Last week I posted my personal essay, Of Marbles to Bears, which I wrote for a creative non-fiction class the fall of 2010 my Junior year at Hollins. The assignment was to choose your favorite word and then write an essay structured with an opening anecdote, an examination of the word, another anecdote, another word examination, and finally a closing anecdote. I’ll give you one guess at my favorite word during the fall of 2010. There were writers in my class who managed to barely mention their favorite word, making their essays hint around and force you to guess at it instead. Some of the essays played at surrealism and others blended the two sections seamlessly. I loved this assignment and how a classroom of people all following the same structure could write such wildly different essays. Mine was probably the most repetitious essay of the bunch with one of the strongest critiques that came from my classmates being that I repeated my favorite word much too much. Though they were probably right, it is something that I have not changed about the piece over the years, in part because I like the way the repetition echoes back the obsessiveness of being enthralled by something– just like a newly loved song played on repeat or a bag of marbles. When I wrote my critique for In Transit, I mentioned that I am a big believer in reader crafted meaning over authorial intent. I suppose now it is safe to mention that one of the things I learned from writing workshops is that what you write and how you write it is ultimately up to you. The author makes the final decision as to what changes to make in the editing process. It is always a good idea to take into consideration the moments where your reader was confused, even if you don’t change it as they suggested. But when it comes to matter of taste, what the author prefers will stay on the page and in this case, that was repetition.
My professor seemed to agree with me. He loved this essay and along with another of mine he encouraged me to submit it to several different competitions. I never heard back from any of them, but I did also submit it to my university’s literary magazine, Grapheon, that next year. During my senior year at Hollins between my full schedule, two honors theses, acting in a play, mentoring first years, passing kidney stones, and my different clubs– I somehow managed to also to sit on the Grapheon board with three other women, reading and deciding who would make it into our magazine that year. Submissions were made anonymous before they were put together into a packet for us to judge. Much like workshop, we were expected to be silent when our own writing came up during discussion. So, I sat there in silence as one of my closest friends and an underclassman I did not know argued over my essay, which ultimately was rejected.
It might surprise you to know that my close friend was the one arguing for the piece to be rejected. The underclassman loved the essay but couldn’t quite articulate why– though it was one of the pieces in the packet she was the most vocal about. My close friend is also a person I deeply admire– her poetry to me is flawless. I knew her to be a harsh critic and I always suspected that she admired me for my brain when it came to theory but that she did not like my writing. In workshop classes, I would watch her literally re-write people’s poetry for her written critique– a habit that I did pick up for certain circumstances. Sitting in that room, she spoke freely about why my essay failed– much more articulate than the underclassman about the reasons she disliked it.
It came down to the structure. The essay left her unsatisfied and it felt incomplete with its sudden end. It never looped back to marbles– it left you unfinished in the forests of Montana searching for a bear. The part that she hated, was the part of the essay I loved the most, though I could not quite articulate why until years later. While earning my Master’s degree from the University of Nebraska, I worked as a teaching assistant for the Holocaust class with Dr. Gerald Steinacher, a brilliant man and caring, thoughtful human. Occasionally we would take lunch together to discuss our students or the plan for the class. During one of these lunches we discussed story-telling. Born in Austria, he told me about Germanic storytelling and how culturally, they are much more comfortable with difficult or strange endings. Not everything has to be answered. A mystery is acceptable. We discussed the American loop of storytelling in comparison. The TV show, How I Met Your Mother had just aired its last episode and the audience was loudly complaining about the ending. I am not someone who keeps up with TV shows but as a writer, when I watched the first episode I knew how the series would ultimately end– it started with a blue french horn, it was going to end with a blue french horn– that is American storytelling. We like our stories to loop back to the beginning and end there. For my close friend this is why my essay failed–but for me, it is why my essay succeeds.
My essay is not the traditional American loop. Instead, it is a spiral. We start with marbles and spiral obsessively to bears. Old fascinations are quickly abandoned for new ones. The structure reflects back the meaning of the essay and to me that makes it perfect. I love when form can help to illustrate a text. It becomes part of the critique, the form of the essay has something to say about the nature of enthrallment. I did not set out to write a spiral and not everyone who followed that assignment ended up with spirals instead of loops– it naturally formed that way as I wrote it. It is another aspect of the essay that I refuse to change.
This essay to me is like a time capsule. Every time I re-read it, I see my 20 year old self again, right before getting a life-changing diagnosis. I wrote this before I dedicated myself to studying slavery and some of the things I wrote in this essay make me feel uncomfortable. I cannot read the line asking about slavery and delight without a pit forming in my stomach and a deep body shudder. It is perhaps the only part of the essay that has been worked and re-worked over the years. I keep the offending line because it works as intended– at least on me. It is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable. Instead of Romeo by any other name would be as sweet, I ask if slavery by another name is just as cruel. For me, this remains the weakest part of the essay. I still cannot quite articulate the damaging aspects of obsessive enthralldom– being so enraptured by something that you are literally enslaved to it. Enthrall may cloyingly lure you in and once there you are bonded to whatever captured your interest. While I still struggle with this and much has changed over the last ten years, I do still find myself in love with marbles, strangers, and bears.