The new issue of the American Scholar scratches open my sore feelings about Christian Wiman not winning the National Book Critics Circle award for poetry earlier this month. Hearing him read from “Once in the West” the night before the ceremony confirmed my admiration for his captivating verse.
The former editor of Poetry magazine, he’s just as insightful, startling and demanding in prose. His new essay, “Kill the Creature,” in the spring issue of the American Scholar, is a virtuoso performance of memoir, literary criticism and spiritual reflection all wrapped around snakes — the narrow fellows in the grass he has occasionally spotted, dodged, killed and even eaten.
“I have always loved snakes,” he begins. “Love includes fear — for everyone, I think, but in the religious mind these emotions are married like grace and necessity, abundance and destitution.” And then he’s off, winding through memories of snakes, quantum physics and his relation to the numinous. Along the way, he considers lines from George Herbert, Philip Larkin, Howard Nemerov and others.
It’s a fascinating act of self-reflection about self-reflection — a snake eating its own tail. If his theological and theoretical musings are sometimes esoteric, they’re startling interlaced with macabre legends about his father, who once (just) survived a rattlesnake bite.
“Why does one create?” Wiman asks. “Two reasons: an overabundance of life and a deficiency of it; a sense that reality has called out in such a way that only your own soul can answer and a simultaneous sense that in the word soul is a hole that no creation of your own can ever quite fill.”
In the same issue, Emily Fox Gordon offers a smart and witty essay about the slippery nature of memoirs. “Confession and Confiding” is fueled by exasperation with her writing students who are so eager to vomit up their artless trauma narratives. “I wanted them to write about themselves without falling into a paralyzing portentous tone,” she says. “I wanted more humor in their work, more complexity, more detail, more balance — more good writing.”
She’s particularly uncomfortable with the widespread notion that autobiographical writing should be therapeutic, an attitude encouraged by popular writing instructors and enthusiastically adopted by their narcissistic students. (In one of the essay’s funniest moments, Gordon describes publicly debating this point with a professor of creative nonfiction, who crushes her in the court of public opinion.)
“Confessing and confiding are overlapping concepts, like envy and jealousy, often used interchangeably, but distinct at their cores,” Gordon writes. “The fundamental difference between them is that a confession, in the word’s historical, nonliterary sense, is addressed to some entity — God, the court, the public, a person one has wronged. That entity or person holds the power to condemn, punish, absolve, or forgive. The receiver of a confidence, on the other hand, can comfort or chide or laugh or weep in sympathy with the confider, but has no true authority over him. Confidences are offered to equals, or at least the offering and acceptance of a confidence places the two parties involved on equal terms.”
To test that complex distinction, Gordon considers Bert State’s “My Slight Stoop” and Cheryl Strayed’s “The Love of My Life,” the genesis of the wildly popular memoir “Wild.” It won’t surprise you to learn which one Gordon’s students prefer and which one she finds “familiar,” “ready-made” and “flatly reportorial.” But her exploration of that judgment is provocative in the most enlightening way.
The spring issue of the American Scholar is available now in bookstores for $8.95. Or you can support good writing and interesting ideas by subscribing for $29.