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.