The Assay Interview Project: Chris Arthur
December 7, 2012
Chris Arthur lives in Fife, Scotland. He has published several books of essays, including Irish Nocturnes, Irish Willow, Irish Haiku, Irish Elegies, and Words of the Grey Wind. His work has appeared in Best American Essays, American Scholar, Irish Pages, Northwest Review, and Threepenny Review, among others. He is a member of Irish PEN, and his numerous awards include the Akegarasu Haya International Essay Prize, the Theodore Christian Hoepfner Award, and the Gandhi Foundation’s Rodney Aitchtey Memorial Essay Prize. Visit www.chrisarthur.org to find out more about the author and his writing.
The carefully crafted, meditative essays in On the Shoreline of Knowledge sometimes start from unlikely objects or thoughts, a pencil or some fragments of commonplace conversation, but they soon lead the reader to consider fundamental themes in human experience. The unexpected circumnavigation of the ordinary unerringly gets to the heart of the matter. Bringing a diverse range of material into play, from fifteenth-century Japanese Zen Buddhism to how we look at paintings, and from the nature of a briefcase to the ancient nest-sites of gyrfalcons, Chris Arthur reveals the extraordinary dimensions woven invisibly into the ordinary things around us. Compared to Loren Eiseley, George Eliot, Seamus Heaney, Aldo Leopold, V. S. Naipaul, W. G. Sebald, W. B. Yeats, and other literary luminaries, he is a master essayist whose work has quietly been gathering an impressive cargo of critical acclaim. Arthur speaks with an Irish accent, rooting the book in his own unique vision of the world, but he addresses elemental issues of life and death, love and loss, that circle the world and entwine us all.
“Chris Arthur is among the very best essayists in the English language today. He is ever mindful of the genre’s long literary tradition and understands—as did his great predecessors—that the genuine essay is grounded in the imagination, in our quest for art and beauty, as deeply as is poetry or painting. Every young writer who wants to experience the creative possibilities of the essay form must read Chris Arthur—it isn’t an option.”—Robert Atwan, series editor, The Best American Essays.
Julija Šukys: Your essays often take the meditation of familiar objects as their starting points. For example, you reflect on a seed found in your mother’s coat pocket and use it as way of contemplating her passage and of wondering about sides of her personality that you never saw. In essays that follow that first (I must say, masterful) piece, you take a pencil, a family painting, your father’s briefcase (a varied “silent symphony of objects”) as starting points. Your contemplation of these things then takes you on journeys of remembrance, of speculation, of mourning, and of historical clarification (by this I mean the ways in which you translate the Troubles and your experience of growing up in Ulster through seemingly trivial material objects and inconsequential places). The result is this incredibly rich and dense collection, On the Shoreline of Knowledge. I confess to being a slow reader on the best of days, but it took me forever to finish your book. This is not a because of some fault in your work, but rather a function of its density and richness. Each essay is a kind of polished stone, or perhaps like that drop of dew you write about with so many images and stories contained within it. Congratulations on an extraordinary accomplishment.
This past fall, I’ve been leading a writers’ workshop on the personal essay. We’ve talked a lot about the ways in which the best essays contain the large and the small – or rather the large within the small. Your essays seem to me to be some of the most dramatic illustrations of the principles that I’ve come across. I wonder if you could talk a little about your approach to writing and thinking your way from the small to the big and back again.
Chris Arthur: I’m fascinated by what I suppose you might call the dual nature of things – though that’s something of a misnomer. The duality is more apparent than real and lies in us, and how we observe things, rather than in the things themselves. I guess in some ways it’s a kind of defense-mechanism to stop ourselves being overwhelmed. What I mean by dual nature is the way in which something can be seen in such different perspectives, how we can measure it according to such enormously varied scales. For instance, my first book, Irish Nocturnes (1999) begins with an essay entitled “Linen.” Its point of departure is a small piece of embroidered linen cloth. At first glance it seems entirely ordinary – something easily overlooked or just dismissed as uninteresting. But when you start to examine it, think about it, you’ll find that it’s densely packed with all sorts of interrelated stories – the story of flax and its cultivation; the story of the individual who made it; the story of linen manufacture, in particular the ways this developed in the part of Ireland where the piece of linen is from; the story of the metaphors and symbols that can be derived from linen; the story of this fabric’s use from ancient times until the present. Teasing out some of the storylines embedded in this one small piece of cloth you soon find far wider vistas opening up than are immediately apparent when you first look at it.
