On Being an Essayist

Sunday Content #26: February 21, 2016

Caveat emptor: I’m going to write a bit today about the literary camp that I consider myself to be a part of. If that sentence just made you sleepy, I advise you skip the top of this week’s non-emailed newsletter.

Not too long ago I was asked to write a bit about a book that changed my life for a feature in a magazine. I answered In Cold Blood, which is not wrong; it’s true that book influenced my writing a lot. Specifically, In Cold Blood made me know that it is possible to write a novel-length work of nonfiction that is at once literary and accessible—one that does the work of a novel, in terms of telling a story at that length and having some great point, but one that is also purporting to speak to reality, whatever that is. And listen: I know that fiction speaks to the real world too; this isn’t about essays being better than fiction or poetry or journalism or any other genre. It’s merely about essays or literary nonfiction, whichever term you prefer, are as vital a literary form as fiction or poetry or any other. (And, of course, these forms are all merely that.)

Anyway, after I’d written my nice words about In Cold Blood—and I was on a deadline so I couldn’t spend too long on all this—I realized I didn’t give the best answer I could have. Because if I answer the question literally, the book that has changed my life the most is John D’Agata’s The Next American Essay.

John was my teacher when I got an MFA at the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. He’s now that program’s director. I’ve felt moved to talk a bit about my literary roots because he was interviewed for Guernica this week by another of his former students, my friend Ariel Lewiton. I’ve also been finishing my first major project lately and therefore considering my influences a bit.

The Next American Essay is a big green anthology that Graywolf published in 2003. It consisted of a selection of very deliberately chosen essays interwoven with an essay about “the essay” that John himself had written. I’d only bought the book because it had been assigned for a writing class I happened to take as an undergrad called “the lyric essay” — whatever that was, I recall thinking when the semester began — taught by an incredible professor named Catherine Imbriglio. I was a junior and, I remember, bummed I hadn’t gotten into the cooler, fiction workshops. (Spaces that in retrospect seemed way more male, something I’ll write about later.)

Someday, in fact, I’ll likely write at greater length about all of this, but simply put: the sensibility put forth in the NAE was the one that made me want to be a writer. Before I found that green book, I was waffling. I knew I liked to write but I didn’t know what kind of writing I liked to do (let alone what I wanted to write about; that took me a few more years to sort out). It took several more years to gain the confidence to actually be a writer, but I know that the NAE is where a lot of stuff started, for me.

I was a senior in college as the recession really hit and so, terrified of the job market, I applied to study with John at Iowa and—a total shock to me—got in, and soon found myself sitting in a classroom with the man whose sensibilities had so inspired and influenced my own—and to find, of course, the man and his work were different. That first fall, I got up all my nerve and interviewed him for my then very new, online-only literary magazine. We then got to know one another, and he is one of the teachers I am most grateful to have had in my life.

(Else you think I’m just saying that to flatter him: I’m not a betting man, but if I were, I’d say that I doubt John will read this here newsletter, because if there’s one thing he and I have never really seen eye to eye about it is whether it’s worth it, as a literary person, to read and write on the internet.)

Sometimes people learn I went to Iowa, and they’ll ask, “Oh, the Writers’ Workshop?” I then answer in a variety of ways. These days I tend to nod, for expediency’s sake.

But the real answer, which I’ll spell out here so at least I have once somewhere, is no, I don’t mean The Writers’ Workshop. That term refers to Iowa’s prestigious fiction and poetry MFA pr0grams. I’m friends with and admire many graduates of The Writers’ Workshop, fiction writers and poets. I also was allowed to enroll in and took many great so-termed “readings” classes (as opposed to the more important “workshop” ones) out of The Writers’ Workshop while I was in another of Iowa’s MFA programs, for which I’m very grateful.

Iowa’s nonfiction MFA is also top ranked, though many universities don’t offer such a degree. While based on my three years in it, I would say that the NWP does seem to attract a talented bunch of writers, I have no idea what other programs are actually like (and if I’m being real, I don’t think MFA rankings mean much).

