october: notes on scott russell sanders

November 10, 2009

reading scott russell sanders

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.

random notes:

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”.

And this:

“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.

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Diane November 10, 2009 at 10:36 am

OH, he is my favorite. The parts you picked are so wonderful — you said that right about the heartbreak being portrayed in that one paragraph about his father! I found myself teary. I have on my bedside table right now to reread: A Private History of Awe, Hunting for Hope, and Staying Put. I, like you, have managed to fall in love with the books that lean toward family and place more than his more “environmental” books though that threads through all of his books, I think. Once, ten years ago, I was lucky enough to take a writing workshop with him — I was just looking at the notes from that the other day. Oh, how I would love to do that again! So glad to see someone else appreciating him, too! : )


patricia November 10, 2009 at 2:47 pm

Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment, Diane. This essayist project continues to seem a little esoteric, so it’s especially rewarding to hear from readers who share my enthusiasm!

Sanders is wonderful. I look forward to reading some of his books that you’re planning to reread. I’d love to read some of his “sense of place” work–although, as you say about his environmental writing, those threads are there in all of his writing.

And you took a writing workshop with him? Lucky, lucky you!


katie November 10, 2009 at 6:14 pm

May I just say that you are not boring me silly – quite the opposite. It’s a pleasure to discover your blog and be inspired to read more in general – and essayists in particular. Keep it up – I am really enjoying all of these posts.


patricia November 10, 2009 at 8:00 pm

Thanks for taking the time to leave the kind words, Katie. It’s encouraging to know that others share my interests in these essayists–and that maybe I’m not boring everyone silly.


Kristin November 12, 2009 at 9:26 pm

Hi Tricia,

I enjoyed your review of Sanders. The selections you picked were poignant and so were your comments. You truly have an eye for good language and gift for discussing it. Have you considered becoming a professor of English Literature or Creative Writing? You’d be great.


patricia November 13, 2009 at 7:55 am

You’re so kind, Kristin. I’ll bet I would have enjoyed being an English professor if I’d started earlier and gotten the advanced degrees. Somehow I don’t think my “homeschooled MFA” is going to get me any teaching gigs…but I do love facilitating workshops for these homeschooling kiddos. Talking writing with them is a good fix for me.


susan November 13, 2009 at 10:09 am

I just love “Mother watched him go with arms crossed over her chest, her face closed like the lid on a box of snakes.” I have tried to look that way, I think, at the kids when they are picking fights. Now maybe I’ll cut out the boxed snake look. It is not like they are killing themselves with drink. You always make me want to run out and get the books you review. Thanks for taking the time to share these passages with us.


patricia November 18, 2009 at 7:55 am

You crack me up, Susan: “It’s not like they are killing themselves with drink.”

Thanks for taking the time to read the passages!


wesleyjeanne November 19, 2009 at 11:35 am

I love Scott Russell Sanders. Love! The quotes you chose are perfect.

I find that so many folks (or at least folks I talk to, which might say something) don’t know him or have never heard of him. But I think is writing is so very beautiful and his observations right on.

Thank you for sharing!

(and I like your essayist posts!)


patricia November 19, 2009 at 11:05 pm

Thanks so much for stopping by and leaving a comment, wesleyjeanne. And thanks for linking me on your blog too!

I’m glad to hear that there are other Sanders fans out there. You just never know, until you start a blog, how many like-minded people you can find in the world. Scott Russell Sanders fans unite!


Scott Russell Sanders January 1, 2010 at 5:22 am

To Patricia Zaballos:

I appreciate your generous words about my work, and your careful selection of passages to illustrate the qualities you admire. As a writer yourself, you realize that one spins out these lines in solitude, often amidst confusion and pain, and therefore it is heartening to learn that one’s solitary labors have given pleasure or illumination to others.

Scott Russell Sanders


lois marcum January 14, 2010 at 2:03 pm

I couldn’t help the tears. Whatever the genetic part of alcoholism is, I wish we could find it. There are cases where kids grow up under the same circumstances, and yet they don’t all end up alcohollic. You have started me thinking about my own inner criticism, which never stops, and which I am sure dates back to the idea “Maybe, if I’m good enough, do enough good things, she won’t drink anymore.” I guess I still have to work on that. And I’m 77 yers old.


patricia January 14, 2010 at 11:08 pm

Hi Lois,

Sanders’ writing is very moving. I don’t believe he grew up to be an alcoholic himself. If you’ve never read his essay “Under the Influence” you might want to look for it. It’s all about the experience of growing up with an alcoholic parent, and what that can do to you. Sanders writes of those self-critical feelings that you’ve written about. It’s a heartbreaking essay, and beautifully written.

Sander’s book A Private History of Awe is also quite wonderful. It does address Sanders’ father’s alcoholism, but it also shows what his father was like when he wasn’t drinking. It’s a lovely portrait of a complicated relationship.


wanderingsue April 28, 2013 at 10:47 am

Sighing, here. Love this.


patricia April 29, 2013 at 3:46 pm

I’m always flattered to see you here reading my old posts, Sue!


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