I was pleased that a reviewer specifically flagged up the way “Linen” moves from the small-scale to the large-scale. Writing in The Literary Review (Vol. 44 no. 3 , pp. 602-03) Thomas E. Kennedy said this:
I started the first essay, “Linen,” with a fear that I would be subjected to one of those wearying parsings of technique too often serving as essays (how neon is made; how the horned beetle mates), in which one learns industrial or biological detail one is never likely to have use for and which, in the words of Dylan Thomas, “tell us everything about the wasp but why.” But no, Arthur moves from the tradition of linen to the strands of history and the sorrows of those who have come before us—a movement back in time that he conjures on the flying carpet of a single piece of antique linen … In a mere fourteen pages we have surveyed the history of mankind through a piece of stuff that lies beneath the author’s computer, and we—I—find a new way to meditate existence.
Of course it’s not just bits of linen that offer the essayist flying carpets by which to get to interesting places. All sorts of objects and experiences have this same potential. In fact I’m almost tempted to say that everything has. I love John Muir’s comment that “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” From an everyday, commonsense perspective, of course, we turn our back on Muir’s insight and behave as if we can consider things singly and separately. My essays are in the business of reminding us about their hitching to everything else. I try to highlight and follow for a way some of the intricate mesh of connections in which things are embedded.
Your point about essays containing the large within the small is a good one and points to an important theme in many essayists’ work. But moving between the scales is not something I try to do consciously. I don’t have to think my way from the small to the large and back, its more like noticing a rhythm or a dynamic that seems implicit in things – or in the way I see things. It’s almost like the heartbeat of perception. Maybe writing essays is a kind of taking of this pulse.
I’ve learned a lot from what reviewers (and interviewers) have said about my writing. They’ve often made me aware of things I’ve been doing without consciously realizing I’ve been doing them. For instance, when I read Graham Good’s review of my first three collections considered together (this appeared in the Southern Humanities Review Vol. 41 no. 4 (2007), pp. 390-94), I thought “Ah, so that’s what I’m trying to do” when he said:
Arthur’s aim in his essays is to move from immediacy to immensity, from the vivid concrete particulars of an incident, an object, or a sight, to the most universal ideas: the human condition, the infinity of space and time, the complexity and connexity of the world.
John Stewart Collis talks about “the extraordinary nature of the ordinary.” Georgia O’Keefe refers to the “faraway nearby.” I like to start with nearby, ordinary things – what lies close to hand and seems commonplace and familiar – and then see the incredible faraway destinations that are led to as soon as you start to think about what’s involved. I’m just amazed at the complexity and depth that’s wired into the everyday things around us. I suppose my essays try to open a window onto that. But it’s not as if I set out to do this. I don’t sit down at my desk and say “Right, it’s time to move from immediacy to immensity,” it’s more something that just happens because of the way I read the world, because of how things fall on the fabric of my consciousness and how I want to write about them as a result.
But when someone like Graham Good comes along and points out what I’m doing, I’m pleased to have what I’m about identified so clearly. (I have, incidentally, been incredibly fortunate in the reviewers who’ve commented on my work. There’s been a real generosity of spirit evident alongside the many perceptive comments they’ve made.)
Just before leaving the movement between small and large, let me make a couple of book recommendations that I think should be on any essayist’s reading list: Henry Petroski’s The Pencil (1989), and Jan Zalasiewicz’s The Planet in a Pebble (2010). These are both wonderful examples of how, starting with something that’s seemingly completely ordinary, you can reach all kinds of unexpected destinations. Both of these books exemplify what Alexander Smith called “the infinite suggestiveness of common things.” That’s something I think essayists need to be alert to. I guess in a sense it’s what they try to transcribe. Smith – whose Dreamthorp: A Book of Essays Written in the Country (1863) is well worth reading for what he says about the genre – also suggested that “the world is everywhere whispering essays and one need only be the world’s amanuensis.” Not infrequently I feel like a kind of harassed scribe attempting to note down the whispered symphonies issuing from the things around me.
You write that essays are like bicycles, “in that they allow us to get close to elusive things.” How does this work in practice for you? Do you sneak up on an idea or does it sneak up on you?
To some extent, I see cars and motorways as emblematic of the objective/academic approach of an article; bicycles and meandering country roads as emblematic of the personal/reflective nature of an essay. This is not to say I always prefer the bicycle – if I want to cover a lot of distance quickly I’d opt for a car. Bicycles are good when you’ve got a shorter journey, when you’ve time to look around and consider things. Just as different vehicles are good for different types of journey, so are different modes of writing. The way an essay unfolds itself wouldn’t fit every occasion. I guess the comparison was in part occasioned because of the way in which cycling allows you to follow all kinds of unnoticed paths and unfrequented byways; how you can easily stop to look at and investigate things, or wheel round and retrace your route to enjoy the view again. If there are roadworks and a red traffic light, you can walk, or cycle on the pavement, instead of waiting in a queue. Cycling seems more in tune with the essay’s individuality than the anonymity of a car. Its pace seems more attuned to the genre’s reflective mood. You can hear things and smell things you’re not aware of when you’re enclosed in a car. But I’m not sure how far the bicycle/essay comparison can be pushed. Maybe I’m particularly susceptible to it because I like to start my writing day by cycling.
