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Our Passions, Our Day Jobs

Essaying Through Life

A youthful pledge to become an essayist gets lost.

Portrait of Emilio Terry (detail), Salvador Dalí, courtesy the New York Public Library

For a while, shortly after I finished an undergraduate creative writing course, everything I wrote started with an observation or a realization. I realized this, observed that, examined the subject with airy candor and tried to wrap it up neatly at the end. I was going to be an essayist, and it was going to be awesome.

In that class, a semester-long exploration of the personal essay, I bucked the assignments, insisting on doing interviews in the course of my work. I mixed reportage and observation, ending up with a sort of amalgam of personality and journalism—not quite living up to Aldous Huxley’s theory that the best essays mix the personal, the factual and the abstract, but still personal and loose enough to pass the class. The style works well if you’re an excellent writer observing, say, life in another culture—but not when your subject is life on a Northeastern liberal arts campus and your writing is only halfway decent.

I insisted on doing my classwork as radio pieces, and my professor allowed me to do so, as long as they maintained the element of the personal. Radio was perfect. Any quotes included were literal records of what someone said—rooted in a sort of absolute truth—but the rest of the writing could be anything. As a mixed medium, it works well. And the one decent piece I produced in the semester, I think, reflects that.

Having heard the Hayes Carll song about life in a New Hampshire penitentiary, the one with the chorus that goes “Every day I go to work and every day I cry, ‘cause I’m stamping license plates that say, ‘Live free or die,’” I decided to go ask men in the New Hampshire State Prison license plate shop about the irony of their situation. I got permission from the right people to do so. And I went and asked.

I am still embarrassed by the civility with which I was treated. And the piece I produced, or at least, the one I remember producing (I can’t quite bring myself to go back to listen to it) reflected deep chagrin at having thought to mix ideas of irony and real lives. If nothing else, this gave me Rule No. 1 of my writing career: no irony.

 

I’m not sure when I lost my intention of essaying through life. Certainly I was trying during the summer after graduation—I was living in Beijing, stringing together gigs from the expat classifieds, and publishing a couple odd pieces in a now-defunct magazine called Urbane. Then I came back and worked in the woods, which should have been a perfect place to essay, but I was lazy, trying to find other jobs, and just forgot to try.

When I started writing again, I went back to the personal essay. My first published piece was about reading children’s books to our rescue dog—a setup for an issue of a local arts journal dedicated to children’s books. I’m not sure why the editor took it, but she did.

I was living in Canada and had decided to try harder to work as a journalist, any kind of journalist, for money, and perhaps that’s where I forgot about essaying. I ceased fancying myself anything other than a working writer, which meant I pitched widely and wrote a lot about business and how great it was, and then about the province, and what was happening there. Eventually, I started a project doing interviews with pretty much anyone who would talk to me, and those I cut up and rearranged, but I added nothing to them—feeling that to do so would make it about me, and not about the people who were telling me their stories.

As a journalist, I saw my job as interviewing, transcribing, then artfully collecting quotes to form some sort of narrative. Perhaps I jumped in to summarize history here, or a long quote there, but I stayed out of it, almost wholly. I had lost, perhaps, some hubris; my realizations were ancillary to the story—the story wasn’t about me.

 

Recently, I remembered that I was supposed to be an essayist. I suppose the remarkable thing is that I’d forgotten (it’s only been six years since I took the course), but I had. The idea came back while I was trying to think of ways to write without driving around bothering people. In what I’ll affectionately refer to as my youth, I would make up a project, drive hundreds of kilometers, sleep in my car, and charge my camera batteries in a local library. I’d talk to people about whatever I was doing, and then, eventually, when my time ran out, I’d drive home. It’s not that I couldn’t do that now; my back is still strong and the car still runs. The thing is, at the end of the day I don’t want to be sleeping in the back of my station wagon — I want to come home to make supper for my family. I would love to be out talking to strangers, but without a clear reason for doing so it just isn’t happening. If I’m not going to drive around creation, perhaps it’s time to dust off my capacity for observation closer to home.

