By Way of a Preface
Charles D’Ambrosio was a finalist for the 2015 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay for Loitering: New and Collected Essays, which gathers the eleven original essays that first appeared in his collection Orphans, along with new and previously uncollected work that covers topics ranging from Native American whaling to the work of J.D. Salinger to the author’s own family. The following is the book’s preface.
There’s an old bus stop in Seattle that’s maybe the loneliest place in the world for me, and it was there, reading in the vague light, that I first discovered the essay. Even now when I drive by, I still check that stop, looking for one of my brothers or sisters, although the stop itself has been moved to a better location and the family I might give a lift to is gone. By the standards of the day it was an excellent place to wait for the bus, really the stoop of an apartment, with a marble stairway that was cold but covered, offering shelter from the wind and the rain and a lighted entry that was just bright enough to read by. You had to sit on the top step and slouch over and futz with the book to get the angle, but once you had it, the words resolved on the page. As a bonus there was a bookstore across the street that stayed open late. It was one of those small places that made up for a lack of inventory with sensibility, a bookstore you could trust, and the first that I knew of to hand out free bookmarks, which I thought at the time was infinitely clever. I had just figured out, rather naïvely, that I could buy my own books, and then almost instantly I became a prig about their condition, so much so that I wouldn’t lend them to anyone, at least not without a solemn lecture about their proper handling: no breaking the spines, no dog-earing the pages, no greasy thumbprints. At home, I had my own somewhat wobbly arrangement of brick-and-board shelves, two and then three tiers of ugly pressboard, painted brown and laddered up against the wall, my first piece of furniture. In private, I thought of those shelves with enormous pride, as something I was building, book by book, and brick by brick, and I often looked at them, vaguely satisfied, like a worker inspecting the progress of a job. I wanted the shelves to rise up and reach the ceiling, and for that to happen, all I had to do, I realized, was read.
My sense of the essay as a genre isn’t something I can separate from my experience of those early encounters. I bought my first collection from that little bookstore, on their recommendation, and fell in love with the writer M. F. K. Fisher, whose works on gastronomy couldn’t have been more foreign to me, growing up, as I did, in a big family, where we boiled everything in vats, drank powdered milk, and my father, fielding a complaint about food, would clench the fist of his free hand and stab his fork at the offending item on his plate and say, “Eat it. Your stomach doesn’t care.” Well into adulthood I was too shy to pepper food at a restaurant, afraid that I would somehow be insulting the cook. Anyway, it was at family meals that we learned indifference to our bodies, but it was in prose, particularly the kind I found in the personal essay, that a relationship to that body began to be restored, at least for me. One of my earliest ideas about writing was that the rhythms of prose came from the body, and although I still believe that, I still don’t know what I mean. I would discover, eventually, that some of Fisher’s love of food was a celebratory rebellion against a similar tyranny at home, a rejection of the dulling rules and sumptuary restrictions of the dinner table set by her grandmother. Prose moves so mysteriously that I believe I heard this unstated fact in the rhythm of her sentences long before her biography confirmed it. It came to me sotto voce, whispered on a lower frequency, a secret shared between intimates. And so, while the superficial subject of Fisher’s essays may have drawn me in, offering a fantasy world in which foie gras and Dom Pérignon mattered, soon enough it was language itself, and more specifically, the right she assumed to be exact about her life, that won me completely. More than the wonders of Provence or advice on how to serve peacock tongues on toast, it was her prose that taught me how to pay attention, and it was the essay, as a form, that was the container, the thing that caught and held the words like holy water, offering the gift of awareness, the simple courtesy of acknowledgment, even to a life as ordinary as mine.
