“The essay is a jackdaw, a magpie, a raven. It picks up everything and uses it.”
~ Brian Doyle, “Playfulness: a Note”
Along with teaching and conservation work, I’ve been writing short articles as a freelancer and creating a collection of family-inspired, place-based personal essays tentatively titled Manly Labor. Why the essay? It’s where I feel most at home as a writer, especially narrator-driven pieces that explore real landscapes, real people, and real events. And as Brian Doyle says, anything goes in an essay—any topic, all topics, woven together. The trick is to do it well, which is to say, both ably and artfully. I try.
Or to put it another way, as Michel de Montaigne wrote centuries ago, an essai is an attempt to make sense of things, including yourself. That’s why I’m drawn to Scott Russell Sanders and Ana Maria Spagna, Sonya Huber and Joe Wilkins. They offer honesty, a voice I can trust, a feeling that I’m growing alongside the narrator, experiencing something both universal and specific, both rooted and rambling, something that pushes me beyond myself yet also deeper into myself, perhaps a place I never knew existed, real or imagined.
To me, the best essays are intimate, unsettling, and always searching. Searching for anything, everything, whatever matters.
So there you have it. Read my work and you’ll search along with me for who I am and what I wrestle with, what thrills me and what I fear, as well as what makes a particular landscape or culture call to me, why one place might appeal to me as another pushes me away, and what ties us all together, what makes each of us uniquely human, for good or for bad, and how and why and if any of it really does matter. The words often fail, I know that. But if I’m successful—if a voice you can trust rises from my words—you the reader might start searching, too, reflecting on the life you’re living, the world around you, your world.
We’re sharing. It’s that simple. “The personal essay is a conversation with the reader,” wandering through ideas, experiences, subject matter. Those are Bill Roorbach’s words, not mine. Yet when he writes them, and I read them, we’re with each other. Laughing, crying, growing. Essays are like that—little growth spurts, uncomfortable sometimes, perhaps all the time, but they have to be to be worth it.