too much about an end product or result, there isn’t much space for our mind to wander (which is in fact the concept behind essaying).

An essay about a political theory or state of government can be well informed, factual, detail oriented; but it may lack a personal approach. A common approach for a political essayist is to stay objective–standing to the side and commentating from a distance. How should a reader who has no experience in governmental practices and is completely out of that sphere of knowledge be able to take from that and gain new understanding? For this, there is no hope unless one is to inject into his political treatise or essay the smallest bit of personal connection. What is a writer to do besides use his own life to educate and influence his writing?

If I were to take a subject, say art or politics, and attempt to write an essay about it, would the actual focus of my thinking be the subject? Or would the knowledge of the self and experiential knowledge be the focal point for my thoughts and the content of my writing. In this way it is impossible to ascribe a certain essay with a distinct title. Hamburger says that “With a genuine essay it makes no difference whether its title refers to a literary theme, whether to the origin of tragedy or the origin of roast pig.” So a title or a classification of essay should be nothing more or less than a broken compass, pointing in all directions at once. It is up to the writer to choose which direction he should wander. He may get lost, actually, he will get lost and will revel in that fact.

Some essays claim objectivity. They premise themselves on the idea that the conclusion can only be based in fact and that injecting ones own thoughts and ideas into a piece of writing is fundamentally flawed. However the idea of objectivity is flawed as well, since the only scope we are able to see the world through is that of our own mind and being. Canadian contemporary writer Fernand Ouellette asks in his “Ramblings on the Essay,” “How can the essayist claim to objective? Isn’t he wearing a mask? How radical has he become? To what extent does he consume the object of his essay?” It is true, the reader is not aware of what lies behind the mask, for them it could be nothing but an empty void. The issue here is the writer exists at the same time as he does not. On the page is a persona or “voice.” It is a trans-mutational creature that shifts and deceives without attempting to. This creature cannot be removed from the page no matter what, making objectivity somewhat impossible. The writer may wear the mask of political analyst or didactic philosopher, but often times these masks change color like a chameleon and become indistinguishable from each other. This is the point where the essay is truly amorphic and is allowed to alter itself freely.

“There are as many kinds of essays as there are human attitudes or poses, as many flavors as there are Howard Johnson ice creams. The essayist arises in the morning and, if he has work to do, selects his garb from an unusually extensive wardrobe.” – E.B. White

This extensive wardrobe may include the flowing gowns of an orator giving a sermon, or the ringing bell and gray cloth shirt of a town crier bringing news and announcements to the common-folk. The essayist can change his outfit at any point and play as whatever he wants, so long as the ultimate goal is some sort of truth or promotion of knowledge. It is in this way that the essay is not a form, but a lack of form. I supposed this would mean that the essayist has at his disposal, not three different masks with different shapes or designs, but one single mask that is constantly changing and is free from convention, normative diction or even established structure. A talented performer can rapidly change their costume and assume the role of someone completely different. Similarly, the essayist must utilize his infinite wardrobe to compose a piece of writing that is as substantive and exploratory as it can possibly be.


Personal Reflection: Reading about all of the different definitions of what a good essay is can be very daunting. Writing about it has proven to be even more daunting, but with great effort I was able to come up with what seems to me to be a good personal definition of the good essay and the skilled essayist. It seems to me that there is really no solid definition to what the essay is, or rather, what it is not. For me, writing an essay has always been step by step, paragraph by paragraph, but there was always a distinct structure involved.

Maybe you were taught the five paragraph essay early on in your academic career and so the idea of an open world where anything is possible seems to be entirely made up. But the great essayists dating to Montaigne and before give insights into why and how this is possible. After writing this, the ideal essay seems even more elusive to me. Maybe it is because, after reading many “essays about essays,” it is becoming clearer to me that the essay is in itself a conundrum. How can people so noteworthy and skilled be just dipping their toes into the expansive ocean that is the essay?

While writing, I found that instead of making general comments about what I believe the purpose, nature and style of the essay to be, it was more useful to grab a quote and try to define what the author meant by it. Because there are so many different opinions on the lucidity and structure (or lack thereof) of the essay, it was also important for me to stand my ground. Once I read about the “three poles” of the essayist in Michael Hamburger’s work, and the quote about the essayists wardrobe from E.B. White, I began to compare the two concepts.

I began to form an image in my head– that of a man with three masks, who could switch out the masks and take on a completely different identity at will. This is in a sense, what a good essayist does. Is the voice or presence of a writer in his work not a mask that is adeptly (hopefully so) crafted? Towards the end of my writing however, I noticed that I couldn’t define the infinite different roles an essayist must play with three simple masks. My vision of a limited number of identities shifted to an endless number of identities constantly trans-mutating and merging together.