When my first collection of essays was coming out a few years ago, a friend asked me to write down what I had learned about the process of assembling and editing the book, which was different from writing a novel or even another kind of nonfiction book.
I wrote then, “Everything is fragments. We don’t always notice that, but it’s how we perceive: Sentences, chapters, scenes, acts, verses, choruses, musical phrases, tweets, wall posts, snapshots, individual paintings in a retrospective, final looks over the shoulder goodbye.”
These fragments gather, get repeated, altered, commented on, and then (one hopes) they cohere to make something bigger than the sum of its parts—call it collage, a cloud of ideas, images, and emotions, which have their own specific and overall effect.
This still make sense to me. I am finalizing another collection of essays, and as I look back over the last eight years, a lot has happened, in both historic terms and for me personally. I traveled abroad, made many new friends, got a new job, and as we all did, bore witness to social unrest and pandemic. Somewhere between a mishmash of those individual topics, and something made artificially coherent by a “throughline” of cause and effect, over-reliant on chronology, there is this other thing. And I do not know if it is our era, or if it has to do only with me, but unnarratives seem more accurate to me now.
(Kenkō’s Essays in Idleness and Didion’s South and West are separated by seven centuries, but are quite alike in this respect.)
Henry Miller says he abandoned chronology and chose “to adopt a circular or spiral form of time development which enables me to expand freely in any direction at any given moment. […] A man does not go forward through life along a straight, horizontal path; often he does not stop at the stations indicated on the time table; sometimes he goes off the track completely; sometimes he dives below and is lost for a time, or he takes to the air and is flung against the side of a steep cliff.”
And the problem for narrative is not only this chance indirection, but the experience of the welter, the profundity and mass of living and perceiving. “What goes on at every moment in the life of each and every man is something forever unfathomable and inexhaustible to relate. No man can possibly relate the whole story, no matter how limited a fragment of his life he chooses to dwell on.”
So many of the writers I love come to articulate this, sometimes only late in their careers. Twain says, regarding his autobiography, for which he planned to just free-associate:
“What a wee little part of a person’s life are his acts and his words! His real life is led in his head, and is known to none but himself. All day long, and every day, the mill of his brain is grinding, and his thoughts, not those other things, are his history. [My emphasis.] His acts and his words are merely the visible, thin crust of his world, with its scattered snow summits and it vacant wastes of water—and they are so trifling a part of his bulk! a mere skin enveloping it. The mass of him is hidden—it and its volcanic fires that toss and boil, and never rest, night nor day. These are his life, and they are not written, and cannot be written. Every day would make a whole book of eighty thousand words—three hundred and sixty-five books a year. Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man—the biography of the man himself cannot be written.”
The question for me begins to become: What is the story of the experience of my own thoughts, as opposed to a dry recounting of events?
Discussing my first collection, I say, “I didn’t know the extent of some of my own preoccupations.” As I put individual essays together for the book, I began to see that I returned to topics of separation, distance, memory, and the sublime world. The sea was (and still is) a preoccupation, but I also noticed that pirates, of all things, was a motif, without my knowing why.
I am still doing that, in the new collection, and it is still mysterious. Once you think to look for the color red, I suppose you see it everywhere. But why would my niece happen to mention a neighbor putting in banana palms—in the St. Louis metro area—the night before I left to walk the Bashō Trail in Japan, and Bashō means banana plant?
Seven years on from the earlier collection, what I can say is that I have a new tendency to tell stories other than the ones I thought I was telling. I set out to write about a young soldier disappearing 35 years ago, and realized only when I was done that I may have been driven to write it because of concerns for my own son going to college during Covid. I thought I was writing about my father, long dead, when the emotions of it were really a reaction to a living older friend.
I always loved that terrible epiphany in Chekhov’s story “Lady With the Dog”:
“He had two lives: one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life running its course in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental, conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him, everything in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people.”
And him- or herself, I might add. But then writing is meant to reveal, by showing us what we can bring ourselves to see.