As for whether I sneak up on ideas or they sneak up on me, it’s probably a case of my being initially ambushed by an idea and then, when I start to write about it, it’s me who’s trying to hunt down related ideas – though of course it’s not as neat or predictable as this might make it sound. I’m frequently ambushed by ideas that have sneaked up on me as I’m writing. And using “ideas” here maybe gives too intellectual a view of things. My essays often start from things rather than from thoughts, albeit things that are laden with ideas. If you asked me for the ideas that lie at the root of my writing, I’d be hard put to answer (a reviewer like Graham Good would be a better person to ask). But if you asked about the things that spark my writing, that would be easy. Among the objects that have led to essays are: pencils, old photographs, pieces of linen, briefcases, a pelvis bone, the ferrule at the end of a walking stick, some fragments of willow pattern china – all sorts of things.
Adam Gopnik, who guest edited the 2008 edition of that wonderful annual series, The Best American Essays, identifies three types of essay: review essays, memoir essays and what he calls “odd object” essays. This third type, which he claims is “the oldest of all essay forms,” is the kind that “takes a small, specific object, a bit of material minutia….and finds in it a path not just to a large point but also to an entirely different subject.” Many of my essays are indeed concerned with finding paths to unexpected destinations in “material minutia” – we’re back to the large-in-the-small. But, for me, it’s not so much the “odd-object” that needs to be emphasized, more the ordinary object that, once examined, once made the focus for a piece of writing – once essayed – comes to seem odd. Estranging the familiar, helping us see the extraordinary in the everyday, is more what I’m about than offering some kind of peep show into what’s just plain weird.
When you think in terms of things rather than ideas, it’s certainly more a case of objects creeping up on me than my doing so on them – or, since this might seem to bestow an improbable intentionality on what’s inanimate, maybe it would be better to say that it’s more a case of my stumbling across things that have something about them that sparks the desire to write. I don’t go out to look for them in any kind of deliberate, systematic way – they’re all accidental discoveries.
Julija Šukys: Like you, I’m obsessed with the writing of ordinary lives. The following passage is marked in pencil and with exclamation marks in my now dog-eared copy of your book: “History is determined by the inky regimen of print. But ordinary lives happen more in the key set by a pencil: fainter, less permanent, more tentative, easily erased. [. . .] I prefer to take the back routes, to look at littler events, the stories of the day to day, of families and their places. These, more than any headline, are what make us who we are.” I write ordinary lives in order to create a trace for those I fear will (unjustly) be forgotten. By contrast, though, I get the sense from your work, and the ways in which you reach so far back (to Neanderthal mourning rituals, for example) that you write with the consciousness that this too, this trace of yours, will fade. Am I right about this?
Chris Arthur: Yes! I think all the traces we leave, all the traces we write, will vanish. According to Buddhist teaching, by which I’ve been more than a little influenced, one of the three marks of existence – that is, one of the three absolutely fundamental features of our world – is what’s termed “anicca,” or impermanence. That strikes me as highly plausible. I think everything passes. Nothing humans do – still less who they are – is permanent, however much we may rail against this unpalatable fact. When I read your question I was reminded of an early essay I wrote entitled “Ne Obliviscaris” (= “lest we forget”). It emphasizes, more explicitly than the other essays do, the way in which anicca claims us all:
If the mind cannot immediately encompass the idea of its own complete annihilation, the fact that soon there will be no one who remembers us, ask what remains – beyond the dumb inheritance of flesh – of the people who were our great-great-grandparents. Or, if that is still too close, ask what now remains upon the shifting network of human memory of the ten-year-old Iron Age girl drowned as she helped her mother collect mussels from along some windswept northern shore. Let her act as symbol for the millions of strangers unknown to us, unremembered by anyone, who have vanished without trace in history’s wake and are recoverable only through the imagination.
Loss and transience are, I think, important motifs that recur throughout my five essay collections. This may make them sound rather sombre, if not grim – but I don’t think they are; I hope they’re not. It’s transience, after all, that underscores a lot of life’s beauty, what helps to make it beautiful.
