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TWF14: The Law and Order Episode of Who Killed the Essay March 24, 2014

Posted by The Typist in books, literature, lyric essay, memoir, New Orleans, NOLA, Odd Words, Toulouse Street.
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“This is the Law and Order episode of Who Killed the Essay,” moderator John Freeman said to open the Tennessee Williams Festival panel “The Return of the Essay.” “Someone killed it. We’re going to find out later from Lennie Briscoe,” the character from the crime drama franchise. Panelists Dani Shapiro, Kiese Laymon and Roxanne Gay promptly put a bullet in the head of Freeman’s metaphor.

“The essay isn’t dead, it never died,” panelist Roxanne Gay shot back. “We have the arrogance in this age of believing that we’re going to be the end of literature when it has been around for millenia. That is always appalling to me. The book is dying. Are you kidding me? People were writing books on rice paper. Calm down. Books aren’t going anywhere, readers aren’t going anywhere. I think things are shifting. The essay from Montaigne to [fellow panelist] Kiese, we’re still doing it. I think we’re in the golden age of the essay. I’ve never read more stunning essays than the ones I read every single day and the art hasn’t been perfected because it can’t be perfected but people are practicing it at such a level. If the essay is dead, then the afterlife is quite wonderful.”

“The internet has done a lot of terrible things, but one of the best things it’s done has democratize this writing thing. It has allowed us to read all these amazing essays,” Laymon said. “I think there was a golden age. I think [James] Baldwin was the golden age. Every day, or every other day, I read an essay on the Internet that actually scares me as a writer. I think those are the best essays, I think s— I can’t do it. I just can’t do it as well as other people can do it. Now we have people not waiting for crusty editors to say: here’s your stamp that says, now you can put it out there. Also it puts out some art that is not so great, but it’s also allowed me to read some of the greatest essays that I have read in my life.”

“I don’t think we can know a golden age that we’re in one,” Dani Shapiro, countered. “I will admit tweeting this morning the title of this panel and saying, I don’t think it’s vanished. I also think it’s worth noting that the word essay means attempt, to attempt to get something right and true and universal and authentic down on the page. That’s like saying human nature is dead.”

Freeman asked his panelists: “If style is a struggle and essay is an attempt, what are you attempting in an essay? What makes you want to put the struggle in that form?”

“There’s an urgency when I’m writing an essay,” Gay explained. “Something has gotten under my skin. One of the first essays that got under my skin. One of the first essays that got my attention was “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence”. It was about a young girl that was raped in Cleveland, Texas. The New York Times wrote a story about the town–poor, poor town–and think of these poor boys but there were like 30 of them. The magnitude of the crime was horrific and the shoddiness of the reporting was also horrific. I went into this fugue state trying to temper my rage with understanding how we got to a place as a culture where we’re worrying about a town instead of this 11 year-old girl. The essays that I love writing the most are where I’m trying to make sense of this crazy world, but also acknowledge the god in this world.”

“Kiese, you [mention] the fact that an essay is going to deal some collateral damage to their family, because the wedge into a topic is not just your experience. It’s everything you grew up with. I wonder if you could talk about writing about your family and those essays and how you weighed what you would actually reveal because the truths you tell are quite difficult.”

“I feel like I’ve been writing about that question in my essays and my fiction. I come from a family in central Mississippi. I was raised by my mother. She was 19 when she had me. I went to graduate school and went to stay with my grandmother [also] in Mississippi. They’re both wonderful, brilliant people but whenever they got around white people their wonder and their brilliance and their thickness shrunk, and I think a lot of time they want me to also shrink my brilliance on the page. In [one] essay I talk about my mother pulling a gun on me when I was 19, partially because she wanted me to act right. I was trying to say in that essay there is a consequence to acting right in this country especially for folks of color…I think we talk about the consequences too often of not acting right, but there is a self consequence for acting right.

“Form is really important for me and I’m pushing back against forms and against my mom and I was trying to push back against my inclination to write predictable punditry. My inclination is to just write the traditional, standard essays that will make people say, ‘that’s a smart African-American man’ as opposed to being a potentially revelatory Black human being.” Later in the panel he added, “I come from a community where sadness, funk, funny happens all the time and I was being encouraged to take the funk and funny out.”

