Writing What You Know and Whom You’ve Known

Feature: Of Essays and Exes

By Joey Franklin

When I teach the essay to new college students, I usually put the kibosh on three subjects right away—the Big Disease, the Big Game, and the Big Break-Up. One reason for this blanket prohibition is as simple as it is selfish: I don’t want to read bad writing about tired subjects; and there are few subjects more exercised in the essays of new college students than dying family members, fleeting athletic glory, and the pains of first love.

I do have a more legitimate reason for this prohibition than my own desire to never read another internal monologue about teenage unrequited love. You see, I steer my students away from these subjects because, while the loss they represent is certainly real, it is a loss so common as to tax the ability of any writer—let alone a young writer—to say something worthwhile.

Perhaps, then, it is unfair that I follow up this prohibition by challenging my students to write according to Phillip Lopate’s dictum: “The trick is to realize that one is not important, except insofar as one’s example can serve to elucidate a more widespread human trait and make readers feel a little less lonely and freakish.”

Could there be a human trait more widespread than our desire for companionship? And what makes any of us feel more lonely and freakish than our clamor for intimacy and the inevitable loss, rejection, and self-doubt that attends it?

Loss is among the most difficult subjects to essay precisely because it is so common. But it is also the mundanity of loss that makes writing about it so important. I have as much to learn about navigating heartache and loneliness and self-consciousness as my students do. We all need someone to write about the immense challenge of loving other people—and we need them to do it well.

Thankfully, history is replete with essayists who disregard the potential pitfalls of writing about love and loss and go on to create great works of literature. Skirting the edges of sentimentality, exploring intimacy with frank honesty, and exploding clichés with original thought, these essayists have, for centuries, offered models for how to write about love and loss, and our relationship to them.

Consider Plutarch who, nearly two thousand years ago, wrote a letter to his wife about the death of their daughter. The letter, “Consolation to His Wife,” is not a visceral lamentation, but, rather, an exploration of how social expectations complicate and proscribe acceptable grief. He consoles his wife and reasons with her, drawing on sources from Epicurus to Euripides to his own observations of Greek culture. In taking such a reflective posture on his very personal loss, Plutarch creates a critical distance between himself and his pain that invites a reader in. Plutarch does not demand that his reader suffer along with him, but invites his reader to join him and his wife as they process that grief together.

Montaigne often wrote about his intimate relationships but bypassed sentimentality all together, preferring instead a more skeptical, contrary lens. In “On Some Verses of Virgil,” Montaigne argues that “a good marriage, if there be any such, rejects the company and conditions of love, and tries to represent those of friendship.” He then spends much of the twenty-five-thousand-word essay using evidence from history alongside his own intimate life to examine cultural assumptions about marriage, sex, body image, and human intimacy. He writes about genital mutilation, cod-piece fashion trends, erections, mistresses, and his own feelings of inadequacy. Why do we excuse such deeply personal exposure? Because Montaigne has thought clearly and thoroughly about his subject. We trust him to use his personal life along with his erudition in the service of grander questions about humanity. The essay becomes as much about us as it is about him.

For some less ancient examples, consider “A Brief History of Sex” by Brenda Miller and “Still Life with Chair” by Jericho Parms. Both essays are built around memories of past relationships, and both essays avoid sentimentality by using those memories not as ends unto themselves, but as starting points for exploring larger questions about intimacy and memory. Both essays also rely on external material to bolster the relevance of their own personal reminiscences.

In “A Brief History of Sex,” Miller offers us a short, fragmented, lyric meditation on her persistent memory of past loves. Like Plutarch, Miller addresses one of the most intimate aspects of her life, and like Plutarch, she also creates that essential critical distance so that her readers feel comfortable in such an intimate space. But Miller does risk sentimentality by offering several revealing fragments about herself. In one a lover asks, “How many have come before me?” In another, she writes: “I remember my hand moving to touch a shoulder but not the moment of contact, and it’s what I want again, and again: the almost of any desire, that impetus of reach.” In another she recalls giving herself over to past lovers “so they could see me better . . . so they could touch me better . . . so they could taste me better.”

In these personal fragments, Miller reveals herself as vulnerable, passionate, and conflicted, but if these were all the essay contained, we might accuse her of navel-gazing. However, in between these personal fragments Miller has included lyric meditations on an ancient Japanese poet, imagined pillow talk between Adam and Eve, and a playful close reading of an erotic Hindu sculpture of Krishna. In this context, these braided juxtapositions can’t be read as mere confessions. They become contributions to the history of human sexuality, and her personal myths merit the same attention as Krishna, or Adam and Eve, or the words of the ancient poet. Because she has worked hard to see her vulnerabilities and passions and conflicts in the broader context of the human condition, we, in turn, begin to see our own vulnerabilities and passions and conflicts in a similar way.

Just recently, Jericho Parms demonstrated again the essay’s ability to explore love and loss without succumbing to sentimentality or solipsism. On the surface, her essay “Still Life with Chair” might be mistaken for the kind of work that raises red flags in my creative writing classes—after all, the occasion is a college party, and it narrates both the death of a friend and the beginning of a romantic relationship; but it is so much more than that situation.

