literary gems: paul h. connolly’s essay collection: on essays

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Back in the days when everyone was old and stupid or young and foolish and me and Sugar were the only ones just right, this lady moved on our block with nappy hair and proper speech and no makeup. And quite naturally we laughed at her, laughed the way we did at the junk man who went about his business like he was some big-time president and his sorry-ass horse his secretary. And we kinda hated her too, hated the way we did the winos who cluttered up our parks and pissed on our handball walls and stank up our hallways and stairs so you couldn’t halfway play hide-and-seek without a goddamn gas mask. Miss Moore was her name. –From Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Lesson”

Sometimes a piece of writing will seize you, will put your heart on pause and make you come down to your knees because you feel just like that. Because the arrangement of words–and that’s what good writing is really, the delicate dance between rhythm and type–made you see the world for what it is, or perhaps it made you see something about yourself, or others, differently. For me, the power of prose is in the author’s ability to give me second sight. There’s a tree in the middle of a forest, but it’s not really a tree because it reminds you of a moment in your childhood when the forest was your house and the tree was your mother’s hair and all you wanted to do was climb up and in. A good writer arranges words in such a way that you just don’t see the tree, you see above, beyond, under, over and through it to something else, something other.

You are, if nothing else, a fakir.

I’ve been in a funk lately. I’ve dozens of books that I’ve been meaning to read but haven’t. And after completing an exhausting round of necessary revisions on my manuscript, the idea of committing to a whole new world felt unbearable. I’ve just returned from battle, and now you’re asking me to jump once more unto the breach, dear friends? COME NOW. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, I’m still waiting on finalized contracts for two projects and who knows if I’ll ever sell this dark novel. So I set aside all the novels in favor of an essay collection I picked up on the street a few weeks back. A man was moving out of his home and he put out, quite literally, hundreds of books onto the street. I’m talking first editions. I’m talking Cynthia Ozick, Amy Hempel, Janet Malcolm, and Philip Roth. I nearly had a seizure and I took as many books as I could carry (40) and rushed on home to pore over my loot.

Can I tell you that I spent the day with Paul H. Connolly’s On Essays: A Reader for Writers? This out-of-print collection is so obscure it was challenging to locate it online (Amazon doesn’t stock it, but your local library might). A pity, really, because the collection is so remarkable, and part me of me wanted to retitle the subtitle to: A Reader for Anyone Who Likes to Read. The 56 essays examine the symbiotic nature between character and style. The essays are relatively short, but potent, and what’s remarkable is that the essays are satisfying for any reader, however, for the writer, they provide an excellent blueprint for how many authors found their voice and style.

Virginia Woolf, my hero, who brought modernist, experimental fiction to the fore (DYK that Mrs. Dalloway influenced Marquez’s A Hundred Years of Solitude? Fun fact, right?) displayed her elliptical relationship between time and the interior/exterior world in “Gas.” Sure, the essay is about tripping out on gas during a perfunctory visit to the dentist, however, you start to see how the interior (the mind) is able to move through time and space and worlds while one is confined to a chair in a state of semi-consciousness. You can see how she plays with the juxtaposition of time (the dentist visit is short but your travel and imagination makes it feel as you’ve endured years)–both devices were the foundation for her later works, notably, The Waves (one of my favorite books!!!) and Mrs. Dalloway. I also chuckled reading her rage blackout confrontation with E.M. Forrester in “A Writer’s Diary,” over women being passed over for literary prizes.

In Connolly’s collection, you’ll find essays from Joan Didion (her landmark essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” is an obvious must-read. Then again, anything of Didion’s should be required reading), Calvin Trillin, George Orwell, E.B. White, Susan Sontag (my god, “A Woman’s Beauty: Put-down or Power Source?“), and finally Toni Cade Bambara!

There’s so much I love, and can learn from, Bambara. I’ve always been taught that if the style of what you’re trying to achieve subsumes the meaning, the style is a disservice. Writing shouldn’t call attention to itself, shouldn’t be hyper-stylized, rather the work should be speak as a whole, as a brilliant symphony of language, tone, depth and meaning. The brilliance is in the balance, and I love how Bambara’s style is visual, visceral and dramatic. Read “The Lesson,” and you’ll see what I mean. She’s telling you a story and you can hear and feel her on the page. Her language sometimes drifts from Standard English (Junot Diaz got this too, when he refused to translate from the Spanish in Drown). On a technical level, she’s a dream for me because I’m obsessed with cadence and rhythm. I read everything I write out loud, every time, just so I can hear if it’s right. It has to sound melodic, musical, potent, for me to commit to it. And like the accumulation of notes, every line has to work in conjunction with what preceded it and the line that’s about to be written. On a pure story level, her writing is smart, funny, sharp, honest, and it brings me back to old Brooklyn, when I was from around the way and boys would conversate.

I haven’t been inspired in so long, and finding Bambara was a gift. I’ve ordered all of her books and I can’t wait to dive in.

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