“Dani, you’ve written about your family in two memoirs, and this book Still Writing, it looks like a book about writing but then it’s threaded through with all these tiny memoirs,” Freeman asked Shapiro. “Did you find that to write about writing did you have to write about your family?”

“When it comes to form and when it comes to realism, it feels like in the last ten years of my writing life things have been breaking apart. The more I try to make something whole the more it breaks apart. I think what you just said about realism and the surreality that is at the core of it in some way is so true: the puzzle like structure, my last memoir Devotion was puzzle-like, every essay that I’ve written in the last five years. When I started Still Writing I was writing a blog because my publisher told me I had to write a blog. And I was thinking what can I blog about that’s not going to make me want to stick pins in my eyes every day. What I wanted to write about was how to do this every day. I didn’t want to write another book about craft. I wanted to write about what it takes: the courage, the tenacity, the persistence, the resistance. Then I started getting letters from people says, ‘I really needed this today’ and I thought, people are actually asking me to write a book. How often does that happen?”

“I’m reading this and what is it like to revise your life, the story of your life in public.” Freeman said.

“I think it would be an amazing thing for the same writer to spend an entire writing life writing the same memoir every ten years because it would be a different book every ten years because the relationship between the self and the story is the story. When I wrote Slow Motion [arising from the death of her father] I had feeling that this was the before and after moment. I wasn’t old enough to know that there is more than one before and after moment. It was also my son’s illness fifteen years later, and my mother’s death.

There was an essay in Ploughshares that was called “Plane Crash Theory.” I think it’s my best essay. It began shortly after 9-11, my infant son was dropped down a flight of stairs by a baby sitter and for months and months I couldn’t write a thing. It was all in the shadow of 9-11 and felt like a shadow had flown over our house and was hovering there. I was having coffee with a friend of mine in Brooklyn who’s a writer and I said, ‘I haven’t written a word since Jacob fell down the stairs’ and she said, ‘that’s your first sentence’. I couldn’t tell the whole story because the essay couldn’t contain that he was dropped down the stairs but that a few weeks earlier I had noticed these little movements and he was later diagnosed with this rare seizure disorder. An essay couldn’t contain both of those, so I took all of my anxiety and my fear and my feeling of–writing, what is the point of it–but finding a way to pour all of that into a very disciplined form and tell the whole story emotionally and not tell the whole story, what to leave in and what to leave out, which is such an important part of writing memoir and essay.”

“I think one of my most popular essays to write was the hardest to write,” Gay said in a comment that resonated for me in the post-Katrina room. “It was about The Hunger Games, because I love, love, love the Hunger Games to insanity. I started to think what is it about the Hunger Games that captures me as an adult because they are YA . There is a young woman in the novel Katniss, she has to endure the unendurable over and over again is that it showed PTSD as it is, as something that cannot necessarily be cured but something that you learn to live with, and as something that will shape the decisions you will make.”

Freeman asked the panelists if there was someone, an essayist, who opened a door and what they did. “I would say in a word [Joan] Didion if it was an essayist,” Shapiro said. “Grace Pailey was for me an example of the life of a writer, a life I wanted in some way. When I think of Grace I think of her sentences, I think of her fiction, the distillation, a certain kind of minimalism before there was minimalism. She was tremendously important to me.”

Gay, after citing the encourage of her parents from age four, cited Edith Wharton. “She was doing it when women weren’t encouraged” to write. “She is the master of the elegant sentence.” And Zadie Smith: “she is fierce. She makes me feel like I can do anything with the word.” Laymon also talked about his grandmother’s influence. “My grandmother taught me how to work. She worked at a chicken plant and the way she talked about it, the craft, she made me feel I was beautiful.” His essayist pick was James Baldwin. “The Fire Next Time was the first book that I really, really read. I would tear it apart. Ultimately I think I became the writer I want to be because in The Fire Next Time, someone who was so great could not make space for Black women. You could be so sublime and so great and not make space for this entire group of people you should make space for. Baldwin’s otherworldliness is something I could aspire for, not just because of his prose but because of the gaps in his prose.”