Six months have passed and I’m looking outside the window again. The summer was quiet—hot and lush. These days the tailgating trash that lingers even on our side of the Red Cedar River is blown into crevices where it will stay and decay. No one wants to be sitting on the ground, but judging from the people walking along the river, neither can anyone figure out how to dress for the weather: kids are wrapped in marshmallow down when it’s still in the 50s, or they walk around with exposed legs, arms, and toes on mornings when blades of grass are tipped white with frost.
I’m looking out the window because looking out requires looking up from the manuscripts on my desk. Reading closely, attending to the details of readying a carefully prepared issue means I spend a lot of time close up, close in, and there’s only so much of that I can do without needing to remind myself of the long view. Looking up and looking out.
One of those small details recently involved making the decision to change section headers in the journal, which brought the notice of Susan Tibergien, who teaches and reads in Geneva, Switzerland. She wrote to ask me to change “Essays” back to “Essays and Memoirs,” explaining, “I broadly see an essay (not a personal essay) as concept-driven and a memoir (short or long) as experience-driven.” I know that making distinctions in this way can be useful, as a heuristic, especially in teaching. This sorting (which can feel at times almost like the Hogwarts sorting hat) is most useful, however, because it points beyond itself: not what is the difference between essay and memoir but rather which features of rendering experience into language work, and to what effect: how to manage or convey time, chronology, emotion, the convoluted range and route of the mind’s associations and logic, the role of memory and perspective.
As Sonya Huber writes in her review in this issue, these distinctions are being blurred by our best writers, and if we attend to the work of scholars of [End Page v] the form—Carl Klaus, Philip Lopate, Ned Stucky-French, Patrick Madden, G. Douglas Atkins, among others—it’s clear that literary nonfiction has in fact always embraced a multiplicity of forms. And that, as in all media, art-making is very much concerned with exploring all that might be done with the materials at hand.
So I don’t find such distinctions about genre stable and I don’t find that they hold up. Personal experience, after all, may be shaped by narrative or by reflection; narrative may follow the evolution of an idea or the geography of a river; nature essays may be driven by the “I” of experience or almost completely devoid of the self. In the same way, experience may be rendered in ways that come closer or move further away from whatever makes a memoir: many debates about that form have nothing at all to do with form or genre, but rather begin and sometimes end with questions about what qualifies the writer to ask readers to care about that experience. Can a 25-year-old write a memoir? Who is going to care about a Midwest suburban father’s life? These questions are of course misdirected. It’s not some reduction of the person or the life that “makes” the writing, but rather the quality of mind that engages, the way that mind makes sense of the material, and shapes the material in language—it’s these qualities that make it a piece of nonfiction, whatever way we want to continue to classify it. The habit of mind, the particular style of ruminating and wandering, the sense made of whatever is encountered, be it experience or object or concept—this is what engages us and makes a second reading of a piece of nonfiction, no matter what it’s called, so satisfying. Tracy Seeley speaks eloquently to this in “Virginia Woolf’s ‘Street Haunting’ and the Art of Digressive Passage” in this issue: “A digressive mind is an essayist’s...