I remember my first AWP conference, Chicago in 2006, seeing a group of earnest, good looking young people going through the book fair in black t-shirts with the word ESSAYIST in white letters on the front. There was something arresting about their presence. Clearly this was a statement, a declaration: There are not just two genres. It seems insane now that such a statement would even need to be made, but then, a mere ten years ago, many writing programs offered concentrations in only fiction or poetry. The two degree programs I attended both offered a creative nonfiction workshop, but there was no creative nonfiction track, unless a diligent student sought to carve one out for herself. At that time I was an editor at the Cream City Review and I remember the nonfiction editor being tasked with going through all of the submissions herself, without the help of readers or assistant editors, which was fine because there were rarely more than twenty submissions in a single reading period. Now, a decade later, creative nonfiction is ubiquitous. Not only has it become an institutionally recognized genre—and whether this is a good or bad thing is another question—it seems like it might be on its way to becoming the dominant genre of the three. That explosive popularity has a dark side to it.
When I read creative nonfiction submissions now, for another magazine and typically way more than twenty per submission period, I find some beautiful work, work that takes risks, work that is formally inventive, but I also find work whose sole motivation seems to be market driven. This is creative nonfiction, I get the sense sometimes, because the writer recognizes that, increasingly, there are more outlets for that genre than there are for short fiction. Worse, sometimes I get the feeling that writers are choosing that genre because it is easy—it’s not, of course, but there are a lot of talented writers out there right now who make it look so, just as good fiction writers make that look easy, but the fact that creative nonfiction is rooted in the writer’s own experiences, it is tempting to look at it and think, I can do that. Whenever I come across such submissions, I sometimes think back to those people at AWP. ESSAYIST they were declaring, and maybe with that declaration they were declaring something else too. We use the word essay often simply to mean something that is short, written in prose, and not fiction. But the essay as a form is something more than that. That declaration perhaps was also a taking ownership of that word; they did not, they may have been saying, write essays by accident, because what they wrote was short and based in fact. Rather, when they set out to write it was a deliberate essaying, a formal choice that shaped what they wrote, that shaped the life experience they set out to explore, and therefore shaped who they really were.
Steven Church is an essayist. His new collection, Ultrasonic, shows a self-conscious dedication to the form; these are essays that are very much aware of their being essays. Like many good essayists, Church often makes it appear as if we are watching him create on the fly, as if we are witnessing the very process of thought made external. It’s an illusion, but one that is thrilling to watch. As the title suggests, the essays included here are each in one way or another meditations on sound. What it is to hear, what it is to feel sound, what it is to try to put words to a range of sensory experience for which there often are none—or if there are, those words are typically either technical lingo, which is opaque and unfamiliar, or onomatopoeia, which is goofy. Church begins with an Author’s Note, itself a prose poem or mini-essay on what it is to write. He begins with the word Sounding, which he notes as an adjective means “sonorous or resonant,” then adds that sounding, as any reader of Moby-Dick knows, is a measuring of depth, but “it is also that depth ascertained, the thing itself. It is action and record.” This doubling is a fitting metaphor for Church’s essays. They are discovery and they are search. “In this book,” he tells us:
essays become sounding lines, explorations, probes and tests, each one a map of what lies below the surface; and the form is meant to mimic the way our thinking sometimes moves between points of engagement—navigating in the dark by means of echolocation, bouncing from one idea to another, searching and seeing through sound.
It is worth taking note of the attention being given here to form. In many ways the essays in this collection represent experiments in form, attempts to break from standard rhetorics and narrative structures. In the collection’s title essay, for example, Church continues the etymological examinations on display in the Author’s Note. Each of the semi-standalone sections in the essay begins with a sound, or word associated closely with that sound. Formally, the essay operates through the opposing forces of freedom and confinement: the vignettes free the essay from the expectations of conventional narrative structure, while their small size contains it, keeps that freedom from morphing into ramble. This opposition seems particularly fitting to this essay which continually returns to two central themes: awaiting the birth of Church’s second child (more on this later) and racquetball, which itself is a game that pits freedom (there are few rules, as Church points out, the ball can be stricken off any surface) against the containment of the closed-in court. In “Seven Fathoms Down,” one of my two favorite essays in the collection, Church continues this strategy, using the vignette, the fragment, to explore how we think about sound. It is here that he strikes upon one of the most profound observations in the book, as he considers the importance of thinking about the world as something that is not only a visible space (and, by extension, thinking about writing as something other than or beyond mimetic realism): “Sight promises knowledge; but perhaps it’s only by closing our eyes and listening, by echo-navigating through the landscape of memory that we can explore the unseen territory below.”
