Early on in my writing career I traveled to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. I dutifully lugged several short stories carefully typed on onionskin, the watermark visible when held to the slanting sunlight. I don’t recall the stories’ titles, but something about their spirit stays with me — fiction told in the voices of people on the periphery, a serial killer speaking from the shower, a foster child somewhere on a snowy road in Utah. At Bread Loaf, I expected a Published Writer would critique my work, a man with a gold pen and a pipe, a man who hunted geese, perhaps, drank ocher-colored alcohol from a crystal decanter, and knew something about how to sail.
Bread Loaf was a beautiful place filled, it seemed to me, with beautiful people, parties, poetry, and dances held in haylofts. I felt awkward there, put off in part by the nature of the pursuit — writing fiction — and in part by the culture that sprang from the pursuit. The famous writers at Bread Loaf knew they were celebrities in this small space, and after dinner they congregated in a special lounge reserved for them, a lounge we Little Leaguers could only peek inside, standing at the windows in the field, Queen Anne’s lace blowing hip-high and fragrant. Editors milled about the grounds, the smoky smell of their wood-paneled New York offices still clinging to their clothes.
I, of course, was determined to succeed, and spent my Bread Loaf days and many days thereafter laboring away on my Smith Corona, and then my first computer, words blinking up on the black screen and then daisy- wheeled into pale print. But whatever I wrote seemed wrong, seemed strained, seemed more intent on flashing its cleverness and gaining entry to the country club than on truly transcribing the content inside my admittedly mediocre head. My earliest attempts at fiction were rather tortured “show, don’t tell” affairs, all thought and feeling crammed into action and gesture, so my characters were constantly wringing their hands or tilting their heads, as though they had a chronic case of swimmer’s ear. The number one rule in those Bread Loaf days was to never, ever directly say what a character felt or thought. That was the stuff of expository writing, of college essays, the stuff of the middling masses who could hope to do not much more than pass their course in freshman comp.
The “show, don’t tell” rule that dominated the pedagogy of fiction back then, and perhaps still does, has given rise to some fantastic work, and it remains a useful guide to writing a certain kind of story. For me, as a fledgling writer, it was a bit of a disaster. I longed to be able just to say something straight, to be able to ask on paper the sorts of questions that consumed me then and still do today, questions such as: What is a moral stance? Can despair be redemptive? Is the urge to make meaning a misguided human coping mechanism that gives a false shape to our existence? How best to live? To die?
Eventually I gave up on fiction, gave up in frank despair because I simply could not find a way to explore these questions through character. This was years after Bread Loaf; I was twenty-five then, and when I set down my pen a silence entered my room, a silence in which I was forced to sit, and sweat, and wait, and watch. A year went by. I worked as a literacy instructor and spent my free time in the library of the Harvard Divinity School, a place that would be soothing even to the most troubled soul, the stacks crammed with books whose titles promised revelation. In those days I was reading William James, Thomas Merton, and Paul Tillich, drinking down the pages, propelled by an intellectual thirst that I have never felt quite so keenly again.
And it was during this long, slow slake that I found, one afternoon in 1988, walking home from the library, my first volume of The Best American Essays. I was peering in the window of WordsWorth Books on Brattle Street, and there it was, propped up in the window, a gray book, the color of weather- beaten wood, modest and unadorned. Essays. What was an essay? A long time ago I had read Virginia Woolf’s essays — The Death of the Moth, Three Guineas — and had been delighted by their thoughtful combination of imagery and exposition. One of my earliest writing memories, in fact, comes from the eighth grade, when I decided I would try to write a Woolfian type of composition. I don’t recall its particulars, only that it seemed incredible to me that one might write a piece, a polemic, that had all the strangeness of a story but was not a story.
Now, twenty-five years old, I sat down to read The Best American Essays and I was transported. The first piece I read was Elizabeth Hardwick’s “Thee Heart of the Seasons,” its language rapturous and vivid. The essay evoked time, heat, indolence, and grief through the sheer force of iiiiits imagery and voice. The essay was an artery connecting the mind of the reader with the writer, the writer bare and unpretentious, the writer without the veil of character, without the rouge and foundation that compose fiction, which is, when all is said and done, a game of dress-up. Hardwick’s essay, when I first read it, was the literary equivalent of skinny-dipping — I see you — and it made me feel found.
So it was that I picked up my pen again and began to write, began to write directly, honestly, began to converse, showing, telling, pausing, contradicting, setting the frayed contents of my mind down on plain paper to be plainly seen by anyone who cared to look. That doesn’t mean there isn’t art and artifice involved in the writing of an essay. But it does mean that the art is in revealing the voice of the writer, as opposed to trying to transform it to suit the requirements of a fictional character or narrator. Essay writing is not about facts, although the essay may contain facts. Essay writing is about transcribing the often convoluted process of thought, leaving your own brand of breadcrumbs in the forest so that those who want to can find their way to your door.
Essays, therefore, confuse people. They occupy a quirky place in the general genre of nonfiction, a place many people seem not to understand. It has been my experience that people not acquainted with the literary essay expect it to behave like an article or a piece of journalism. Journalism is a broad category unto itself, but it is probably finally defined by its mission to report to readers clear facts that have been thoroughly investigated and digested by the journalist. One does not expect to read a piece of journalism filled with tentative reflections or outright contradictions. However, essays thrive on these, because contradiction, paradox, and questioning best reflect the moving, morphing human mind, which is what the essayist wants to capture.
In 2004 I published a nonfiction book called Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century. I thought of each chapter as an essay, an inquiry into a psychological experiment and what it might mean for me during the brief time I came into contact with it. The first essay was about B. F. Skinner, who, I believed at first, had lost a daughter to suicide. I eventually found out that this was a myth: Deborah Skinner Buzan is alive, and the chapter reports this by quoting her sister to that effect. But the essay does not begin with this fact; rather, it traces my struggle to figure out the status of Deborah Skinner in body and in soul, and it emphasizes my doubts and questions along the way. If Deborah Skinner is indeed alive, I asked, then why has the myth persisted? And what does that say about B. F. Skinner in