Essay = noun: /ˈesā/ A short piece of writing on a particular subject.
The question: Can a literary form that that caused so much anxiety in my high school years find redemption in my dotage?
Oh, the exercise in misery that was the high school essay. Did students really enjoy writing them? Did teachers really enjoy grading them? It was all thesis development, weird margin requirements and transitional sentences. Scary. And when it came to the number of pages assigned, much like a prison sentence, we were all praying for a low number. Looking back I wonder, had I been exposed to excellent essayists early on would I have approached the topic with more enthusiasm?
As it is never too late to learn, this month I went in search of the great contemporary essayist. I stumbled across two of the funniest, if not the best, straight out of the gate. Their work is on the shelf and waiting to be checked out at the Cedar Rapids Public Library. No anxiety required.
I Remember Nothing by Nora Ephron
When it comes to writing, Nora Ephron has done it all. Articles, screenplays, novels, essays. She is perhaps best-known as the writer behind movies such as When Harry Met Sally…, Sleepless in Seattle, and Silkwood.
Ephron passed away in 2012, at the age of 71, and was recently featured in a documentary called Everything is Copy. This is a catchphrase that was passed down to Ephron by her Hollywood screenwriter mother and it became the defining principle of her life.
Have you experienced public embarrassment? Great! Put it in a screenplay. It’ll get a laugh. Has something truly awful happened in your personal life? Welcome to chapter one of your next novel. In Ephron’s world, the indignities of everyday life were laid bare for public consumption. And she was not afraid to name names. Does it take courage to write like this? Yes, it does. Does it endear you to those you write about? Not always. Ephron’s second husband, who was caught having an affair while was Ephron was pregnant, can attest to this. His dalliance became the topic of Ephron’s novel Heartburn…which was ultimately turned into a movie starring Meryl Streep. Privacy at a difficult time? Not a chance.
Ephron’s book of essays, I Remember Nothing, was her swan song. She writes about aging, memory loss, divorce and death. She shares humorous anecdotes about her rise to the top of her profession and the speedbumps she encountered along the way. I Remember Nothing may not be her best book, (I Feel Bad About My Neck seems to garner better reviews), but I’ve found it to be a great sampling of her voice. A very distinctive voice of her generation and an inspiration to many.
Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris
Sedaris’s rise to fame began in a Chicago nightclub where he was discovered reading excerpts from a diary he’s kept since 1977. (He began this habit on the back of placemats while on a hitchhiking trip up the West Coast.) Sedaris ultimately graduated from nightclubs to the NPR production of Santaland Diaries, which chronicled his job as a Christmas elf at Macy’s. In 1994, he published his first book Barrel Fever and nine books later he is a New York Time’s best-selling author.
Sedaris is similar to Ephron in that he mines his personal life for writing material and his family is featured heavily in his work. In Diabetes with Owls we meet his middle-class father, a gruff and uncompromising man named Lou who ate every meal at home in his underwear. We also meet Sedaris’s partner of 25-years, Hugh, with whom he renovated a country estate in West Sussex, England. The great struggle of their life together? Keeping the trash picked up off the highways and byways of England. Claims Sedaris, “Pick up litter, and people assume that it’s your punishment, part of your court-mandated community service. Is it him who’s been breaking into toolsheds?”
The Sedaris we meet here is a straightforward and likable man who can best be described as self-deprecating. Most often, he ensures that the joke is on him. Alas, it is the occupational hazard of the essayist that when you put your inner thoughts in print, the reaction will not always be positive. Sedaris was heavily criticized in 2013 when he wrote an essay for the New Yorker about his sister Tiffany’s suicide. He was accused of writing about her in a callous manner and in a way that degraded her as a person. That article remains online for all to read and decide for themselves.
E.B. White once said that the essayist is sustained by the “childish belief that everything he thinks and does is of general interest to others.” Perhaps this is true and there is a narcissistic quality to an essayist that cannot be escaped. But I am grateful for the writers who are willing to put themselves out there. Especially those who don’t shy away from the “yuck” of their own lives. I believe it is this kind of honesty that truly heals and brings us together.
The verdict? Essay, in my book, you are officially redeemed.