In “Kyklos” you write about the way your essay has “spiralled away, evolved and developed, meandered unpredictably from its initial point of origin.” A great topic for discussion over the course of my fall workshop has been precisely this aspect of essay writing: the fact that you may not (almost certainly don’t) know where you’re going. Essays wander. They are experiments. They take us off into unexpected territory. And this frustrates beginning writers, because it feels difficult and therefore they begin to believe they’re doing something wrong. I wonder if you could talk about how you write essays. Do they come quickly? Are they hard-fought? Do they come slowly over years? What is the role of rewriting in your work? Do you have faithful friends or editors whom you trust with drafts? Do you have any words of wisdom for those of us stuck inside an unfinished and uncooperative essay (as I am now)?
This reminds me of a piece of wisdom about essays from one of my mentors in the genre, Lydia Fakundiny. She says that if at some point in its composition an essay doesn’t surprise the writer, it probably isn’t worth writing. I agree with that. Of course when I start to write a piece I have some idea of where it’s headed – but not much. The discovery is in the writing and the pieces that have pleased me most are those where surprise is a key element, where insights and connections happen that I couldn’t have predicted when I set out. Yes, absolutely, essays are experiments – I sometimes refer to them as wonderings and wanderings in prose. If they don’t take us into unexpected territory they quickly become tedious. This means there’s a strong element of unpredictability about them, which can be frustrating – because sometimes they don’t work, and because they’re resistant to planning. I think beginning writers are sometimes approaching essays with a one-size-fits-all blueprint in mind for how to structure them. That strikes me as desperately wrong-headed. A useful initial exercise for anyone starting out is to read the Best American Essays series and get a sense of just how varied essays can be.
I wouldn’t like to give the impression, though, from this emphasis I’ve put on unpredictability, surprise and not knowing where a piece is going, that there’s any lack of care or precision in an essay’s composition. Good essays are carefully crafted (and again a reading of Best American Essays soon makes this very apparent).
It takes me weeks to complete an essay and almost every one goes through numerous rewrites as I hone it and fine tune it and try to get it into the shape I want. Very occasionally, a piece will emerge quickly. It seems to fall on the page pretty much in its final form. But that’s rare. Mostly my initial scribbles are crude, tentative, unfinished and miles away from the final version. It takes me a long while to get from inception to completion – and it can be struggle. Readers are oblivious, of course, to the huge amount of work involved in moving from first draft to final finished form – in this as in other genres. That’s the part of writing that’s only visible to the author – and rightly so, I think. I mean, no one wants to look at the rubble of unrefined material and what’s been discarded. Readers want to taste the finished dish, not your raw ingredients. But it can be highly problematic if beginning writers aren’t aware of this dimension and imagine that composition happens in one unrevised burst that’s perfect at the outset. I don’t know anyone who writes like that. Wasn’t it E.B. White who said “The best writing is rewriting”?
I don’t share work in draft form with anyone, but I’m more than willing to listen to suggestions from a handful of journal editors whose judgment I’ve learned to trust. When they suggest changes to what I’ve presented to them as an essay’s final form I’ll often make the recommended change – or, prompted by it, come up with some revision of my own. Once an essay has been published, though, I tend to rule a line under it and not look at it again – otherwise I might want to make yet more changes. Paul Valéry’s famous observation that “a poem is never finished, only abandoned” applies to essays too, I think. It’s interesting that Patrick Madden, an essayist whose work I admire, says quite explicitly in one of the essays in his book Quotidiana (2010), “The danger of writing an essay like this: there is nowhere to end.” But for practical purposes you need to draw the line and end things, or abandon things, somewhere – otherwise what you’re working on will eventually start to get in the way of new ideas, new pieces.