As an Iowa MFA student, I observed there was a difference in the experiences that my peers and I in the NWP were having, and those being had by fiction and poetry MFA students attending The Writers’ Workshop. (For emphasis: these were opinions I held then, and are only my own views.) The NWP is under the umbrella of the English Department; the Writers’ Workshop is independent, and, it seems, more flush. The NWP is relatively small; the Workshop’s two programs, fiction and poetry, are both larger. Only a few of us nonfiction writers had scholarships that enabled us to get degrees without teaching undergraduates, as I did for all three years. Fiction writers and poets, on the other hand, were mostly fully funded and therefore didn’t have to teach. (Teaching is enriching, of course, but also distracting, and is sometimes really fucking stressful, as is being broke.) Nonfiction writers attended classes in a brick monolith down near the river, the same sort of aggressively depressing building in which a lot of us taught by day. Fiction writers and poets hung out and took most classes in this literal mansion up on a hill.

I received my MFA in 2012 and moved to New York in 2013—three years ago this month, actually—just as, on the television show Girls, Lena Dunham’s character was moving to a slightly fictionalized Iowa City to get an MFA. This got everyone talking about Iowa’s MFA programs, which of course excited me. I then realized that one of the ways Ms. Dunham altered Iowa City was she had written the NWP out of existence (or so it looked to me. I know that this is all a bit absurd, but recall that her character had only ever written what sounded to be personal essays. She somehow applied to and got into Iowa for an MFA in fiction and then—I’ve heard; I stopped watching sometime around then—focused on writing thinly veiled true stories in those fiction classes. My suspicion was she didn’t want to say she wasn’t in the The Writers’ Workshop, because neither did I.)

“Hannah Horvath would have been in the NWP!” I recall yelling on occasion, around then.

Ms. Dunham’s edit irked me so, I think, because the obvious and random inequities of the academic arrangement I’ve just described had for three years emphasized the sense that our genre — literary nonfiction, but what John D’Agata called “the essay”—was somehow inherently lesser than the obviously literary genres of fiction and poetry. (It was, ironically, the literary genre that Ms. Dunham herself then elected to sell first.) Those of us who’d come to study with John specifically believed very much the opposite. We were believers in what John had written and was teaching about the power of “the essay” as a literary form.

Here’s a bit from the recent interview I mentioned:

The Next American Essay, I remember learning after I got to Iowa City, was the first of three anthologies John was planning on releasing. He then published The Lost Origins of the Essay, sort of the Empire Strikes Back of the series, a big blue anthology that traveled into various times and cultures and grabbed at pieces, some of which some people felt “belonged” to other genres, a move that didn’t rub everyone the right way. Finally, thirteen years after the BAE, the third and final anthology, titled The Making of the American Essay, is due out soon. I cannot wait to read it. I am eager to see what he’s chosen and what he’s written and also eager to step back and see what the three of these books say together. (All I’ve had time to learn about it so far is he’s included all of Emerson’s “Nature,” so perhaps it is the series’ Jedi.) And I’m eager for literary/media people to have conversations about John D’Agata again.

That’s in part because, as Ariel explains really well before their conversation, around the time I moved to New York three years ago, John published a book that pissed a lot of people off.

I remember once —when I was new to this city and therefore to the bold ignorance and cattiness of some “media people”—I recall a 40-something media bro in a bar learning I’d just moved from Iowa.

“Writers’ Workshop?” he asked.

“No,” I said, “Well, yes an MFA at Iowa. The nonfiction program.”

“Oh so you were there with that dipshit?”

I was stunned. I don’t remember what I said. I was trying to be accepted by this man’s world now so I might have said, “Uh-huh.”

I have thought about that moment, since. This man’s obvious tactlessness notwithstanding, I’ve contemplated whether John is, in fact, a dipshit. The thing is, I really think he’s not.

In my favor, I’d observe that in the interim years, there have only been more popular and lauded and otherwise culturally significant literary artworks that are nonfiction, ones that I think John would call essays (and you can call them whatever you want; I am less interested these days in semantic debates). And I don’t only mean works of the length you probably associate with the term “essay,” like those of Leslie Jamison or Ariel Levy or Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah or lots of the stuff I tend to link here. I’d mention book-length works, too, like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Claudine Rankine’s Citizen. (Not to mention those books by other writers who likewise literally studied with John.)

About Lifespan specifically, I share many of the reservations that Lewiton describes there. John and I didn’t agree about everything when we knew one another in person, though I suspect a lot of that was me being 22 when I met him, and hotheaded, and afraid.

