thoughts on a year-long project (or, boring my readers for one last time)

January 25, 2010

my excellent essayists

On New Year’s morning, I woke to find a message in my inbox telling me that Scott Russell Sanders had left a comment on my blog. Sanders was my essayist for October, and reading his message was such a thrill, and a closing more satisfying than I ever could have imagined for my year-long project

This wasn’t the first time a writer had left a comment on my blog, but it was the first of my beloved essayists to stop and say hello. I’m not sure I would have ever had the gall to put these thoughts out in public if I’d ever dreamed that the writers themselves might show up to read what I’d written. And I’m not sure I would have ever started this project if I’d realized what a time-consuming creature it would become.

Oh, it was time-consuming. There was at least one book to read each month. (And not a lick of fiction all year–not a lick!) After reading, I had to go back over my highlights and select favorites. Type them in and explain what I admired about them. And then write a little nutshell overview of what I thought about the writer. Those posts took me hours to write–usually over several days. Somehow they got longer and longer as the months went on, yet they consistently received far fewer comments than any of my regular posts. What was I thinking? What kept me doing it, month after month, like that dutiful teachers’ pet in the front row that makes everyone cross their eyes? 

I’m not entirely sure. There was something about declaring the project in public that fueled me. Who wants to fail on the stage of the World Wide Web? But more than that, I think, it became clear in the early months that I was learning an awful lot from the project. Here’s what I wrote when I first started out:

“The idea of studying essayists came to me in late December, when I was reading some writer’s list of favorite writers. And I realized, with plenty of despair and loathing, that although I’ve been reading and writing essays for thirteen years now, I would have a hard time coming up with a list of favorite essayists. I could give you a couple names, but a couple is a set, mere salt and pepper shakers. Not a list.”

And now? After twelve months of being a good student, sitting as I am in the front row, I can rattle off a long list of favorites. I can even tell what I’ve learned from each one. (Not that I can apply what I’ve learned. But I’m trying.)

Annie Dillard showed me how to observe, how to make every word in every sentence count; Michel de Montaigne  showed that in an essay, it’s more important to raise questions than to answer them. From Sue Hubbell I learned how to approach instructive writing using the essayist’s toolbox, and from Joan Didion how to work the telling detail, and the rhythm of a paragraph. I will always love Anne Lamott for her humor, her heart, and her wacky, spot-on metaphors. I’ll always appreciate Molly Wizenberg for showing me how to leap from the blogging world to the literary one. E.B. White showed me how an essayist can be witty and intelligent yet still downright charming, while Pico Iyer taught me how to pay attention to the details in the world around me, whether I’m in Iceland or my own kitchen. M.F.K. Fisher showed how insight into people is as important as details about things–and how to be sassy. Scott Russell Sanders taught me how to craft beautiful lines about pain as well as joy, and Michael Chabon showed me how to craft beautiful lines, somehow, from the most mundane bits from our culture and our days. And Adam Gopnik, well, Adam Gopnik will always be the Scarecrow to my Dorothy, my first favorite essayist.

This project has been so satisfying. I’m thinking of slurping all the posts into a Blurb book, so I can revisit all those fabulous lines until they burn themselves into my brain and fingers and make me a better writer.

Recognizing the power that a public year-long project seems to have on me, as the year wound down I began considering a new project for the new year. As good as it would be for me to read another dozen essayists, to finally get around to studying Virginia Woolf, I’m not doing it. It just took too much time. I thought about doing something completely different, something with photography, because I want to take better pictures.

But eventually I realized that the natural follow-up to this project would be to take what I’ve learned this year and to try to apply it to my own writing. And to make some progress on my book idea, since it’s the project that matters most to me right now. So I’ve come up with something I’m calling my Chapter-A-Month Challenge. I’m going to try to get a draft of a new book chapter completed each month.

I have no idea if I can pull this off. I write s-l-o-w-l-y. I write about as fast as Mr. T brushes his teeth, because he spends most of his brushing time making faces in the mirror. But at least I can try to write slowly more often, right? Once a month I’ll report here on how it’s going. Maybe I’ll share a few lines; maybe I’ll just whine about how hard it is to wake up at 5:00 am on Tuesdays to write. I’m not sure.

I’m putting the challenge on my blog for the kick-in-the-pants effect I hope it will have on my writing, not because I think you, dear readers, will find it interesting. I hope you don’t mind indulging me once a month.

The week I finished off my essayist project, I read one more essay. This one was by Alexander Chee, from Mentors, Muses and Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives. It’s an essay about the time Chee spent in the classroom of Annie Dillard, my January essayist from last year. By the time you get to the part where Dillard tells her students that whenever they’re in a bookstore, they should put their finger in the place on the shelf where their own book would be, you are guaranteed to have goosebumps if you’re an aspiring writer yourself.

“If I’ve done my job, she said in the last class, you won’t be happy with anything you write for the next ten years. It’s not because you won’t be writing well, but because I’ve raised your standards for yourself. Don’t compare yourselves with each other. Compare yourselves to Colette, or Henry James, or Edith Wharton. Compare yourselves to the classics. Shoot there.”

After nearly twenty years of trying to teach myself to write, I’m sure I won’t be satisfied after another ten. But after twelve months of reading some pretty excellent essayists, twelve months of sampling them and savoring them, now, when it comes to my own writing, at least I know what I’m shooting for.

