It’s a really windy day here in central Ohio, and consequently there’s a lot of noise—the sound of the wind, the jangle of wind chimes, the creaking of siding on my house. When I was running into that wind in the last of my five miles, it was hard to keep going. The gusts pushed back against my efforts toward forward progress, at times even threatening to knock me off track. What a different feeling than the one I had when I first set out, enjoying a tail wind and the fresh snap in my legs, but that last mile was a trudge. At times, I truly did feel like I was running backwards, but I kept going. I’m stubborn that way.
Which isn’t such a bad thing when it comes to running and to writing. I didn’t mean for this to be a post about perseverance, but here we are, so we might as well go on with it. The writing life can be one in which disappointment often seems to outdistance satisfaction. I can’t tell you how many times, in the early part of my career, I came close to giving it all up. Rejection after rejection had me thinking I was wasting my time, but I couldn’t stop writing because I loved what I was doing even while I hated how discouraging it could be. Then, little by little, something happened. I got better and small journals started to publish my work. I never would have gotten better, though, if I’d stopped writing. All those failed attempts, and all those rejections were necessary to my improvement. It’s as simple as this. Sometimes we just have to keep going. No one ever got better by stopping.
When I got back from my run today, I found an email from a student in my graduate creative nonfiction workshop, reporting that she’d revised her latest essay and had taken my advice to cut out a good bit of the opening, which to my way of thinking, had been a good deal of throat-clearing that was filling space until the essayist could work up the nerve to immerse herself in the subject matter, which was her father’s serious illness. She reported that the new opening line of the essay is, “It began simply, as these things do, with abdominal pain.” And there we are. Without fanfare, without stepping too far back in time, without generalizing, without delay, the essayist simply and directly faces her material. At the same time, she cements a relationship with her readers. The voice is like a whisper in our ears, this voice that promises intimacy, this voice that is unassuming, this voice that invites us to be fellow-travelers through the material that lies ahead.
A good essay is a conversation between the various parts of the essayist’s sensibility when it comes to something specific, but first the essay must be a conversation between the essayist and the readers. The new opening line from my student’s essay does just that. It speaks directly to the reader without adornment, and because it does, the voice is one we can trust. It gathers us in. It sweeps us along. At the same time, the essayist speaks directly to the self. The voice says we’re going to encounter something difficult on these pages, but we’re going to do it with dignity and directness and grace.
I admire this revised opening so much. It’s a revision born of courage and perseverance. It’s a revision from an essayist who doesn’t know how to quit.