Some days, I want to read essays rather than make them. I yearn to linger in the words, sentences, paragraphs, and pages of other essayists. To lean in close and let their words wash over me. To listen carefully for the patterns of their language, their idiosyncrasies, flourishes, and routines, rather than the familiar sound of my own. To step into the worlds their essays create for a little while. To feel what they want me to feel. To learn something I didn’t quite know. To see how they build a narrative or resist one. To hear how they tell a particular story in a particular moment on a particular page. To experience the conjuring of a world rather than being responsible for it.
Reading essays allows me to stop thinking about mine. I ride along the currents of their essays for hundreds or thousands of words. I savor the beginning and the end of the ride. I start and finish another essay and another. I’m seeking knowledge of our shared craft of essay-making. I’m looking for secrets or possibly hidden wisdom. I’m reading their collections and searching for community. For a few minutes, I feel like I belong.
I’m an essayist too, I want to say to the printed pages. I write essays too. I know that it can be a solitary existence that consumes waking and sleeping hours. Being an essayist means always looking for essays and often finding them. The day starts with essays percolating in my head. The day ends that way too. I rifle through topics picking some and discarding others. While walking the dog, I can hear the opening line. I repeat it again and again to remember it, to remember that this can be an essay. I write essays in my head and sometimes, they make it to the page.
Being an essayist colors my existence. Daily events appear to me as essays. I test out their resonance on me before I test them out on other people. Parts of my life offered up as fodder for my craft while other parts remain protected from my writing. I interiorize the world to recreate it on the page. I seek a narrative, a story arc, the meaning or lack thereof to guide the essay. Mostly, I resist the urge for familiar narratives because I want to see how a story unfolds rather than direct it.
But some days, I don’t want to write essays. I want to read them. I turn to essays not for craft, but comfort, solace, or maybe even solidarity. I read for reading’s sake. I want to be inspired. Essays are the work I can’t help but do, but not every day. I turn to essays even when I don’t want to make them.
Today, unsurprisingly, is one of those days when I want to lose myself in the work of other essayists. To escape a body that antagonizes and ails. To not engage what I want to write and what begs to be written. I read other essays when I can’t bear to think about mine. Perhaps, reading essays will help me write the ones I’m trying to avoid. Perhaps, not. I find it hard to care either way.
As I read essay after essay, I realize why I’m an essayist rather than a novelist or a memoirist. Fiction, truth be told, scares me because I want to be responsible for no world beyond the one I inhabit. Our world is marvelous and strange and familiar and frightening. I want to write about where I live and breathe and survive. There’s too much to capture my interest and draws me in. I’m awestruck by novelists and the worlds they create, but I’m not a world-builder.
Memoir, Mary Karr emphasizes, is about chronology and the importance of sequencing events. Even as a historian, I never much liked chronology and the fascination with dates. Chronology made things appear too tidy and explainable. One event leads to another like links in an unending chain. Year after year, they pile atop one another until someone decides to craft a narrative. Chronology requires selection and often erasure of that selection. There are choices about where to begin and end. We still like to assume those choices aren’t arbitrary. I remain unconvinced. Sequencing doesn’t hold my interest, so I don’t write memoir.
I like the form of the essay: its shortness, its unfinished quality, its attempt, and its doubt. I want to ability to meander. To dwell in feelings, moods, and in the ordinary moments that we tend to overlook. To explain a worldview, especially those we that don’t like. To document how other people approach the world. To exist together, writer and reader, in hundreds or thousands of words on a shared topic of interest.
I like to read essays because I live to write them.