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Cathy T January 26, 2010 at 6:39 am

I have enjoyed reading your blog – even the writer ones. Unfortunately i haven’t taken the time needed to write to you and let you know how what you write is read and digested. I’ve interlibrary loaned a few of the books and read parts of them (read all the EB White book and even bought a collection of his essays after that). So, even if you aren’t getting comment, perhaps there a other like me, who have been paying attention….

I look forward to hearing about your chapter progress as the months go on. And if you abandon that goal for others, that will be fine too.

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patricia January 26, 2010 at 9:06 am

Thanks so much for leaving a comment, Cathy.

I wrote this particular series of posts more for myself than my readers, so I never really expected many comments. But I always felt a little guilty about the likelihood that I was boring my readers. To hear that my posts might have persuaded someone to search out and enjoy an essayist or two thrills me more than you know.

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Just Peaches January 26, 2010 at 7:03 am

Write that book Patricia! Even if it doesn’t get published you will have put it out there. I recently submitted a short story to a magazine for the first time. I don’t know if it will get published but gosh did it feel good to try. Dare to dream girl!

But before you write or maybe while you write, do allow yourself the pleasure of reading Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

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patricia January 26, 2010 at 9:15 am

There’s a real thrill in just putting it out there isn’t there? Whenever I send something out, I feel like I send a little possibility into the air, and I get a secret little excitement from that for a while, even if the piece ultimately gets rejected.

Congratulations on your first submission! Keep at it!

And I will read A Room of One’s Own. I don’t know why I haven’t gotten to it yet.

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Kristin January 26, 2010 at 9:51 am

Your new idea sounds great. You learned a hell of a lot from that project. Will you ever have time to read fiction?

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patricia January 27, 2010 at 8:20 am

I have Lorrie Moore’s new novel sitting on my bedside table, just waiting to be cracked open. But after loving Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs so much, I’ve started reading Kavalier and Clay instead.

But the nonfiction never fails to tempt me away. There’s that book on right-brain thinking that I can’t get enough of. And the one about canning that I need to get back to the library. And that book on teaching writing that I just bought. Oh, and I need to start reading those travel guides…

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Carrie January 26, 2010 at 9:42 pm

Now you have me thinking of my own life…what could a year long project look like for me. So far, two years running I’ve tried a de-cluttering project, which is apparently a decade long project or a to-be-finished-post-kids-project. So…what could I do in a year…hmm…you have me thinking…

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patricia January 27, 2010 at 8:24 am

It’s still January, there’s still time!

May I suggest something a tad more fun than decluttering? Something for you. Maybe a project related to your bird drawings?

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sarah January 27, 2010 at 4:37 am

I really enjoyed your year of essayists–I subscribed recently and went back to read all of them. Now I have a nice set of books to read this year. Good luck with your project!

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patricia January 27, 2010 at 8:39 am

You went back and read all of them? I ought to have some sort of reward for you!

Well, I hope that the writers you’ve discovered will be their own reward.

Thanks so much for reading, Sarah, and for taking the time to tell me that you have.

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Carrie Pomeroy January 27, 2010 at 3:03 pm

Good luck with the chapter-a-month commitment! It sounds like a good way to spend 2010, and I think I can speak your other readers when I say please stop apologizing for boring us, because as far as I’m concerned, you never do! It is fabulous to hear about your creative endeavors and be inspired by them.

I’m still working on finishing out last year’s “finish a suck-ass draft of a book” plan. I think I can, I think I can, I think I can, I think I can. . .

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patricia January 27, 2010 at 3:34 pm

I apologize for continually apologizing. I just feel compelled to acknowledge that I know these posts aren’t for everyone.

I’d love to hear more about how your book is going. If you have time, email me off-blog and let me know. What are some of the topics you’ve written about? (Inquiring minds need to know.)

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susan February 1, 2010 at 9:38 pm

I enjoyed this project enormously and felt almost as if I had read every book after reading your posts. I did read Manhood for Amateurs after reading your post and my favorite parts have been the ones you picked out! Is it because I recognize them? Who knows. I have my fingers crossed on your book project for this year. I want your book!

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patricia February 1, 2010 at 11:54 pm

And I’ve appreciated your thoughtful, enthusiastic comments on the project all year! Feedback like yours really kept me going.

I’m so glad you read Manhood. Molly mentioned that Chabon himself reads the audiobook, and on hearing that I had to buy my own copy. It’s been so fabulous to hear him read his own essays, and to have another chance to admire and try to take apart how he does what he does. I found myself admiring the lines that I’d written about all over again; maybe you did like them because you recognized them. Then again, I’m guessing that our writing tastes are similar.

Aw shucks, thanks for the kind words on the book. We need to get chatting about it at the park–I need to bounce ideas around. You can be my beta book idea bouncer, k?

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melissa s. February 6, 2010 at 7:35 pm

I am so inspired by this project. It has introduced me to some new (to me) authors and has reminded me that making time for my own interests is fundamental to our homeschooling success. Congrats on reaching your goal. I was not bored one bit and I’m looking forward to following along on your next endeavor!

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patricia February 6, 2010 at 10:56 pm

Oh, thanks Melissa.

I never really talked about how this project was about my learning, and how important I think ongoing learning is for a homeschooling parent. It is fundamental. Thanks for recognizing that! You are one smart cookie, my internet friend, and your kids are so lucky that you’ve chosen to homeschool them.

Thanks for being so supportive, from my blogging beginnings.

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