I did truly enjoy some of what Lifespan was and what it performed, and I am glad it did inspire debate and conversation. (For example, I liked having a somewhat regrettable albeit spirited fight about it with Andrew Marantz for my tiny literary magazine’s very tiny, short-lived blog.**) The main thing about Lifespan is I viewed it only as being one entry into the greater scheme of John D’Agata’s project; I think a lot of people who took potshots at him had never really encountered him or his work before. Like most literary spats, it was a pretty boring one.

I had started the project I’m now finishing at Iowa. John wasn’t my thesis advisor but he was my second reader. I put it aside for a while when I moved to New York, and I eventually picked it up again. I recall back then I described it to a few people who knew about such things and they recommended I never endeavor to sell the project as fiction. It just sounded too literary, was the thing. The problem was I couldn’t do that. It was a book about mental illness and the point of what I was doing was that the book was staking a claim in reality, whatever that is. Having now been through a very difficult fall, I can report that it would have been much easier, logistically speaking, to have published this story as thinly vieled fiction. This wasn’t the path I chose. It wasn’t one I could have, in all good conscience, ever chosen. I would have much more gladly set the project aside forever. As I describe in the book itself, that’s not how things went.

I’ve now worked on this project for 6 1/2 years. I handed it back, finally the length it will probably be, more or less, a week ago. My final months and weeks and days alone with it felt spiritual, and that’s not a word I use lightly. This project has taken a lot from me, and it’s given me a lot. It feels much bigger than me, somehow, already, and I don’t really know what it will be, or what it will do to me, for better and/or for worse. But I’ve embraced all that, or I am working to. My focus can really only be the work itself.

During the final, sleepless stretch, I worked standing, my laptop balanced atop a box of Legos on a windowsill overlooking downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn and across the river to New Jersey. I listened to a lot of music, especially Bowie, especially Kendrick Lamar, especially Bob Dylan, and a lot of Courtney Barnett, too. It was extremely beautiful, especially in the late afternoon, when the sun fell, and I remembered how Iowa was right over there.

Once I’d finally emailed it in to my editors, delirious, I rewarded myself with a pilgrimage to this museum, and a big tattoo***.

The book I’ve written is weird, and not just because it’s truthy and has two fonts or a misspelled title, though it does have those things. I have a feeling some people are going to have trouble knowing what to call it, genre-wise, when it is a book people read. Some might call it a memoir, a term I don’t really care for, nor do I think is very accurate in this case. Some might feel it is a novel; and in some senses it does contain one. (D’Agata and David Shields and Wayne Koestenbaum and others have talked about the essay as a form which can contain or occupy the space of others.)

When I got my contract last summer, I remember my father asked what the book, you know, is, so he could tell people when they asked him.

“A novel?” he asked. I said no. I answered “a novel-length work of literary nonfiction” and then he guffawed. I said he could tell people it’s “a true story.”

But the real answer, you’ll know at least, is it’s an essay, in the sense that John D’Agata taught me.

If you’re at all a fan of this stuff, I hope you make a point of getting these collections in your life. If you’re a young or emerging writer and this kind of writing attracts you, especially, get that green book, to start, and hang out with it. Write essays inspired by the ones you see there. Don’t publish everything you write, but try things out. Break rules. Find other writers you like and learn with them, however you figure out how to do that. Read a lot, including stuff you don’t understand at first.

Two related #lukewarmtakes:

  1. Something about Hamilton that stokes the fires of my nerd heart is that not only it itself arguably an essay in the sense I’ve just been describing, but it’s also got a major plot point specifically about the virtues of essaying (Hamilton wrote the other 51).
  2. I had tweeted a few weeks back that I’d write about Making a Murderer. I watched it a little while after everyone seemed to* and then read the takes, in particular the New Yorker one. I also watched the documentarians themselves on the shows they appeared on, in particular Trevor Noah’s Daily Show and on Colbert. I’ve since been having a spirited debate with a few friends who seem deeply persuaded by the idea that the show a) lied b) to become popular and because of that, it is c) bad.

