No luck on Thanksgiving not gorging myself. In fact, I ate excessively all weekend. And now I have a horrible cold. (Not that these two things are related. I only wanted to point out that I’ve been uncomfortable—in slightly different ways—for many days now. With Sudafed off limits I’d actually go so far to say I’m now miserable.)
But enough complaining. On to more important things:
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how successful essays are structured. I’d like to cull a couple of essays from my manuscript, but it’s such a daunting task—cutting and rearranging in an attempt to boil down 300 pages into manageable essays. I know writers who do this regularly, but it seems to be a skill I lack. How does one do it? If I had begun with essays and turned them into a book would it be easier? Or would it simply be a different struggle?
Yesterday in class we talked about structure, and I had my students read two essays: “Moonrise” by Penny Wolfson, about which I’ve already posted, and “The Sound and the Worry” by Suzanne Kamata. One of the reasons I chose these two essays was because both have taken large events that covered years and condensed them into manageable essays. “The Sound and the Worry,” published in the Summer 2004 issue of Brain, Child, is about Kamata’s daughter’s deafness (due to being born 14 weeks premature) and Kamata’s desire for her to have sound and, ultimately, find happiness. Now I know some of Kamata’s story and have referenced other essays and stories she’s written about her twins’ birth at 26 weeks. I know it’s a huge story, so what impresses me so much about “The Sound and the Worry” is Kamata’s ability to focus in on one strand of the story—her daughter Lilia’s deafness—and follow that through without getting distracted by everything else that I know was going on at that time. So impressive.
Wolfson does a similar thing in “Moonrise,” an essay about trying to come to terms with the inevitable end of her son’s life due to Duchene, a form of muscular dystrophy. It’s an essay about her son growing up and deteriorating all at once, about the fragility of life and at the same time about finding the beauty in life, even when it is fragile and finite. She is able to contain sixteen years of her son’s life in mere pages, and it blows me away every time I read it. Wolfson also has a memoir by the same name, which of course I need (and want) to read. Maybe it would help me see how one pulls an essay from a book. (Of course I don’t know if she wrote the book first and then the essay or vice versa. Maybe it doesn’t matter.)
You can’t access either of these essays online, but if you go to Brain, Child’s archives, you can order the Summer 2004 issue for “The Sound and the Worry.” You can find “Moonrise” in Best American Essays of 2002. (I guess you can access “Moonrise” online here if you are an Atlantic Monthly subscriber.) I’m also going to order Wolfson’s memoir, because I obviously need some help.
Also know that Suzanne Kamata’s first novel, Losing Kei is forthcoming in January. I’ll post about it then.