Other essayists followed, and I read them in great passionate jags—all of Joan Didion and George Orwell, all of Susan Sontag and Samuel Johnson, all of Edward Abbey and Hunter Thompson and James Baldwin, living for weeks at a time within the sentences of a single writer, excluding other authors, other kinds of reading. I read poems and novels promiscuously but essays were my fast friends. Something in the nature of the personal essay must have instructed me and informed this pattern. And I must have needed that sort of close attachment, that guidance, the voice holding steady in the face of doubt, the flawed man revealing his flaws, the outspoken woman simply saying, the brother and the sister—for essays were never a father to me, nor a mother. Essays were the work of equals, confiding, uncertain, solitary, free, and even the best of them had an unfinished feel, a tentative note, that made them approachable. A good essay seemed to question itself in a way that a novel or short story did not—or perhaps it was simply that the personal essay left its questions on the page, there for everyone to see; it was a forum for self-doubt, for an attempt whose outcome wasn’t assured. That one mind would speak so candidly to another mind held a special appeal to me at a time when I didn’t even know I had such a thing. Late at night, sitting on a cold stoop, waiting for the bus, the free and easy conversations I fell into via the essay seemed to suit my station in life perfectly.
For a glimpse inside the essence of the essay as I felt it then, as I understand it now, I’d like to misuse this passage from Patricia Hampl.
On the first page of the Confessions [Augustine] poses a problem that has a familiar modern ring: “. . . it would seem clear that no one can call upon Thee without knowing Thee.” There is, in other words, the problem of God’s notorious absence. Augustine takes the next step West; he seeks his faith with his doubt: “. . . may it be that a man must implore Thee before he can know Thee?” The assumption here is that faith is not to be confused with certainty; the only thing people can really count on is longing and the occult directives of desire. So, Augustine wonders, does that mean prayer must come before faith? Illogical as it is, perhaps not-knowing is the first condition of prayer, rather than its negation. Can that be?
Seeking faith with doubt, that’s definition enough for me. Or strike faith, if you must, and leave it at seeking with doubt. And longing. And not-knowing. And the occult directives of desire.
And taking the next step West.
I wrote the earliest of these essays for The Stranger in Seattle because no one else would give me five thousand words and then agree not to change a single comma—exactly the kind of hard bargain you can strike when you’re willing to work for next to nothing. While the pay wasn’t fancy, the freedom was absolute, and at that time in my life the liberty to think and write as I pleased mattered far more than money. I will always feel deeply indebted to The Stranger, and nothing satisfies me more than to acknowledge those foolhardy souls in this preface.
I worked on each of these pieces a stupidly long time, with a determination that was fueled, in part, by vanity. I wanted the writing to live an independent life and not rely on passing opinion or the ephemeral realities of alt-weeklies and magazines to make its way in the world. Rather insufferably I thought of myself as an essayist and bristled when friends and family, in conversation, referred to my published work as “articles.” The subjects of these pieces mattered, of course, but it was important to me that the sentences alone do the convincing. What this meant in actual practice was that I often had no idea what I was doing, no plan or sense of purpose, until I started putting words on paper. I relied on my ear to a ridiculous extent, trusting that if I got the sound right—the music, the mood, the feel of things—then sense might eventually make an appearance. Sometimes sense showed up, and other times, in that tussle of trial and error at the heart of all writing, error won the day. My instinctive and entirely private ambition was to capture the conflicted mind in motion, or, to borrow a phrase from Cioran, to represent failure on the move, so leaving a certain wrongness on the page was OK by me. The inevitable errors and imperfections made the trouble I encountered tactile, bringing the texture of experience into the story in a way that being cautiously right never could. In fact, as much as I wrote and rewrote many of these pieces, often, in a contrary mood, the goal of those revisions was to get the thing to read like a rough draft, cutting sonorities of thought and style that seemed dishonest, fighting against the insane clarity of public discourse or, in the more personal pieces, scraping away until I renewed my sympathies for raw subjects that time and habit had turned sclerotic.
