On Writing Nonfiction, an Essayist's Faith

Good essays, it seems to me, are not necessarily well made. They can't be, except when they are trivial expositions of common wisdom repackaged to comfort the already comfortable.

In John D'Agata's anthology "The Lost Origins of the Essay," we're told that the word "essay" comes from the Middle French with the meaning of a test, a trial, an experiment. D'Agata asks us to see the essay as "a mind in rumination, performing as if improvisationally the reception of new ideas, the discovery of unknowns, the encounter with the 'other.'"

Digging, in other words, in the ground of the writer's place in the world with wonder, perhaps, at what the writer's words will turn up for the writer's inspection, analysis, and daydreaming.

I believe in a form of writing that's not propelled merely by information but by what by what D'Agata calls "individual expression -- by inquiry, by opinion, by wonder, by doubt ... a mind's inquisitive ramble through a place wiped clean of answers."

Or as D'Agata asserts in introducing "A Throw of the Dice Never Will Abolish Chance" by Stéphane Mallarmé, "every essay is a journey of a thought into risk." (It was my translation of that odd poem of absences that D'Agata reprints in "Los Origins.")


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D'Agata asks, "Do we read nonfiction in order to receive information or do we read it to experience art?" And for that question, I do not have an answer. Nor should there be one.

The essayist's faith is thinking that he or she is capable of picking up the work of explicating the world in which the writer's self is one of the world's expressions needing explication.

I'm faithful in my own fashion that conviction. But I believe, because I must, in self-doubt, too.

My essayist's faith lifts my gaze from me to regard you and to see us in the place where I have been digging with difficult words.

My essayist's faith insistently reminds me that a "moral imagination" is a gift that will not let me rest with only my daydreams for consolation.

My essayist's faith leads me to the conviction that the world can be explained, but that the world can't be explained fully.

And it leads me to the conclusion that it's best that essayists like me fall in love with something, stay stubbornly faithful to it, and continue to speak of that beloved even as it betrays.

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