I think I disagree? And I suspect it’s because I read Making a Murderer as an essay, again in the D’Agata sense. Anyway I don’t think I need to write about Making a Murderer now because of the things Errol Morris said better than I could in this interview, which I read this week:

I don’t want to give the impression that I think it’s a perfect series, Making a Murderer. And who knows maybe the documentarians did fudge facts in order to make the whole thing “go viral” (I’m not super persuaded by this argument but I of course don’t know what’s right). Making a Murderer at the very least makes me excited for what’s to come, in terms of Errol Morris and others making other series that occupy this new and exciting formal territory. (Also: making people, especially white people, care about how appallingly Americans are treated by our nation’s criminal justice system is something that interests me and I don’t super care how we get folks engaged and informed and enraged. Anything is better than ignorance and/or SVU and Judge Judy.)

*I highly recommend not seeing/reading/whatever-ing things when they first come out just because you feel you should. Encounter things when you’re ready for them.

**My book is an essay, but it is also reported, and I worked hard to make it as accurate as I felt was possible, given the circumstances. That’s where I’ve landed w/r/t this truthiness question, now that I’m not 22, and a bit less of a punk. A few years in media made me understand the value of fact checking, too.

***If you ever read the book I’ve written, or am nearly done writing, you’ll get why that’s sort of a joke, the tattoo.

Here is a photo I like of Freddie Mercury.


This 538 explainer about What Went Wrong in Flint; an excellent feature about The Wreck of Amtrak 188; this essay about American Girl doll Addy Walker and race and dolls; this essay, published in Blunderbuss, called “She,” (which was recommended to me after I wrote about gender in my last newsletter); a big, important story by David Noriega and John Templon on America’s Quiet Crackdown on Indian Immigrants; this singular essay about Whitney’s singular Super Bowl anthem; this impressive investigative series about police violence in Georgia by the Atlanta Journal Constitution; Cord Jefferson’s “The Story of Connie Converse”; this Eater feature about motherhood and the restaurant industry; at Jezebel, this important and really fair analysis by Jia Tolentino about David Bowie and Lori Maddox, and sort of how we begin to deal with applying contemporary language and ideas about sexual violence to figures in the past; Vice’s Mass Shooting Tracker; at The New Republic, this engaging essay by Alexander Chee on the state of historical novels (which features such a great David Rakoff cameo); this NPR story about what people in Trump’s ancestral German village think of him (tl;dr they aren’t fans!); Jamilah King’s take on the significance of both Beyoncé and Kendrick’s recent performances (I’m assuming you’ve seen the former; here’s a link the latter, which is also required viewing); and this episode of The Read responding to Formation, which was so so so so so joyous and excellent and a great episode to listen to if you’ve never checked out this show before:

Other podcasts: especially if you like feelings, check out The Tell Show, BuzzFeed’s newest show, which is hosted by the lovely Summer Anne Burton and Isaac Fitzgerald; if you are a fan of Another Round, check out the Longform podcast with Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton, which I really enjoyed (if you are not a fan of Another Round, that’s a bummer tbqh); I dug their conversation with Wyatt Cenac; there was a really important piece on This American Life last week about a topic I care about a lot, which is horrific violence protracted against persons with serious mental illnesses; I also highly recommend this New York Radio Hour, which has not only really in-depth and intelligent conversation with Laura Poitras, and a devastating interview with the musicians who recorded Blackstar with Bowie. I continue to like that show, I think because I like hearing Remnick talk with people. (Also: I’m excited to check out this new Amazon series the New Yorker’s doing.)

I feel like I’m emerging from a cave, crawling out of this book. I saw a play and remembered that plays are great! I saw Amy, finally! Holy fucking shit!

What else… I’m stoked about Full Frontal. I’m stoked about Broad City. I loved this bit with the Abby and Ilana on the Late Show. (LOL: “The taste … isn’t so much?”)

Check out this rad thing about punctuation in novels:

Here’s a video:

Here’s some good SNL:

Here’s a song that reminds me of grad school, and some of the essayists I got to hang out with for a few years there.

I miss those people sometimes, man. I miss sitting around late with whiskey, yelling at each other about art, and outside the weather would often be, somehow, oppressive.


p.s. Seventies Blowjob Faces:


p.p.p.s. Your homework this week is to watch this documentary.

Author of A KIND OF MIRRACULAS PARADISE (Scribner, 18) | Host of podcast MAD CHAT (www.madchatshow.com) | www.hellosandyallen.com | they/them

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