The Best American Essays 2001by Kathleen Norris
This year’s Best American Essays is edited by the best-selling, award-winning writer Kathleen Norris, whose books include Dakota andThe Virgin of Bennington. “The writers in this volume invite us into hidden places: a surgical pathologist’s laboratory, the boxing gym where a college professor and his student learn unexpected lessons about
This year’s Best American Essays is edited by the best-selling, award-winning writer Kathleen Norris, whose books include Dakota andThe Virgin of Bennington. “The writers in this volume invite us into hidden places: a surgical pathologist’s laboratory, the boxing gym where a college professor and his student learn unexpected lessons about discipline, pain, and growing to adulthood. There are many discoveries to be made here, and I gladly invite the reader to an uncommonly rich and rewarding book.” — Kathleen Norris
Read an Excerpt
While teaching college writing courses years ago, I remember hearing a syllogism that may, it strikes me now, help explain the enormous popularity of the personal memoir. It went something like this: “You write best when you write about what you know; what you know best is yourself; therefore, you write best when you write about yourself.” As a syllogism, this seemed valid: the conclusion followed logically from its premises, no? So why didn’t I then receive better essays when I assigned personal topics?
As anyone can see, the conclusion rests on dubious assumptions. The premises sound reasonable, but they raise some fundamental questions. Do people really write best about the subjects they know best? We see evidence all the time of experts not being able to communicate the basic concepts of their professions, which explains why so many technical books are written by both an expert and a writer. There are brilliant academics so committed to their vast research that they can’t bear to part with any detail and thus clog up their sentences with an excess of information. If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, too much can sometimes be an impediment to clear and robust expression. The Shakespeareans do not always write the best books on Shakespeare.
And can we also safely conclude that we know ourselves best of all? If so, then why do so many of us spend so much time in psychotherapy or counseling sessions? Surely, the pursuit of the self -- especially the “hidden” self -- has been a major twentieth- century industry. Self-knowledge, of course, confronts us with another logical problem: how can the self be at the same time the knower and the known? That’s why biographies can be so much more revealing than autobiographies. As Dostoyevsky said in his Notes from Underground: “A true autobiography is almost an impossibility . . . man is bound to lie about himself.” Yet the illusion that we do know ourselves best must serve as both comfort and inspiration to the new wave of memoirists who seem to write with one finger glued to the shift key and another to the letter I, which on the keyboard looks nothing like it does on the page, thus appropriately symbolizing the relationship between that character and the “self” it presumes to represent. Today’s writers’ market is flooded with autobiography -- now more likely to be labeled “memoir” in the singular, as though the more fashionable literary label promises something grander. Memoirs (the term was almost always used in the plural) were customarily written by public figures who recorded their participation in historical events and their encounters with other prominent individuals. General Ulysses S. Grant’s two-volume Personal Memoirs (1885-86) were bestsellers. The old memoirs were penned by well-established individuals in the twilight of their careers; the new memoir is frequently the work of an emerging writer aspiring to be well established.
The memoir is easily abused by those who feel that the genre automatically confers upon the author some sort of importance. It’s only natural, isn’t it, to be the heroes or heroines of our own lives? And as the main protagonists how can we resist the impulse to occupy center stage and not consider ourselves gifted with greater sensitivity, finer values, higher moral authority, and especially keener powers of recollection than any member of our supporting cast of characters? The most interesting autobiography ever conceived, I think, must be Mark Twain’s. Partially written, partially dictated, never published in its entirety, and never according to his intentions, in many ways a colossal failure of a book, Twain’s autobiography grappled with every psychological and compositional difficulty characteristic of the genre. Twain knew how easy it was to exhibit ourselves in “creditable attitudes exclusively” and tried to display himself as honestly as he could. It was a noble experiment, but it proved impossible: “I have been dictating this autobiography of mine,” he wrote, “for three months; I have thought of fifteen hundred or two thousand incidents in my life which I am ashamed of but I have not gotten one of them to consent to go on paper yet.” To say that memoir, autobiography, and the personal essay can be easily abused is not to disparage these vigorous genres. The democratization of the memoir has resulted in many wonderful books, not a few crafted by young or relatively young writers. I remember being in a Greenwich Village bookstore in 1976 with a friend who was struck by the arrogance of Paul Zweig’s newly published Three Journeys: “Autobiography -- hell, the guy’s not even forty!” I remember chuckling at that remark and laater agreeing that an autobiography composed in one’s mid-thirties perhaps was, as Christopher Lasch argued shortly afterward, a prime example offfff what he memorably called The Culture of Narcissism. Yet I would feel terrible about my response only a few years later when I learned that Zweig had been diagnosed with a nasty form of lymphoma. He would die at forty-nine, struggling to complete a second series of memoirs, Departures (1986); its conclusion remains one of the most compelling and illuminating essays I’ve ever read about someone’s final days.