You ask about words of wisdom for those stuck inside an unfinished and uncooperative essay. Well, the first thing I’d say is I’m glad I’m not there! Because I have been there frequently and I know how frustrating it can be. When I get into this situation with a piece of work I’ll sometimes give up and trash it – and it’s better to do that before you expend massive amounts of time and energy trying to fix the unfixable. But of course I’m reluctant to abandon something once I’ve started to write it, and it can be well-nigh impossible at some stages to tell if something just needs more revision and refinement or if it’s something that’s terminally flawed. One thing that’s worth considering is whether the recalcitrant piece is two (or three) essays rather than the single one you think you’re operating with. I know I’ve escaped from several tangles by realizing that I was trying to write two essays simultaneously. Separating them and working on them separately solved the problem. It’s also sometimes worth bringing some radical editing to bear. Trying to begin three paragraphs (or pages) in and ditching what goes before that can help to get things moving, or reorganizing the order of the sections. Writing a piece to a strict word limit that’s lower than what you normally work with can occasionally be effective. Sometimes it helps – if there isn’t a deadline looming – to put the piece aside for a few weeks or months and look at it again after a break. I also like to have several pieces of work on the go at the same time, at different stages of completion, so as I can switch mental gears between the different demands of initial sketch, rough draft, first draft and final draft (and all the rewritings and revisions in between). So, if I’m stuck with one piece at one phase of its writing, shifting to another piece at another phase can help. It can also be helpful to move between working on single pieces and a collection. Sometimes when things don’t work it’s just a case of being stale and needing to go out for a walk or a swim or a cycle – a change of scene, getting away from the screen or the page. And of course writers, given what they do, sometimes spend too much time in their own company. Sometimes all an essay that isn’t working needs is some good company and conversation, rather than any kind of further emphasis on the solitary business of trying to get sentences to behave the way you want them to. But sometimes none of these strategies work. I don’t mean to be pessimistic in saying that, I think it’s just being realistic. I’ve certainly experienced the wretched business of a piece of writing that promises to be good, claims lots of time, is something that keeps drawing me back, but in the end I just can’t figure out how to get it into a form I’m happy with. Maybe in order to have success with writing you need to experience a few failures along the way. But here’s hoping your unfinished/uncooperative essay is one that responds to treatment and ends up being something you’re pleased with.
Finally, if an essay looks at a question or a thing or a memory from all angles, then perhaps an essay collection can be said to do the same, but on a bigger scale. Having never written a collection myself, I’m intrigued to hear about the process of putting together such a book. What comes first – the essays or the themes? Do you bring together pieces that seem to interconnect or do you set out to write complementary essays? Or a combination of the two?
The essays come first. Then, as I start to think of them together, themes emerge that make it clear which ones work together. At that point it’s easy enough to decide what to include in a collection and what doesn’t belong there. Likewise the running order of the selected pieces, though it may initially seem hard to call, becomes obvious as I work on the essays together and think of them as a collection, not just as individual pieces. I never set out to write complementary essays. The books evolve out of the essays I write, but I don’t write them with a view to writing a book. When I’m writing an essay, it’s just that particular essay that I’m thinking about.
Richard Chadbourne says something interesting about essays considered singly and put together as a collection. His comment is included in the course of what I think is a good characterization of the genre as a whole:
The essay is a brief, highly polished piece of prose that is often poetic, often marked by an artful disorder in its composition, and that is both fragmentary and complete in itself, capable both of standing on its own and of forming a kind of ‘higher organism’ when assembled with other essays by its author.
I’d like to think that my essays are capable of standing on their own – but that the collections work as “higher organisms” so that reading them together in a book sees them acting in the kind of mutually enriching/reinforcing way that Chabdourne has in mind. Incidentally, he goes on to say of the essay that:
Like most poems or short stories it should be readable at a single sitting; readable but not entirely understandable the first or even second time, and re-readable more or less forever.
And he concludes: “the essay, in other words, belongs to imaginative literature.” I’d agree wholeheartedly with that. (His comments are made in an excellent article, “A Puzzling Literary Genre; Comparative Views of the Essay,” in Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 20 no. 1 (1983), p.149-50.)
A parallel to thinking about making collections of essays is thinking about the different ways in which a selection of those already published in book form might be arranged. I did this with Words of the Grey Wind, of course, but it’s something I’d like to do again. For instance, I’ve several times thought of putting a book together that draws the various “bird essays” I’ve written – “Kingfishers” and the “Last Corncrake” from Irish Nocturnes, “Swan Song” and “Beginning by Blackbird” from Irish Haiku, “Waxwings” from Words of the Grey Wind and three that are in the collection I’m just completing now. That’s the kind of thing that might tempt me to try to write “complementary essays.” Of course the birds themselves are not the main subject. It’s more that they offer a way into what I want to write about. I’d also like to explore arranging essays around the theme of different varieties of looking, grouping them according to whether they look at natural objects, manufactured things, paintings, books, photographs, sayings, or memory. I even have a tentative title and subtitle for such a volume: How to See a Horse and Other Lessons for the (Mind’s) Eye. But I think it’s highly unlikely that any publisher would want to take on something like this, so I suspect these imagined rationales for selection.
Julija Šukys is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Missouri, Columbia, where she teaches the writing of creative nonfiction. She is the author of three books, including Siberian Exile: Blood, War, and a Granddaughter’s Reckoning and Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaite. Epistolophilia won the 2013 Canadian Jewish Book Award for Holocaust Literature.
This interview originally appeared at julijasukys.com.
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