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.” Read More

What Binds Them Together

Features: Of Essays and Exes

by: Rachael Peckham

When a MacArthur grant-winning poet and classicist writes about her ex-lover, she doesn’t commit a “thick stacked act of revenge” against him, a tempting “vocation of anger” enacted on the page. Yet Anne Carson, author of “The Glass Essay” (from the collection Glass, Irony, and God), knows it’s “easier to tell a story of how people wound one another than of what binds them together.” It makes sense. Where there’s an ex, there’s the story of a relationship—a clear beginning, middle, and the dreaded end, with a natural protagonist in us versus them, the Exes.

That said, Carson’s “The Glass Essay,” which begins with the speaker’s losing sleep over an ex named Law, can hardly be called a clear or easy break-up story. In fact, it’s not a story at all but an essay in verse—one that doesn’t mention him much. Perhaps it’s no surprise that it’s not about him (is it ever, with the essay?) but about her. About several hers, actually; Carson oscillates between “three silent women” each struggling, each alone or left behind in love. It’s loss that binds them together. Read More

Breakup, Break Down, Break Open: Intimate Partner Violence and Life Inside a Daily Ending

Feature: Of Essays and Exes

By Sonya Huber

Some relationships fall apart in a gradual and mutual cooling, and others rise toward a crescendo of irreconcilable differences. Still others are threaded with periodic or daily heartbreak and even violence. Imagine living a love in which every moment was a breakup, and every next moment was a reunion, over and over and over. The essay of domestic violence is the essay of a living bonfire of a breakup, an extreme breakup in slow motion, and in this writing we can see essayists shining a light on heartbreak, but also on thornier issues of identity and personal safety.

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More than a Vanished Husband: Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter”

Feature: Of Essays and Exes

by Holly Baker

“My vanished husband is neither here nor there,” Jo Ann Beard writes in her 1996 New Yorker essay “The Fourth State of Matter.” She’s describing a relationship caught in the freeze-frame of a collapse. The rafters have buckled   and the walls are caving in, but the marriage structure is falling, not yet fallen. Beard, though, is not centrally concerned with the catalyst of this disaster, nor  its aftermath. She does not reflect on settling dust or salvage work. Instead, with a sense of foreboding, her essay captures the days and hours preceding a series of inevitable tragedies: divorce, the death of her dog, and a horrific campus shooting that leaves seven people dead and a survivor seeking new self- definition.

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