When I was writing provincial news and yay-rah-go pieces about local business, I made the argument that the distinction between art and craft was who’s hiring. My contention was that artists create art because of a deep-seated personal drive—they’re doing it for themselves, and if they can sell it, that’s great—but it’s going to get made regardless. On the other hand, I argued, a craftsman builds cabinets. They might be magnificent cabinets, but if nobody needs a kitchen remodeled, that craftsman isn’t going to go home and feel the compulsion to create cabinets.

This dissertation always ended with me assigning myself squarely into the latter camp. And yet, my baby is sleeping, there is laundry I could be doing, and here I am. I’ll still argue that I am no artist, but I want to be writing more—and this, rearranging the past and recollecting futures that could have been, is something I can do without getting on the highway.

When I was writing provincial news, I made the argument that the distinction between art and craft was who’s hiring.

Trouble is, the only thing on my mind right now is our new daughter. And I’m sure the reading public would soon tire of being told that she is amazing, beautiful, and precocious.

My observable life is one of work, dinner, and then couch time; of Sunday brunches with my parents, of boring-to-everyone adventures in learning how to clean a drain.

Some of my realizations are astounding—who knew the Ghostbusters soundtrack was the key to happy newborn napping?—but they can’t be globalized, at least until everyone gets a baby and a copy of the album. Others though, seem to reach toward a slightly broader understanding.

I’ve always enjoyed hanging out with children, and I feared nothing about babies before our daughter was born. I’d changed diapers. I’d been cried at. And what are babies but crying beings who need their diapers changed? I’m still not afraid of babies, but I am, more than I thought I would be, afraid for my baby. I had no idea I would be. Life is good and easy, but suddenly, the world is full of danger. We can be driving happily, singing along to “Radar Love,” and suddenly I’ll realize how easy it would be for the passing semi to swerve into us. Or I could trip when we’re walking down the street. Or, or. The list of dangers available is like some kind of exponentially growing Edward Gorey alphabet. And there’s nothing to do about it, so, we keep driving, keep walking down the street, and we keep singing “Radar Love.”

Friends have asked what having a baby is like and I say, zen-like and perhaps annoyingly, that it’s a lot like not having a baby, but with a baby. This is true as far as it goes. Before our daughter was born, Emily and I would come home from work, make supper, sit on the couch to watch whatever ridiculous show we were working through, and go to sleep. Sometimes we went out for supper, some nights friends came over. That was kind of how it worked, and that’s exactly how it still works. But it’s with another person, a roommate who needs to be held if she’s going to be happy, but who can’t yet stir the soup. Someone who generates piles upon piles of laundry, who can’t explain her frustrations in language, and whose triumphs and idiosyncrasies dominate the conversation whenever we talk to anyone else. It’s different. I was wrong; everyone else was right.

I used to be proud of my ability to multitask, but now I feel the need to get really good at singletasking, at being mindful of my child if minding her is the task at hand. Or of writing efficiently, without a detour to Facebook, if what I’m supposed to be doing is writing. I feel certain that I can still do everything I want to do, but I think I need to do it one thing at a time. This only goes so far as a rule. I’ll still hold my daughter while I clean the kitchen, and she’ll still come outside when it’s time to hang the laundry. But I won’t send email with her propped on my chest anymore. It’s not worth it. Not when just hanging out with her is as fun as it is.

Because, and this perhaps the most surprising fact I’ve learned in my brief tenure as a father, my daughter is absolutely fantastic. When I’m holding her above my head, listening to the peals of infant laughter this elicits, there’s literally nothing else I’d rather be doing. But there are times when she is asleep, and the laundry is done, and in these moments of quiet, she makes me want to write.

Martin Connelly is a writer, photographer, and co-founder of the Little Red Cup Tea Company. He lives in Portland, Maine. More by Martin Connelly