When essays are good, when they go beyond the mere dressing up of one’s life in the garments of literary fiction, they offer their readers an opportunity to engage directly with another human consciousness. They allow us to follow a writer’s thoughts. Sean Ironman, in an article in The Writer’s Chronicle called “Writing the Z Axis,” tells of writers who either fill up their essays with scenework, or write entirely in exposition. In either case, those writers are forgetting to engage in the one mode that belongs almost exclusively to nonfiction: reflection. The essay at its best has a modal quality to it, moving from description to exposition to meditation, and that modal quality is on display throughout Church’s essays—at one point he even ventures into the fictive, going so far as to imagine a racquetball game said to have been played by Elvis Presley the night he died. This ability to move from one mode of writing to another allows Church to create a kind of topography of surface, one whose contours gesture toward the depths beneath it. Case in point: in the essay “Crown and Shoulder,” Church begins with a meditation on roads, exploring the ways that the language of grading and construction (shoulder, crown) mirror the language used to describe repetitive stress injuries incurred from roadwork—and, though never explicitly mentioned, the fact of this essay being included with so many others about the birth of his second child, echoes of that are unmistakable too—from the depths of all this, though, comes his grieving over his brother’s death in a car accident in Kansas, emerging in the final paragraphs in some of the most striking and resonant writing in the entire book. This approach, to come at his topic obliquely, propels many of the essays included in this collection.
Here he is in another essay describing his time in Spain, after he and his wife have gotten some troubling test result concerning their unborn second son. They are at a kind of celebration/demonstration in a local park and, as the police arrive, Church seems to arrest time at a moment of eruption:
[T]he cops in Day-Glo vests appeared suddenly, perched at the edge of the rotunda on the cusp of violence. They seemed like they wanted to bash some skulls, crack some melons open on the marble steps. I could just about see it happening, could almost hear the dull slap of billy clubs on ribs and heads, the crash of drums hitting the pavement. The blue cops—shattering the circles of noise, chasing vibrations out of the rotunda, scattering the musicians out amongst the trees, drowning their sound out in the paddleboat-filled retention pond, shaking carp and drum and sunfish to the surface. Ever since the test results I’d been lost in my own head. I was just waiting for something unbelievable to happen every day. Something to shake me back to the now. The park. The belly. The future. The boy clutching my hand in his own, pointing with the other at the silly man dancing. And the sound of the boy’s laughter ringing off the marble.
This passage, aside from displaying Church’s finely tuned ear for the rhythm of prose, illustrates something interesting about his approach to subject. As he’s told us from the start, the book is about sounding, the search. Notice he doesn’t give us the scene in the doctor’s office where the news is delivered, but a moment sometime later, when he is recalling that moment, reflecting on it, dwelling in it.
I think of modernists like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, detailing a single day in their characters’ lives, not a wedding, or a death, or birth, but a day like the thousands before and after it that, were it not put down on paper, would otherwise be forgotten. There is where life happens, they say, in the mundane. Where Church locates the stuff of life is somewhere perhaps a little different. A couple times recently I have encountered passages in nonfiction (and in nonfiction disguised as fiction) about the so-called “amnesia drug.” Often administered during a colonoscopy, it does not dull or mask the pain of the procedure, but instead triggers a temporary amnesia so that the patient is unable to construct memories of it later on. In each case the writer—and, to be clear, Church does not write about the amnesia drug—responds to the very idea of such a thing with a shudder of revulsion. It isn’t just the existential question it raises about what it means to experience pain even if it will soon disappear irretrievably, it’s the fact that those writers, like Church, recognize the importance of memory itself. It isn’t only event alone that is important, but the looking back upon it, the shaping of it, the examination of it that gives the event its resonance. That, the active looking back that seeks perspective, is the stuff of life, and that is the stuff of these essays.
Bayard Godsave is the author of two collections of short fiction, Lesser Apocalypses and Torture Tree. His work has appeared recently in This Land, Pleiades, Boulevard and The Gettysburg Review. He lives in southwest Oklahoma and teaches writing at Cameron University.