I have never cared what horse a man was riding, only how he rode him. Because that is the pretty and human thing.
This is one of those passages that said to me, like Richard Dreyfus in Close Encounters, “This is important. This means something.”
I’ve always been intimidated by the Pushcart essays. Then last year, I discovered I’d read some of the pieces before they were awarded the prize. So this year, I decided I’d do a single post on the Pushcart non-fiction, similar to what I did for poetry last year and plan to do again this time around (I’m not giving it short shrift, I’m just super clueless about poetry so one post is about all I’d inflict on the internet).
I started reading. I don’t love all of the essays, of course – sometimes it’s the topic, sometimes it’s just over my head. But just like the fiction, these are written pieces, and that means writers made choices somewhere along the line, the same choices made in fiction writing: what to write about, what voice to use, what point of view, in what order to reveal information and at what pace. And perhaps most importantly (to me, that is), what is the point of it all, and how does the piece embody that point. So why not post on each piece?
But how to approach nonfiction for comments? I still don’t know how to approach novels, and I approach them anyway. For that matter, I have no idea how to “review” a short story – I’m uncomfortable any time anyone refers to these posts as “reviews” because I’m sure there’s some outline, a format, or maybe a set of underlying guidelines that “real” reviews use, and I just read stuff and talk about it – in written form, because I write far better than I talk (that’s not conceit; in person, I’m virtually incoherent when I speak at all and often don’t realize it until I recall it later).
During the recent kerfluffle about journalism/memoir (which started here and went, among other places, here and here) Roxane Gay tweeted: “An essay has to do more than just help a writer work through their shit. An essay has to look outward as much as inward. When working from the personal keep asking, why would someone else care.” This became for me another Close Encounters moment: This is important. This means something. She later expanded on the thought in a tumblr post. This notion, the constant asking of “Who Cares?”, which struck me as fundamental to pretty much all writing, will be my yardstick through the Pushcart non-fiction.
Take “We Are All of Us Passing Through.” It worked very well for me. How did it work? First, there’s the title, which is as resonant as titles come, and is made all the more poignant by the fact that it was published in TGR just months before Crews’ death. Then the piece opens, in classic in media res from Creative Writing 101, with Crews on a motorcycle in the snowy Colorado mountains in winter, only to turn to backstory: he’s on the run from the University of Florida:
Deliver me from men who are without doubt. Doubt makes a man decent. My most steadfast conviction is that every man ought to doubt everything he holds dearest. Not all the time, but now and then. Sometime.
Yet, he assures us from his secure place in the present, he will in eighteen months from that night on the mountain be ready to return to the world, “ready to continue with what society expected” of him. But in the meantime, this is what happened.
This was a good start for someone intimidated by essays. It’s not a didactic lecture on an abstract subject, but an autobiographical tale of a cold night in 1958 spent at a YWCA in the mountains of Colorado, the roommate who may or may not have thought he was Jesus, and the impact on a young kid that reverberated years into the future. Though almost the entire essay takes place in those cold, snowy Colorado mountains, the opening – how he got there – and the closing – the importance – gives it meaning beyond the incident recounted.
It’s a story. I’m becoming more and more convinced that nearly everything, at heart, is a story.
And now the yardstick: Why should someone care about the night Harry Crews spent at the Y? The short answer: Because that night echoed into the future of Crews’ writing life:
But of course nothing is ever wasted. Ten years later, when I would start the first novel I was able to publish, The Gospel Singer, the little man in the YMCA sat up in his bed and up in my head as alive and immediate as he had ever been, and out of his skinny legs and maniacal voice I made the character of Didymus, and it was in the person of Didymus that I first felt the miracle that keeps fiction writers writing fiction, the miracle of the alphabet turning into blood.
But why should anyone who isn’t a writer care? Because everything in our lives can impact on what we do next, or maybe on what we do fifty years hence. Because sometimes we need to learn the hard way, by experience, before we can learn the easy way to interpret this experience. Because nothing in our lives can be considered wasted if we learn something from it, and we can learn something from everything that happens.
He could have listed his conclusions in bullet points in a fine didactic essay on Experience. But it’s a lot better this way.