What prevents personal writing from deteriorating into narcissism and self-absorption? This is a question anyone setting out to write personally must face sooner or later. I’d say it requires a healthy regimen of self-skepticism and a respect for uncertainty. Though the first-person singular may abound, it’s a richly complex and mutable I, never one that designates a reliably known entity. One might ultimately discover, as does Diane Ackerman in the intricately textured essay that opens this collection, “a community of previous selves.” In some of the best memoirs and personal essays, the writers are mysteries to themselves and the work evolves into an enactment of surprise and self-discovery. The “strange thing about knowledge,” William T. Vollmann says in the essay that closes the collection, “is that the more one knows, the more one must qualify perceived certainties, until everything oozes back into unfamiliarity.” Surprise is what keeps “life writing” live writing. And, finally, as Kathleen Norris aptly observes in her introduction, there must be what she calls resonance -- a deep and vibrant connection with an audience. The mysterious I converses with an equally mysterious I.
The Best American Essays features a selection of the year’s outstanding essays, essays of literary achievement that show an awareness of craft and forcefulness of thought. Hundreds of essays are gathered annually from a wide variety of national and regional publications. These essays are then screened, and approximately one hundred are turned over to a distinguished author, who may add a few personal discoveries and who makes the final selections.
To qualify for selection, the essays must be works of respectable literary quality, intended as fully developed, independent essays on subjects of general interest (not specialized scholarship), originally written in English (or translated by the author) for publication in an American periodical during the calendar year. Periodicals that want to be sure their contributors will be considered each year should include the series on their complimentary subscription list (Robert Atwan, Series Editor, The Best American Essays, P.O. Box 220, Readville, MA 02137).
I would like to dedicate this sixteenth volume in the series to the memory of Charles Frederick Main (1921-2000), a marvelous teacher, Renaissance scholar, and warm and generous man. As always, I appreciate the enormous help I receive from the people at Houghton Mifflin, especially Janet Silver, Eric Chinski, Larry Cooper, and Erin Edmison. It was a great pleasure this year to work with Kathleen Norris, whose prose and poetry I’ve admired ever since I began this series in 1985. In fact, hers was one of the first essays I encountered back then. It appeared in The North Dakota Quarterly and later grew into her wonderful book Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. In 1985 my publishers and I weren’t sure we’d find enough genuine essays in a given year to issue an annual volume. Coming early on, her essay convinced us that the series was indeed possible. In subsequent essays and books, Kathleen Norris has subtly and patiently explored the dynamic relations between our participation in communities and (to borrow an outdated expression from the Dominican nuns who taught me as a child) our “inner resources.” That theme and its variations can be discovered at play throughout her splendid collection.
Introduction: Stories Around a Fire
Writing is done in solitude, and without much hope of gaining worldly fortune. But the culture of celebrity that permeates American life on the cusp of the twenty-first century has in the last decade trickled down so that even lowly writers can indulge in the illusion that, at least while we are promoting a book, we are somebody. The first time I landed at an airport on a book tour, I assumed that the person greeting me at the gate was a volunteer or an employee of the store where I was to read that night. When I said it was kind of her to offer to carry my garment bag, she insisted, “But this is my job.” I had encountered my first “author schlepper,” known to the trade as a “media” or “literary” escort, to distinguish them from the other kind. As we made our way to her car, I stood a bit taller. I had a handler; I had arrived.
