Sam Edmonds brought up something in his last post that I’ve been struggling with, too: Aboutness. When does a piece of writing cease to be a narrative and become an essay? I’m not saying I’ve learned when that happens, because everyone who’s ever workshopped me knows I’m still getting to that part. What I have learned, just to show I’m not a complete non-erudite, is how to craft sentences, to make them sound just as good out loud as they do in my head. I think I have an affinity for rhythm, repetition, punctuation, and diction. So I can tell a story really prettily, no problem. But if you ask me what it’s really a-BOUT, I might say something cheesy like “it’s a coming of age story,” or “I was trying to create a feeling.”
I’m reading Phillip Lopate’s anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, and his introduction is helpful and insightful, especially in the area of Aboutness.
The essayist attempts to surround a something—a subject, a mood, a problematic irritation—by coming at it from all angles, wheeling and diving like a hawk, each seemingly digressive spiral actually taking us closer to the heart of the matter. In a well-wrought essay, while the search appears to be widening, even losing its way, it is actually eliminating false hypotheses, narrowing its emotional target and zeroing in on it.
I love this, and Natalie Kusz, one of our CNF profs here at EWU, has said something similar. You take your subject, whether it be “Going Out for a Walk” (Max Beerbohm), or “The Death of the Moth” (Virginia Woolf), and you examine it. You go at it from this angle, from that angle, from every possible place. Obviously, going out for a walk is a big subject, but Beerbohm uses the subject of being forced to go out for walks to point out that while people envision a lovely walk with a friend as an intellectually exciting endeavor, he has experienced it otherwise. Otherwise intelligent people, he notices, turn into blathering fools on a walk, and eventually become reduced to reading aloud every road sign. He examines why the walker needs company, why he himself is not considered very good company, why the walker seems to need another person willing to comment upon so-and-so at the party being quite ____, very ____, in fact, very likely the most ____ person he/she’s ever met. Instead of stimulating, the conversation is tedious to the point of anxiety. Woolf points out, with her close eye kept on the moth at her window, the seeming pointlessness of life, the inevitability of struggle and death.
In getting to the Aboutness of an essay in workshop, Natalie would often urge us to keep asking “What’s that about?” If the essay was about a girl with body issues, what’s that about? If it’s about the girl’s fear of being left out, what’s that about? If that’s about her childhood of being ignored by her parents, what’s that about? I’ve found this simple question, repeated again and again to myself, to be extremely helpful in trying to shape a narrative into an essay, something that connects it to the world at large, to, in fact, you.