Hardly a month goes by, it seems, without some minor (or major) flap about the current state of creative nonfiction, what with authors caught self-aggrandizing, novelists denigrating the other team or reviewers lumping all memoirists into the sensationalist-victim camp. I suppose it’s part of the game, designed to call attention to recent books, to goad readers into taking a side, to induce consumers to buy, to read and to consider. So it’s not all bad, but frankly, I could do without it.
Perhaps this is because my own life so rarely excites even me; I could never win over readers through shock or exoticism. No matter. I prefer, in both my writing and in my reading, meditative material that considers the quotidian, that pauses and ponders, moving slowly, calmly—the kind of work that would never incite a controversy, work that balances intellect and emotion, with perhaps a bit of spirit.
This, for me, is the placid beauty of the best creative nonfiction writing: the opportunity to settle one’s buzzing mind for a few brief moments, to meditate on a focused subject, to escape the plangent assaults of the beeping, blinking world and find respite in the thoughts of another human being. Amidst the clamor and clang of dramatic television, contrived sit-coms and outlandishly plotted Hollywood movies that vary only by one-upping the previous car chase/love entanglement/murder twist/special effects, I think we have a right to (and a hunger for) art that is quieter, more enlightening and uplifting.
But such books tend not to shout their own praises; they’re never on the morning show or the bestseller lists. At best, they’re noted for their literary beauty and shared by word of mouth among friends. So let’s consider this column as a kind of recommendation from a friend. Perhaps you’re interested in a book that doesn’t holler at you. Maybe you even want something holy.
Over four centuries ago, in his long rambling essay “On Some Verses of Virgil,” Montaigne identified this quiet and holy aspect of what we now call creative nonfiction: “Every subject is equally fertile to me: A fly will serve the purpose. … I may begin with that which pleases me best, for the subjects are all linked to one another.” He engaged with the mundanities of existence and, perhaps more particularly, with the world of insects or, expanding a bit, of small animals that we rarely notice except insofar as they bother us.
One recent book that continues the long, quiet tradition of meditatively writing outward from a small (in this case, molluscular) subject is Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating (Algonquin Books, 2010). If that title calls to mind the Zen koan “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” then you’re on the right track, for the book is an attempt to ponder some of life’s imponderables. When the author is stricken by a debilitating virus that leaves her unable even to sit up, she retires to a small studio far from her home to convalesce. Soon, a friend brings her a potted violet and a woodland snail, which gradually becomes a beloved companion and source of wonder. Across 22 brief chapters, Bailey explores the snail’s habits, its eating and wandering and mothering, its every unhurried movement. In this, it seems, she takes inspiration from Rilke (one of many writers whose work provides epigraphs for chapters): “Everything in the world of Things and animals is still filled with happening, which you can take part in.” The snail allows Bailey a welcome escape from her confinement and solitude, as well as a conduit to beauty and writing. She writes not about her illness (detailing her pains and discomforts, wishing for sympathy) but from her illness. Although Bailey’s ailment is an unavoidable condition that informs both narrative and point of view, the book is a long observation of a slow-moving creature, with all the reaching for meaning that entails.
This focus gives the book a feel of rest and recovery. It is replete with snail facts shared intimately, as if readers were visitors to Bailey’s home, as well as with pointed insights into sickness and, in a larger sense, being. “There is a certain depth of illness that is piercing in its isolation,” she writes. “The only rule of existence is uncertainty, and the only movement is the passage of time.”
Writers have long been enraptured by the seemingly small and unimportant, and the habit of reading their essays has long been salubrious for me. Among contemporary writers, Irish author Chris Arthur produces work that is both relevant and revelant in its Zenlike engagement/detachment. His newest book, a collection of essays titled On the Shoreline of Knowledge: Irish Wanderings (University of Iowa Press, 2012), may be characterized by this observation from “Pencil Marks”:
I’ve become increasingly fascinated, sometimes terrified, by the depth of meaning contained in the seeming shallows of the ordinary. Once thought about, familiar places, familiar faces, familiar things soon recede into a network of connections and associations so dense, so complex, that their familiarity is transfigured into something close to alien.
Likewise, there are wonders in the essays and books of Scott Russell Sanders. Much of his work from the last 20 years can be classified as “quotidian nonfiction”; his most recent work advocates better respect for and stewardship of the earth. Many of my favorite Sanders essays, “Beauty,” “Simplicity,” “Fidelity,” “Family” and “Wildness,” can be found in Hunting for Hope: A Father’s Journeys (Beacon Press, 1999). “Body Bright,” which falls in the middle of the collection, seems to offer the unifying theme:
As we insulate ourselves from wildness, retreating farther and farther inside our boxes, life loses piquancy, variety, delight. So we gamble or drink or jolt ourselves with drugs; we jump from airplanes with parachutes strapped to our backs, or jump from bridges with elastic ropes tied to our ankles. … These manufactured sensations pall because they have no depth, no being apart from ourselves.
It is worth mentioning, as well, another pair of books that share Bailey’s premise of illness as situation and filter for writing. Mary Cappello’s Called Back: My Reply to Cancer, My Return to Life (Alyson Books, 2009) derives from her experience with breast cancer, yet it differs from other books on that subject by dwelling not on suffering, but on the mundanities of everyday life with cancer. Cappello meditates, for example, on the power of anticipation, the practice of “counting to three” and the extra syllable a Sicilian friend adds to the abbreviated “chemo,” making it “chemio.” Her thoughts are not so subject-centered as Bailey’s, freeing the book to be about seemingly everything. Jean-Dominique Bauby wrote The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Vintage, 1998) after he suffered a stroke at age 43, which left him in an apparently vegetative state. Although Bauby’s body was almost completely shut down, his mind was still vibrant. He dictated the book by blinking the one eye he could still move. In such a state, without access to his previous life as the editor of Elle, his thoughts turn philosophical, focusing on what matters most. Reviewing my notes in the margins of the book, I discovered atop a dog-eared page perhaps my first intimation of the title of my own work—“Book: ‘Quotidiana’ as ‘everyday things’”—likely because of Bauby’s concern with such topics as his wheelchair, tourists, Beatles songs, shaving his father and the fact he has “lost the simple right to ruffle [his son’s] bristly hair, clasp his downy neck, hug his small, lithe, warm body tight against me.”
It needn’t take a crippling illness to reawaken us to a childlike wonder at the world; we can be grateful, rather, for the graceful accounts of those whose senses have been sharpened by their suffering or those in good health whose internal chemistry permits a paused perspective. Because each of us, I dare say, can do with a little more wonder in our lives, can benefit by shunning the artificial and superficial to spend more time contemplating the quotidian miracles that surround us.
For Further Reading: Other Quotidian Nonfictions
Louise Imogen Guiney
Guiney meditates deeply and humorously on topics from “A Pleasing Encounter with a Pickpocket” to “Teaching One’s Grandmother to Suck Eggs.”
Hortus Vitae: Essays on the Gardening of Life (1904)
Violet Paget (“Vernon Lee” is her pen name) praises gardens, music, books, letters, bicycles, silence and much more.
The Rhythm of Life and Other Essays (1896)
“Periodicity rules over the mental experience of man,” suggests Meynell as she begins this serene collection.
Michel de Montaigne
The 16th century’s greatest contribution to literature, the mind that started all our essaying.
In the Dozy Hours (1894)
In the midst of her own essays, Repplier worries about “The Passing of the Essay,” but, gladly, over a century later, her dire prediction has still not come to pass.