First, the essay is a fragmented narrative of one night in college where Parms attends a party, meets a young man named Joe for the first time, and sees her friend Ben for the last time. It is a narrative of events that lead to Ben’s accidental death. It’s a narrative of Parms bonding with Joe during the search for Ben, and of the tragedy of discovering that Ben has been electrocuted while exploring the utility tunnels beneath their university. But it isn’t only this fragmented narrative. Within and around this story of budding romance and unexpected loss, Parms braids in reflections and meditations on art, linguistics, philosophy, and religion. She seasons the essay with snippets of a Neruda poem, and she allows her own meditative voice opportunities to draw connections between the disparate fragments. The essay is not about the author’s relationship with Joe or Ben, per se, but it uses these relationships as a starting-off point.

Parms described her method for me this way: “My approach to writing about a past relationship (or anything that risks a similar sentimentality) is to not actually write ‘about’ it, but rather ‘from’ it. What an essay is ‘about’ has to be something larger. In this regard, the relationship becomes a vehicle through which to write toward greater meaning, to speak to the broader context of our lives.”

These authors have figured out a central rule for writing essays: What makes a story or question important to the writer is not always what makes it important to a reader. Experiencing heartache or grief or loss isn’t enough—one must wrap those experiences in a package readers can engage with on their own terms. To quote V. S. Pritchett: “It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living.”

Still, while the examples I’ve explored all involve authors relying on allusion and research, essayists can also rely on the sheer power of eloquence to convince readers that their intimate relationships are worthy of attention. While I lean toward Parms’s idea that essays must be about something larger, I can’t deny that there is space for simple celebration of a person. Sometimes style is all you need.

I’m thinking, for example, of the late Brian Doyle and his essay “The Next Eleven Minutes.” This brief piece on marriage is boldly sentimental, but we allow it because Doyle packages up that sentimentality with self-deprecation and jaw-dropping prose. The opening sentence spans an entire paragraph in which Doyle confesses he understands marriage less and less each year, that every marriage is different, and that his own marriage “changes shape every eleven minutes or so.” He describes marriage as a “mental and emotional construct which both parties believe in to varying degrees at the same time or else there you are at the bus stop muttering about how you used to be married,” and he describes his wife as “a mysterious changeable country whom I try to simply savor and appreciate rather than attempt to understand.”

The pace of the paragraph-long sentence is playful and frenetic, and a reader can easily feel the passion of it. Doyle loves his wife and he wants us to know it, but he doesn’t expect us to merely take his word for it. Instead he gives us another frenetic paragraph—a list of all the living details that constitute the rich attachment he feels to his wife. “There have been many riveting moments in my marriage,” he writes:

                     Like when our three children were hauled wet and startled from the salt sea
                     of her womb and I saw my wife’s spleen and thin layer of subcutaneous fat,
                     which I thought was pretty cool but she didn’t . . . or the way she becomes
                     so absorbed in the paintings she paints that she loses track of the time and
                     hoots with surprise when she realizes how late it is . . . or the way she forgets
                     that the milk for her coffee is boiling and yelps with surprise every single
                     morning when it boils over . . . or the way she retires upstairs sometimes
                     in tears overcome by exhaustion and rude children and unsubtle husband.

These are not superficial details stolen from a Hallmark Valentine’s card, but tangible complexities that invite us to sense Doyle’s passion. And all this detail might be enough for us to be convinced of the state of Doyle’s marriage, but he ends the essay with one final bit of evidence: “I know the sound of her sob and the lilt of her laugh, the lurch of her logic and the flare of her fury, yet after twenty years I know her hardly at all.” This confession represents an impressive and entertaining control of language but also an exemplary measure of humility, which becomes the ultimate testament to Doyle’s marriage—sure he gives us a quirky list of details that suggests he knows his wife well, but in the end he refuses to reduce her even to his charming, thoughtful sketch. She is a mystery— one he hoped to rediscover “every eleven minutes or so.”

Doyle knew what Parms and Miller know, and what Montaigne and Plutarch knew as well: The story itself is never enough. Whether through research and reflection or lyricism and self-deprecation, writers who successfully produce an essay on loss or love do so by cultivating their most personal experiences into works of art. They might use thoughtful juxtapositions of experience and commentary. They might braid their stories with allusions to history or religious texts. Or they might simply offer honest self-reflections that invite readers to do the same. The goal, always: to transform a private intimate experience with a loved one into a shared experience with the reader. This requires humility enough to accept that one’s own story might not be enough by itself. But, paradoxically, it also requires confidence enough to wager that one’s life deserves to share page space with, say, Krishna or Neruda or Euripides, or that one’s own language might make a familiar story worth reading. And maybe there is no wonder that humility and confidence are essential ingredients to writing about the love and loss associated with intimacy, since humility and confidence are, I’m fairly certain, essential ingredients to that intimacy itself.

Joey Franklin is the author of My Wife Wants You to Know I’m Happily Married (University of Nebraska Press, 2015). His essays and articles have appeared in Poets & Writers, The Gettysburg Review, The Norton Reader, and elsewhere. He teaches literature and creative writing at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and he is currently working on a memoir about the saints and scoundrels hiding in his family tree.

Originally published in NOR 22.

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