By Tom ďre-toolingĒ Waters
June 1, 2008
I’ve always felt that this is the wrong era for the personal essay. Essays these days are gussied up to be something else: rants, blogs, columns, feature length critiques and other names that all mean the same thing with slight variations on the stringency of the structure. With the dawn of the internet, too, many say that the printed word is on the way out. I highly doubt that.
Itís been said that writing is 25% inspiration and 75% perspiration, or something like that. Iíve never been good with quotes (aside from films that Iíve watched dozens of times), but you know which quote Iím referring to. I donít agree. Iíve always thought it was presumptuous and arrogant to pen dissertations on íthe craftí of writing or the wages we suffer for our íartí, but somehow, I always get drawn in to writing about writing again. I read a review about the Coen brothers a few months ago that struck a deep chord in me thatís been resonating ever since. The writer made an observation that many writer/directors run out of their own source material sooner or later, and when that happens, they either fade away or find a new means of expressing their talents by shining a light on other peopleís work. The film was No Country For Old Men, and indeed, the film garnered four Oscar Awards and an avalanche of critical praise.
Iíve often been plagued since my early 20ís with a deep seated concern that Iíd run out of personal source material to write about. After all, there are only so many daily tasks, personal observations and pithy opinions to spring forth from one personís head, right? And my credo for writing the personal essay has always been to keep it timeless; before my first successful flush as a freelance writer, I never knew when or where something was going to appear, so I made every attempt to give my work a context outside of current events. That, and there are more than enough political columnists, moralistic crusaders and observationalistic pundits to spin out their safe and concise feelings in a journalistically chipper manner.
So where does that put me? In a state of mind where Iím looking for a challenge but Iím not sure what it is. Where I want to evolve and adapt but Iím not sure if it means wandering outside of the medium that I excel in (and that Iíve been told Iím good at), or finding a different avenue inside of the form that Iím using. Itís a real pickle. After an excruciatingly long block, I survived with the ability to write something longer than a paragraph when spring arrived. Lately, though, Iím wondering if I could use some more time out, though.
My friend Christina (another fellow writer) always put a positive spin on blocks, telling me that a lot of writers can come out of a ífallowí period renewed, refreshed and ready to expound on everything theyíd experienced. There is some truth to that, as you canít write about life if youíve encapsulated everything that youíre going through and stopped living. You often need to go through some of lifeís unscripted hurtles and wait for them to happen. Plot points donít just pop up on cue. And still, thereís a sense that itís time to metamorphose into something else.
After a month long burst of manuscript submissions, I got the usual volley of rejection emails along with some thoughtful, insightful and well-put feedback from publishers and agents who were interested, yet not willing to take the risk. It was enough to keep me going. A publishing house told me that theyíd read the manuscript back to front and had many heated discussions in the office about it, but they were passing. One agent emailed me to say that publishers were only representing íthematicí collections of essays while another informed me (very politely, mind you) that the industry wonít take a chance on an unknown when it comes to the essay form. Itís all well and good for celebrities to make some extra advance money with a ghost-written memoir based on recorded interviews with a hired writer, but not an unknown. Itís perfectly acceptable for an established writer to make a name for himself writing novels or plays or science fiction fantasies first and then put out a collection of essays, but not an unknown. Strangely enough, none of this was discouraging. Iíve always felt that this is the wrong era for the personal essay. Essays these days are gussied up to be something else: rants, blogs, columns, feature length critiques and other names that all mean the same thing with slight variations on the stringency of the structure. With the dawn of the internet, too, many say that the printed word is on the way out. I highly doubt that.
Creatively speaking, Iíve also nurtured a feeling that, in a sense, the old guard has to fall before new voices can be heard. The young bucks of a prior era carve out their niche in an already crowded market, protect their territory and slowly wither away into literary insignificance, immortality or obscurity, whether itís in newspapers, magazines, publishing houses or beyond. How can you tell when the vacuum hits, though? When does this shift in culture occur? Thatís a tough nut to crack. Maybe it arrives when the younger voices reach their pinnacle and find the means to wake the sleeping giant that is their generation. Perhaps it arrives once the old guard loosen their grip on an established clique and bring some young upstarts into the fold.
Iíve also been haunted since my early í20s with a deep, almost spiritual yearning to write a piece that scratches the surface of a buried Truth, something that encompasses what everyone my age has felt as a shared experience. To write something that transcends and inspires thatís beyond my own existence. I canít even put my finger on the feeling, and Iím having a hard time even describing it, but I know how it feels to be close to the goal. Itís like a creative dowsing rod, going off the charts whenever my train of thought gets near the state lines of what Iím looking for. I could spend the rest of my life trying to write that piece and never hit it, but Iím going to keep trying.
Lately, though, even though I have the ability to write and a desire to write, I havenít had any inspiration to write with. This is new territory, and it makes me wonder if I should sit back a little longer or start noodling out and tinkering with some different formats or mediums. I canít be the only person whoís gone through this. Iím sure every (not using the A word, no sir) creative type has experienced this sort of critical juncture in their career. It bears more thought, more meditation. Like all ideas, it deserves some time to incubate or gestate until itís ready to reveal itself. If my work isnít growing or evolving, then itís time to stop. The day that I donít feel like Iím breaking new ground (even when it might not seem like it) is the day Iíll hang up my hat and call it quits. The odds of that happening are slim, though. With an inquisitive nature, an opinionated character, a coping mechanism that gnaws at me to make sense out of the world I live in in order to live in it, and a deep-seated need to be acknowledged on a level thatís abnormal for civilians and run-of-the-mill for (not using the A word here, either) right brain people, that wonít happen any time soon. Thanks for taking the journey with me so far.