I have many feelings. But, after several months of being told exactly (and only) how a certain type of story should be written, I was so so pleased to race to back to my folks’ place, pick up Between Song and Story: Essays for the Twenty-first Century and read Tom Bissell’s essay about his father and the Vietnam War. While there are characters (and setting and all that other stuff), it doesn’t start with a scene, and it takes ages for a single line of dialog. And I didn’t pass out from boredom.
I would suspect, but I can’t confirm, that there also might be more than just a little re-creation going on. Bissell may have turned a couple of cab drivers into a single cab driver. He definitely composited the flow of tourists. THANK GOD.
It is always good to learn new skills, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to work with all of the amazing people I have met–that alone was worth the price of admission. So many awesome science and nature writers! So many fascinating scholars! Plus the editors and agents and authors, oh my.
But right at this moment, I feel a little bit like the private who loses the taste for mashed potatoes after she had to peel 200lbs of them by hand.
Back to the book though, man–you should get it. Besides Bissell, there’s Ander Monson, Lia Purpura, Naomi Shihab Nye, Pattiann Rogers, Dinty Moore, Philip Lopate, Jamaica Kincaide. I mean, those are just the people I love.
Monson’s essay is about snow and includes a million ellipses, so the whole essay appears embedded in snow, while Bissell’s aforementioned piece is a fairly straightforward personal narrative. There are longer pieces and shorter, there’s crazy stuff and kick you in the pants stuff. Plus, the table of contents includes alternate groupings, for pedagogical purposes.
This is a lovely and broad survey of the contemporary essay. If you teach nonfiction, or just love it, you should check this one out.