Many of the ideas were mine, but just as often the impetus for these essays came to me in the form of assignments, which was always a rush, like being dropped behind enemy lines with nothing but a brick and a can of beans and the essayist’s motto: Que sais-je? Very often I knew nothing. That’s when the subject got its revenge, obligating me in ethical ways to justify my arbitrary presence in other people’s lives and to honor complex worlds, both foreign and familiar, that I’d never truly considered. Feeling helpless and lost and dumber by the draft, I did my best to leave an accurate record of what resisted me, of all that I didn’t understand, my little store of half-knowledge. Although I remember spending a long peaceful afternoon in the elegant hush of the Ryerson Library, reading books about brick, I rarely researched, preferring instead to work without a net—which may simply be another way of saying that I longed to fall. To fall, that is, and to hear what the descent had to say. “Bewilderment is the true comprehension,” Luther wrote. “Not to know where you are going is the true knowledge.” Truant in disposition, maybe I had no choice in the matter, but I took Luther’s exhortation to heart, embracing it in the spirit of a possibility. As a result, I’ve depended on my ignorance quite a bit, and maybe, just maybe, that gives the work a lopsided or eccentric shape and, at times, a certain velocity, a kind of venturi effect, as in an old carbureted engine, forcing the material through such a limited aperture of understanding—and I wouldn’t want to gunk up the works with irritable facts and information gathered from Google.
Friends would diagnose me with a really bad, likely terminal case of aporia, but I suspect that my condition isn’t so uncommon, that a little tribe of others feels, each in their own way, just as mystified and baffled as to direction as I do. At the risk of sounding parsonic, it seems to me we’ve ceded so much space to the expert and the confident authority that expressions of real doubt or honest ignorance are now regarded, in the demotic mind, as a kind of recreancy, a failure of loyalty, the sign of a faith betrayed. Our public space has become a matter of allegiances, always a prelude to ugly business, and as I worked on these pieces—stalled out, staring at the mess of contradictory notes tacked to my corkboard—I would wonder, in my uncertainty, where all the other people are who don’t know, who don’t understand. Are we—the hesitant, the conflicted—all alone? Can that be? In a leveling climate of summations, crowded with public figures who speak exclusively from positions of final authority, issuing an endless stream of conclusions, I get a wary sense in my gut of a world that’s making its appeal to my indolence and emptiness, asking only for surrender. But when at last all of life is polled and made plural, when it’s all been added up and averaged and answered and agreed upon, what happens if you don’t feel so plural? In the face of so much decidedness I conceal my doubts in shame, or something of that character, feeling isolated and singular, useless and a little vulnerable, with all my innermost, urgent thoughts condemned to soliloquy. Cutting away what I consider the engine of the essay—doubt and the unknown, let’s say—leaves us with articles and theses, facts and information, our side and their side, dreary optimism and even drearier pessimism, but nowhere to turn in a moment of true need. In that sense, I don’t see any other option but to head west with Augustine; it seems not only possible but desirable that not-knowing would be the first condition of prayer. What I’ve collected here, of course, are just a bunch of scrappy incondite essays, not prayers, but behind each piece, animating every attempt, is the echo of a precarious faith, that we are more intimately bound to one another by our kindred doubts than our brave conclusions.
A small press published some of these pieces in a tiny volume called Orphans. This isn’t the place to recount the saga of that ill-starred edition, but I’m happy to report that all thirty-five hundred copies of that feisty little foundling managed to find their vagrant way into the hands of readers, a solace to me like the thought of home. It was a small, small edition, easy to slip into a purse or pocket, and bears the distinction, I believe, of being sat on more than your average book. I’ve seen some really beat copies floating around, which serves me right. Thanks to Tin House, the substance of that book now lives on in this collection, reunited with some of its estranged siblings and joined by new work, including this gassy preface. Often the original titles were editorial decisions, hardly more than labels, and this time out, in Loitering, I’ve taken the liberty of rechristening the pieces, giving them the names they’ll answer to for the rest of their lives. I’ve also attempted to structure the material, gathering certain unruly obsessions into familial groups, a task whose futility is somewhat akin to controlling a mudslide. The title of the book fits my sense of things nicely. Writing an essay is a form of loitering—a lingering, a skulking, a meandering—and I like the sinister undertone—loitering with intent—but in the end it brings me back full circle to that boy at the bus stop, reading in the dim light, and to all my brothers and sisters, whether by blood or by bond, who find themselves, now and then, without apparent purpose.