Monday, 31 December 2012

My 10 Favourite Essays of 2012

If you follow this blog you'll probably know, by now, that I'm a big fan of Will Johnson, who blogs over here. (This despite the fact that he's a much bigger fan of Kris Bertin than he is of me, but whatever. I'll deal.) One of the things that I love about Will's blog is his fascination with lists, and his tendency to compile "best of" collections pertaining to pretty much anything that strikes his literary fancy. His top ten books of 2012, for example. Or the top ten short stories by Canadians that he read in 2012. Or his top 15 favourite Canadian short stories.Etc, etc -- on and on it goes.

These lists always manage, somehow, to make me feel like I'm not reading enough. But they're inspiring all the same. They make me think about what might go into my own list, were I to make such a one as those described above. Take essays, for example. As someone who came to the essay form a bit later than most, ie. when I was twenty-five, ie. when I'd already finished grad school having "determined" that fiction -- and only fiction -- was definitely My Thing, I've found myself pretty much bowled over by it. This year, in particular, has felt like a truly excellent year for essays. This probably just means that I'm paying more attention to them, and thus noticing more often what has been there in the zeitgeist all along, but man oh man, is the essay ever delicious. And judging by the proliferation of publications in recent times who seek to elevate the essay, and the personal writing style, plenty of other people seem to agree.

So, in this vein, I've cobbled together a little list of my own. My Ten Favourite Essays of 2012. Though I should probably clarify that "2012" means "Something that I read in 2012 but Might Have Also Read Before Then, Too, And Just Never Forgotten." Read and enjoy. Or, you know, disagree -- and then tell me about it, so we can duke it out.

Also, it should just be said: if you're not reading The Rumpus yet, you really need to get on that. 

10.Splendid Isolation, by Cheryl Strayed
Most of you will know by now that I'm a rather big fan of Cheryl Strayed. I found this essay of hers earlier in the year, when she came out as the author of the Dear Sugar column at The Rumpus. I loved her column so much that I had to find everything else she'd ever done, and this essay definitely didn't disappoint. It's a rich exploration of the author's time living in the woods with her family, a lovely juxtaposition of the girl that she was and the one that she wanted to be. I love this line: And also I concealed myself, the girl who knew what it was like to live a summer on the fruits of her own labor, becoming instead, at least at school, the girl I'd been eager, all that summer, to be -- synthetic and fabricated, thin and afraid. 

9. Baby Weight, by Cheryl Strayed 
More Cheryl Strayed goodness! As someone who has grown into a person looking at babies with that same sort of not-quite-sure puzzlement, that same burgeoning (and silly, I am sure) fear of oh-but-what-if-a-child-INTERRUPTS-everything-in-my-not-quite-there-career, this essay made me smile. There's something so wise about Cheryl Strayed's writing -- so wise and yet so funny, so big-hearted and true. 

8. On Trying to Wear Al's Shirts, by Steven Heighton
Sometimes it's funny, reading the work of people that you happen to meet in real life. I met Steven Heighton for the first time nine years ago or so, when he was reading at UVic, and then I saw him again this summer when he did a reading at Bryan Prince. And then I saw him again the next day, at Word on the Street Toronto. Now whenever I read his work, especially an essay, say, that's written in the first person, all I can hear is Steven Heighton's Sexy Reading Voice.

I hear it now, even talking about this essay. It's a great exploration of the relationships that we writers have to one another -- the idolatry that happens, the anticipation that comes when you're New and everyone else seems so much bigger than you are. I was an inch closer to the earth. Every sentence has that crystalline, exact quality that you'd expect from him -- the kind of writing that (speaking of envy) makes me sad for my own horribly blasé grasp of the English language. No matter. We learn from our betters, right?

I highly recommend you go and hear the man, if for nothing other than the pleasure of hearing (in your head) the Sexy Reading Voice take on the above essay. And if you can't see him in person, you can always hear him via this handy little website.

7. Tinkering With Grief in the Woods, by Mark Liebenow
I discovered this essay during the course of some research in essay markets -- it won first prize in the 2011 Literal Latté Essay Contest. The Great Rabbit Hole that is the Internet is wonderful for things like this -- you open one door and go through another and read your way through all kinds of brilliant things. And then you find an essay like this, and something stills in your heart for the briefest inch of time.

6. What We Hunger For, by Roxane Gay
Roxane Gay is Wonderwoman. It's true--nothing less than that. Look at how many things she's published! She also teaches, plays competitive Scrabble, is the Essays Editor for The Rumpus, and publishes Tiny Hardcore Books. Oh, and she has another novel and a book of essays due out in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

I'm tired now and all I did was read out that list.

Anyway -- "What We Hunger For" is a gorgeously frank and open exploration of The Hunger Games, and her own ties to the books. I took to Twitter with the fact that it made me cry, and got a very nice little DM back from Ms. Gay herself. I kind of wish I could frame it. And then get her to autograph it, or something.

5. Knocked Over: On Biology, Magical Thinking, and Choice, by Martha Bayne
This essay appeared in The Rumpus (again--you really need to get on that) back in September, and totally blew me away. It's wrenchingly difficult, and straightforward, and brought the realities of "choice" in a place without steady health insurance alive for me in all kinds of uncomfortable ways.

I've read it multiple times. You probably will too. 

4. The Crack-Up, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
You really can't beat F. Scott Fitzgerald for most things. The guy published The Great Gatsby at the age of 29, coined the term "The Jazz Age" (what phrases have YOU coined and put into the lexicon, lately? YOLO doesn't have quite the same ring, now, Drake, does it?), and managed to write three other excellent novels in addition to a number of essays and articles and the like. As you'll see in the essay above (if in fact it hasn't already been branded in your brain), he also had his share of demons. I love the wry, almost clinical observational style that he employs in this piece. And of course there's this line: I avoided writers carefully because they can perpetuate trouble as no one else can. 

Quite true, I'd say. Quite true.  
 
3. The Love Of My Life, by Cheryl Strayed
Yes. I am (more than) slightly enamoured with Cheryl Strayed. For sure. But she's just. So. Darned. Good. I love her honesty, I love how raw she can be, I love everything that she does in this piece. This essay also made me cry. And feel blessed and terrified all at the same time. I love it when a writer does that to me.

2. Rehearsals for Departure, by John W. Evans
I find this essay unbelievably haunting, precisely because the wife's death is mentioned everywhere and yet hardly at all. Katie does not die on the ridge of that mountain on a Saturday in late June. The ridge is not made sacred by her violent death. A bear crosses the ridge that day and attacks no one. I love how the reality of this essay mixes so easily with the possibility of it--that magical space of imagined, alternate futures. Isn't that what great essays are about--speculating on what is/might have been possible, all while we recount what's continuing to happen around us?

1. On Black Holes, Patience, and What I Know To Be True, by Haley Elkins
I read this a couple of days after it was posted on xojane, a little less than a week after the shooting at Sandy Hook. What if you shoot some poor kid who comes in trying to steal our television? I'll never forgive you. 

 It feels like the best essay I've read all year. It might be the best essay I've read in a long time. That sucker-punch to the gut feeling, you know?

That one. 

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