Shortly before my semester ended, my lecturer M.G. Lord (author of The Accidental Feminist and Forever Barbie, and judge for the National Book Awards this year) gave the class this reading by Jonathan Lethem. In it, Lethem discusses the limitations of copyright and pieces together a witty essay in defense of plagiarism by borrowing sentences/paragraphs from other writers. In this case, the medium is the message, and he argues that art is created by building on other forms of art.
In that same spirit, our task was to produce an essay by cobbling 500 words from various sources. At first, I thought it would be a piece of cake. How difficult could it be to just copy stuff from others? Apparently, it takes quite a bit of effort, especially if you aim to be coherent! This assignment turned out to be really fun and, after an afternoon of perusing various books and essays, this was what I came up with:
For fifteen minutes I have been sitting chin in hand in front of the computer, staring out the window. Trying to be honest with myself, trying to figure out why writing seems to me so dangerous an act, filled with fear and trepidation. It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. Few of us can remain honest for long, since humans are incorrigibly, self-deceiving, rationalizing animals. So often the “plot” of a personal essay, its drama, its suspense, consists in watching how far the essayist can drop past his or her psychic defenses toward deeper levels of honesty. Likewise, this is my journey of discovery as I essay, as I, through the lens of my writing, try and open up a new flank, locate a tension between two valid, opposing goals, or an ambivalence in my own belief system. As F.Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
When I sit down in quiet meditation, the one emotion hardest to fight against is a longing in all things for the past. It is strange how much you can remember about places once you allow your mind to return into the grooves that lead back. I remember the childhood of my yesteryears, the people, scenes, voices and smells of the food in my house. There is much life in memory. I recently came upon an image, taken by Adam Gormley, an Australian photographer. He had been photographing spider webs when a rainstorm hit, and in the aftermath, he captured an image of an ant trapped within a three-millimeter drop of rain whose surface tension maintained the shape of a sphere. Floating in the middle of that transparent pearl, the reddish-brown body of the ant hunches, its many legs dangling toward the bottom of the raindrop’s curve. Gormley at first thought there was a piece of dirt in the droplet; only when he looked closer did he see the ant. “I shouted out in excitement when I realized what I’d captured by accident!” he said.
Why we remember something is not always immediately obvious: within certain memories lies something hidden, the equivalent of a floating ant. In his book How to Use Your Eyes, James Elkins writes, “Our eyes are far too good for us. They show us so much that we can’t take it all in, so we shut out most of the world, and try to look at things as briskly and efficiently as possible.” Too often we skim over our memories as well. They become stories we’ve told ourselves for so long that we think we don’t need to revisit them in greater detail. Yet, as Elkins writes further, “It’s about stopping and taking the time, simply, to look, and keep looking, until the details of the world slowly reveal themselves.” And that is my challenge when I write – as I delve into history, into the many folds of perception, and attempt to uncover its mysteries.
“For fifteen minutes I have been sitting … filled with fear and trepidation.” Split at the Root (An essay on Jewish Identity) by Adrienne Rich
“It is easy to see… harder to see the ends.” Goodbye to All That by Joan Didion
“Few of us can remain honest for long… toward deeper levels of honesty.” and “try and open up a new flank… and still retain the ability to function.” Introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay by Phillip Lopate
“When I sit down in quiet meditation… a longing in all things for the past.” Essays in Idleness by Kenko
“It is strange how much you can remember… return into the grooves that lead back.” Once More to the Lake by E. B. White
“I recently came upon an image, taken by Adam Gormley… until the details of the world slowly reveal themselves.” The Ant in the Water Droplet: Locating the Mystery within Memory by Philip Graham