“Books invite us to share in a sustained, subtle, complex system of making sense of things,” Scott Russell Sanders said Tuesday evening during an event hosted by the Plainfield Public Library. He was reading from his essay “Hunger for Books” in the compilation The Country of Language.
The essay was about reading, and how as a boy, he was surrounded by books though his parents owned very few of them. It could happen that way, he said, because of the public library. While he sat among those stacks of books, he came to love the “miraculous power of language, whether written or spoken.” “I could follow any question wherever it lead, and all for free,” he said.
Sanders read from several other of his books to the crowd of about 30 of us. Ann Kroeker and I attended the event together in a sort of “reprise” of our recent road trip to Calvin College for the Festival of Faith and Writing. (If you must know, I called it “getting the band back together” in my best 80s rocker voice as I got in the car that evening.)
I saw Ann jot down “I want to write like that” in her journal as Sanders read from his memoir, The Private History of Awe. He was reading about an experience from his early childhood in which his father took him out on the porch during a thunderstorm. I think we all wanted to write like that as he described the lightning and the wind and the smell of his father’s work clothes. He called this his first “elaborate memory,” this scene of his four-year-old self.
As I listened, I thought about the pictures and images I have of my young life that are nothing like this. Nothing elaborate. My first fully formed memories don’t emerge until around 18 or 20 from a mind grown lazy from not recalling the details often enough.
When Ann invited me to the Scott Russell Sanders reading, I said “yes” eagerly for two reasons. The first has to do with the copy of Sanders’ book, Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World, that has been sitting on my nightstand, going with me in my purse, or sitting open in front of me during lunch time for the past couple of months. I love meeting the authors whose words are shaping me.
But the other reason is that for years, I have had a secret crush on the essay. Not the essayist, but the essay itself. It started when I read Annie Dillard as a teenager. After college, I would occasionally sneak away to a book store with the little bit of extra money I had and buy copies of The New Yorker or The Atlantic and swoon over the essays by writers unknown to me. More recently, I have been entranced with Marilynne Robinson, Wendell Berry, and Verlyn Klinkenborg. In fact, the crush has become something of an obsession as I hone my own words into essay-like pieces. Let’s just say, I’m about ready to make a commitment to the form.
A couple of weeks ago at the Festival of Faith and Writing, I nearly overlooked a session on the essay that ended up being the highlight of the conference. At first, I felt affirmed in my love for the form as Brigham Young University professor Patrick Madden described the essay as “recreating an experience and thinking about it. It’s both showing and telling,” he said, comparing it to the common writer mantra of “show don’t tell.” But when the other speaker, Brian Doyle, described the essayist as “story-catcher” gathering up “shards of holiness,” I knew I had found my people.
The most inviting part of the essay, though, which Madden describes as “infinite suggestiveness,” is its unfolding of ordinary things, like libraries and thunderstorms and damned up rivers, in very non-ordinary ways. “There’s nothing ordinary,” Madden said, “If you pay close enough attention, you will find something miraculous, extraordinary.”
“The world is everywhere whispering essays. To write, one needs only be its scribe,” one of the speakers said, quoting essayist Alexander Smith.
All of these men, Sanders, Madden, Doyle, inspire me to be a better essayist. But the first step in the process may actually be to turn off the laptop, to lay down the pen, and to “sharpen my attentiveness.”
Or, as Sanders might say, to create some elaborate memories.
“The essay is the widest fattest most generous open glorious honest endlessly expandable form of committing prose not only because it cheerfully steals and hones all the other tools and talents of all the other forms of art, and not only because it is admirably and brilliantly closest to not only the speaking voice but the maundering shambling shuffling nutty wandering salty singing voices in our heads, but because it is the most playful of forms, liable to hilarity and free association and startlement, without the filters and mannered disguises and stiff dignity of fiction and poetry and journalism, respectively.” – Brian Doyle
Ann Kroeker also wrote about our road trip to hear Scott Russell Sanders in her Wednesday Curiosity Journal. And yesterday, The High Calling Managing Editor, Deidra Riggs, wrote about learning to read and the importance of words in her life in “Telling our Stories.”
Photo by macahanC6R, via Flickr, used with permission under the Creative Commons License.