Last night I gave my Short Story students their paper assignment for the semester and induced a class-wide panic attack. It was kind of fun, especially since I know they are up to the challenge. What caused such panic? My resurrection and reinterpretation of the “All Souls Essay,” except that my students can choose from 4 words, and have 2 months to write the paper. I look forward to the results.
I assigned them this paper because I loved writing papers as both an undergraduate and graduate student. Papers were the chance for me to throw off the bonds of class and really engage with an idea. I loved class discussions, but sometimes I just wanted to be alone with an idea. For that matter, I loved taking tests as well, as long as they were essay exams, because facing a four or five prompts, and knowing you had just three hours to write your answers, was a thrill I can only compare to sports. I used to be a fast pitch softball pitcher, and facing the essay exam, or paper assignment, is akin to standing on the mound, entirely alone and dependent on your own skill. Once I released the pitch, I had a great team to back me up in fielding any hits, but for that moment of delivery, everything depended on me, on my athleticism and training, and I feel the same way about writing. In writing papers, essays or even creative work, when it comes down to it, it is just me in a room with a blank sheet of paper, and it is up to the athleticism and training of my mind to do something with that opportunity.
I like that thrill and challenge, but I also loved papers because they gave me ownership of my education. No matter what my teachers or professors thought was important, I could write an essay that would teach me something. I am constantly exhorting my students to own their papers, to seize them as a chance to learn things that they may otherwise never learn. I want them to get lost in an idea and chase it to fruition. And I think that this “All Souls” essay may be a way in for them to do that.
I recently finished reading a Sven Birkerts collection titled, The Other Walk . I’ve had a writer’s crush on Birkerts for almost twenty years, ever since I read the Gutenberg Elegies back in 1995. In that book, Birkerts grappled with the Internet, which was just beginning to gain real popular momentum. He recognized it as an inevitable force, and oceanic wave of change, but also sounded the warning call that while things may seem inevitable, we also have the rights, and indeed the responsibility, to be conscious in our choices and how we spend our lives. The thing that hung with me for years after that book was his warning that while our access to knowledge was certainly on the rise, he feared for our loss of wisdom, because wisdom required knowledge and time. Wisdom requires space for quiet reflection. In the twenty years since then, that Internet wave has come and washed over all of us, transforming the world. I am writing these thoughts in a wholly electronic medium, and yet, at least right now, for the moment of this writing, I am alone, in the quiet of my apartment, carving out space for reflection and writing in my day. But I also worry if that is enough. I battle with this electronic writing, the unpolished nature of blog posts. I read many blogs now as part of my regular reading life, and many of them are beautiful and thought-provoking and I think they enrich my intellectual life. But then again, I pause, because I also love the careful craft and polish of Birkerts’ essays, which is writing that lasts, that hangs around in my mind for years.
I think the difference is, maybe, that well-written blogs, like http://billanddavescocktailhour.com/, http://ofkells.blogspot.com/, http://danastaves.wordpress.com/2012/02/14/my-first-real-valentines-day/ and http://marywestwords.wordpress.com/ are my reading equivalent of the traditional All Souls Essay. These blogs are all the work of writers seizing upon a thought, idea or word, and writing about it in a rush. And in that rush comes emotional resonance, humor, and often surprising insights. But then books like The Other Walk, are the product of time spent in the quite, in getting lost in ideas and problems for days, or even years. That is the writing that likewise stays with me. There are some writers whose books I read slow, whose writing I live in for a week at a time, and other books, no matter how dense, that I can read in a day or two. Without question, I prefer the books that take the time to read. And often I discover that the books that read fast were likewise written fast. The books that resonate for me are the ones that were the product of years of labor. That is just the kind of reader, and writer, that I am.
The Other Walk is a series of essays, essays I imagine that were written over the course of at least several years, but maybe I am wrong in that. The essays are short. Many are barely two pages long. Some stretch to six or seven pages, but few wander past that mark. Many of them are essays about writing, others are essays about family, and self, and about the work of thinking, reflection and memory. The book very much seems like Birkerts “All Souls” essays, especially in that so many are inspired by a single object. Essays like “Head,” about a small ceramic head, “Cup,” “Postcard,” “Ladder,” “Apple,” “Stone Shard,” “Archive,” and “Papa.” He takes us into that image, and then, invariably, takes us someplace even greater. Through the specificity of his writing, Birkerts approaches the universal, which is, of course, what all great literature does. As Aristotle wrote, “Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.” Of land that he grew up on, that his grandfather painted, Birkerts wrote, “I crisscrossed that land so often in those years that I have stitched it shut in my memory. Nothing can break into what I remember.” Of fury he writes, “Fury is the point past which reason cannot intercede.” And near the end of the essay “Postcard,” of returning back to a place of his youth, he wrote, “I stood there, pulverized. Pulverized and rearranged.” In each of these moments, he was writing about something specific in his life, and yet he transcended to the universal experience.
What those short quotes fail to do is demonstrate the difference between Birkerts writing and Internet writing. I would need to retype the entire essay to reproduce that. But then again, also part of the pleasure of reading his book is the being unplugged, of retreating into myself with no other distractions to pull me away from the reading I am engaged in. In the end, there is room for all types of writing. I am glad for the sprints and displays of mental and emotional agility in the blogs I read, but I am also glad for the books that are products of long hours of unplugged solitude, where metaphors are crafted, hammered and polished.
I am not sure what my students will write for their “All Souls Papers,” but I’m looking forward to reading the results. I do not expect any one of them to be Birkerts, but I do expect them to surprise me, and more importantly, for them to surprise themselves. I want them to take that plunge into their intellect and stretch themselves beyond what they thought was possible. I believe that is what the original “All Souls” essay really did – it demonstrated the limits the mind could go when tested, and the result is that our minds, really, are limitless.