A few years later, I spent three days in San Francisco with an escort whose previous employment had been in public television, and during traffic jams we sang songs from The Muppet Show. She knew all the words; I did the best I could. The book I was promoting was about the two years that my husband had spent living on the grounds of a Benedictine monastery in Minnesota, and was full of stories about discoveries I had made: the fact that monks have a unique, home- grown sense of humor, that celibate people can make good friends, developing a remarkable capacity for listening, and that their wise understanding of human relations had helped me to better understand and appreciate my own marriage. I would not have thought this was bestseller material, but people were buying the book, and I was glad to read from it in stores. Sharing the stories made the people come alive for me again -- the elderly monks in the monastery nursing home who were an inspiration, and the beleaguered young nuns who bravely struggled with the uncomfortable emotions raised by the cursing psalms.
On our last day together, my escort said to me, “I think I get it. You’re a real writer.” Surprised, I asked her what she meant. “I mean,” she replied, “you didn’t write a book in order to get a radio talk show.” Her experience to date in the Book Biz had been with self-proclaimed counselors and spiritual gurus who regarded their books as steppingstones to greater things. And the escort quickly realized that she was merely one of the “little people” they would use and discard on their climb to the top. Authors screamed at her over trivial matters; one writer of a book on relationships banished her from a bookstore because she was “giving off negative energy,” and then appeared a few minutes later preening and smiling before the audience, a model of calm assurance. A psychic phoned her at 3 a.m. to see how many copies of her book were in the stores they were to visit the next day. Because she wanted to keep her job, the woman did not respond by saying that if she were truly a psychic, she would already know.
It is safe to say that none of the writers in this book are struggling to put words on paper because they want a radio talk show or a syndicated column in the daily newspaper. They don’t want anything at all other than to tell a story, to explore an idea or situation through the act of writing. Unable to escape the sense that this story must be told, the writer of literature more or less reluctantly concludes, I am the person who must tell it. Or try to tell it. An essay, after all, is merely an attempt. It has no presumption of success and no ulterior or utilitarian purpose, which makes it unique, a welcome open space in the crowded, busy landscape of American life. A place to relax and take a breather.
Human storytelling was once all breath, the sacred act of telling family stories and tribal histories around a fire. Now a writer must attempt to breathe life into the words on a page, in the hope that the reader will discover something that resonates with his or her own experience. A genuine essay feels less like a monologue than a dialogue between writer and reader. This is a story I need, we conclude after reading the opening paragraph. It will tell me something about the world that I didn’t know before, something I sensed but could not articulate.
An essay that is doing its job feels right. And resonance is the key. To be resonant, the dictionary informs us, is to be “strong and deep in tone, resounding.” And to resound means to be filled to the depth with a sound that is sent back to its source. An essay that works is similar; it gives back to the reader a thought, a memory, an emotion made richer by the experience of another. Such an essay may confirm the reader’s sense of things, or it may contradict it. But always, and in glorious, mysterious ways that the author cannot control, it begins to belong to the reader.
And the reader finds that what might have been the author’s self-absorption has been transformed into hospitality. Detail that could seem merely personal and trivial instead becomes essential and personal in the truest, deepest sense, as it inspires us to take in this story, recognizing in it something greater than the sum of its parts. It is our story too, the human story of work and rest, love and loneliness, grief and joy. In the essays in this book we are invited to take time to notice how the world goes on, and how often it is the simple things -- a student’s letter, the memory of a first job, the markings left in a library book, an old friend’s recipe for yellow pepper soup, or a glimpse of night sky -- that allow us to dwell on the issues of life and death that concern us all.
The Best AMERICAN ESSAYS 2001
Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company Introduction copyright © 2001 by Kathleen Norris All rights reserved
Meet the Author
Kathleen Norris is the author of two books of poetry, Falling Off (1971) and The Middle of the World (1981) and has received awards from the Guggenheim and Bush foundations. She lives in Lemmon, South Dakota, with her husband.
ROBERT ATWAN has been the series editor of The Best American Essays since its inception in 1986. He has edited numerous literary anthologies and written essays and reviews for periodicals nationwide.
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