If you’re new to this blog, let me give you a heads-up: this is the monthly post in which I bore most of you silly by writing about an essayist that I’ve been reading. I’m calling the project My Year of Excellent Essayists, and you can read more about it here.
I have an old, used copy of The Best American Essays 1987. I must have bought it around 1994, when I took a Prose Style Workshop in Portland and switched from writing short stories to writing essays. (Or attempting to write essays.) There’s an essay in that collection called “The Inheritance of Tools” by Scott Russell Sanders, and its lyricism wowed me. The same year I bought the collection The Art of the Personal Essay and found Sanders’ stunning piece “Under the Influence,” about his father’s alcoholism.
I never forgot those essays. It’s been fifteen years since I first read them, which I find rather unbelievable; still I remember their power. I wanted to reread them this month, and to read more Sanders. I chose A Private History of Awe, which is a reminiscence of his life–specifically a recollection of the times he was touched with awe. The book takes you through those charged moments chronologically, starting in Sanders’ childhood, while simultaneously weaving in current-day stories of his time with his mother, who is falling into dementia, and time with his newborn granddaughter. It’s a beautiful book.
According to Phillip Lopate, author of The Art of the Personal Essay, Sanders is “an accomplished nature writer,” yet I’ve managed to focus on his work on family and relationships. Even in these works, he writes with the watchful awareness of a nature writer. He’s a master of observing details and lingering over them, as I hope you’ll see below. There’s also something almost spiritual about his writing–although in Awe he dismisses the religion of his childhood. He writes of everyday objects, of people, of everyday life with reverence usually reserved for the sacred. His writing is serious and earnest and gracious.
I had no problem finding lines to highlight in Sanders’ work–I’ve nearly ruined his essays with offensive neon-green highlighter stripes. Sanders is also a carpenter–he learned his skills from his father, which is the subject matter for “The Inheritance of Tools.” He crafts his lines as he does his carpentry, with precision and care.
a few lines to love:
The first line from “The Inheritance of Tools”:
“At just about the hour when my father died, soon after dawn one February morning when ice coated the windows like cataracts, I banged my thumb with a hammer.”
Sanders always starts his essays with a strong, compelling line.
Here’s the start to “Under the Influence”:
“My father drank. He drank as a gut-punched boxer gasps for breath, as a starving dog gobbles food-compulsively, secretly, in pain and trembling. I use the past tense not because he quit drinking but because he quit living.”
The first line is as simple and frank as can be, conveying the essay’s tone right off. Then he hits the reader with the two similes, taking his father’s drinking from an abstract idea to a physical experience that the reader can understand.
More from “Tools”:
“As the saw teeth bit down, the wood released its smell, each kind with its own fragrance, oak or walnut or cherry or pine–usually pine because it was the softest, easiest for a child to work. No matter how weathered and grey the board, no matter how warped and cracked, inside there was this smell waiting, as of something freshly baked.”
I love the idea of the wood’s smell waiting like something baked. So true.
“I was taught early on that a saw is not to be used apart from a square: ‘If you’re going to cut a piece of wood,’ my father insisted, ‘you owe it to the tree to cut it straight.'”
Sanders conveys so much about the people in his essays through dialogue. It’s hard to imagine that he remembers all those lines verbatim, but the dialogue is convincing enough to make it seem that he has. His father’s charismatic personality, especially, comes across in what he says.
After hearing the news of his father’s death:
“For several hours I paced around inside my house, upstairs and down, in and out of every room, looking for the right door to open and knowing there was no such door. My wife and children followed me and wrapped me in arms and backed away again, circling and staring as if I were on fire.”
The notion of looking for a nonexistent door is such an interesting, accurate analogy for the frantic first feelings of grief. And then the image of his family looking at him as if he were on fire: I see it.
A longer passage on his father. This follows a paragraph of synonyms for drunkenness, and a description of how drunks are often portrayed as humorous characters in our culture:
“My father, when drunk was neither funny nor honest; he was pathetic, frightening, deceitful. There seemed to be a leak in him somewhere, and he poured in booze to keep from draining dry. Like a torture victim who refuses to squeal, he would never admit that he had touched a drop, not even in his last year, when he seemed to be dissolving in alcohol before our very eyes. I never knew him to lie about anything, ever, except for this one ruinous fact. Drowsy, clumsy, unable to fix a bicycle tire, throw a baseball, balance a grocery sack, or walk across the room, he was stripped of his true self by drink. In a matter of minutes, the contents of a bottle could transform a brave man into a coward, a buddy into a bully, a gifted athlete and skilled carpenter and shrewd businessman into a bumbler. No dictionary synonyms for drunk would soften the anguish of watching our prince turn into a frog.”
Wow. That’s a single paragraph that conveys a lifetime of heartbreak.
And then this short line:
“Mother watched him go with arms crossed over her chest, her face closed like the lid on a box of snakes.”
Aren’t his analogies stunning?
And a few from A Private History of Awe:
“On the threshold of sixty, I am no beginner. My mind churns with memories, notions, plans, like froth in a riffle on a creek. But occasionally the waves simmer down, the water clears, and I see pebbles gleaming on the bottom of the stream. Or rather, in these clear moments, the fretful I vanishes, and there is only the pure gleaming.”
Isn’t that lovely? The metaphor, and also the rhythm of the lines. (That rhythm is there in nearly all of Sanders’ lines.) Plus, I love that word, riffle.
On his father, as a young man–note that this is a single line:
“At twenty, after his only year of college, on a whim one Friday night he boarded a Greyhound bus in Memphis and rode to Chicago and got a job slicing cheese in a delicatessen, where, in his butter-melting southern drawl, he asked a pretty auburn-haired customer to write down her name and phone number on the wrapping paper, and she primly declined, but the following day she returned for more cheese and wrote beside the phone number all three parts of her name, Eva Mary Solomon, which became in the mouth of this Mississippi charmer the refrain of a song he often crooned to her when they danced–a song, for all I know, he sang to her when they made the love that blossomed into Sandra, Glenn, and me.”
If you’ve been reading along on this project, you know I’m a sucker for long, long lines, well-wrought. This is a good one.
For five years, Sanders wrote love letters to his wife, whom he met at summer science camp while in high school.
“By the time Ruth and I exchanged our solemn vows, we had exchanged well over a thousand letters, all of which are stored in the attic above the room where I write these lines. That I am writing these lines at all owes as much to my apprenticeship in love letters as to any formal training.”
I love the notion of an “apprenticeship in love letters”.
“Outside my window, the red oak we planted a year ago to celebrate Elizabeth’s birth swells at every bud, thrusting out new leaves to lick the sun.”
I’ve never thought of new leaves as licking the sun. So good.
And lastly, a paragraph–and yet another long, single line– that shows how Sanders weaves together the stories of spending time with his aging mother, and his newborn granddaughter:
“Some days I would take baby Elizabeth for a ride in the stroller, telling her the names of the flowers we saw in the park, and then I would take Mother for a ride in her wheelchair, stopping to admire white impatiens, red geraniums, violet petunias, golden coreopsis, or purple asters, rehearsing names that Mother had taught me in my childhood, but that she herself could no longer recall.”
It really is a beautiful book.
the plan for november:
I’ve already started reading Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father and Son. I couldn’t resist, after hearing him read from it at my local bookstore. I feel a little guilty, since I was planning to read Virginia Woolf this month. I’ll be reading Adam Gopnik next month, so I probably won’t fit Virginia into my excellent year. Oh well. There’s always 2010.