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The Best American Essays 2001 (The Best American Series)

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9780618049318: The Best American Essays 2001 (The Best American Series)
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This year’s Best American Essays is edited by the best-selling, award-winning writer Kathleen Norris, whose books include Dakota andThe Virgin of Bennington. “The writers in this volume invite us into hidden places: a surgical pathologist’s laboratory, the boxing gym where a college professor and his student learn unexpected lessons about discipline, pain, and growing to adulthood. There are many discoveries to be made here, and I gladly invite the reader to an uncommonly rich and rewarding book.” — Kathleen Norris

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About the Author:
Kathleen Norris is the author of two books of poetry, Falling Off (1971) and The Middle of the World (1981) and has received awards from the Guggenheim and Bush foundations. She lives in Lemmon, South Dakota, with her husband.
Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Foreword

While teaching college writing courses years ago, I remember hearing
a syllogism that may, it strikes me now, help explain the enormous
popularity of the personal memoir. It went something like this: "You
write best when you write about what you know; what you know best is
yourself; therefore, you write best when you write about yourself."
As a syllogism, this seemed valid: the conclusion followed logically
from its premises, no? So why didn"t I then receive better essays
when I assigned personal topics?
As anyone can see, the conclusion rests on dubious
assumptions. The premises sound reasonable, but they raise some
fundamental questions. Do people really write best about the subjects
they know best? We see evidence all the time of experts not being
able to communicate the basic concepts of their professions, which
explains why so many technical books are written by both an expert
and a writer. There are brilliant academics so committed to their
vast research that they can"t bear to part with any detail and thus
clog up their sentences with an excess of information. If a little
knowledge is a dangerous thing, too much can sometimes be an
impediment to clear and robust expression. The Shakespeareans do not
always write the best books on Shakespeare.
And can we also safely conclude that we know ourselves best
of all? If so, then why do so many of us spend so much time in
psychotherapy or counseling sessions? Surely, the pursuit of the
self -- especially the "hidden" self -- has been a major twentieth-
century industry. Self-knowledge, of course, confronts us with
another logical problem: how can the self be at the same time the
knower and the known? That"s why biographies can be so much more
revealing than autobiographies. As Dostoyevsky said in his Notes from
Underground: "A true autobiography is almost an impossibility . . .
man is bound to lie about himself."
Yet the illusion that we do know ourselves best must serve as
both comfort and inspiration to the new wave of memoirists who seem
to write with one finger glued to the shift key and another to the
letter I, which on the keyboard looks nothing like it does on the
page, thus appropriately symbolizing the relationship between that
character and the "self" it presumes to represent. Today"s writers"
market is flooded with autobiography -- now more likely to be
labeled "memoir" in the singular, as though the more fashionable
literary label promises something grander. Memoirs (the term was
almost always used in the plural) were customarily written by public
figures who recorded their participation in historical events and
their encounters with other prominent individuals. General Ulysses S.
Grant"s two-volume Personal Memoirs (1885-86) were bestsellers. The
old memoirs were penned by well-established individuals in the
twilight of their careers; the new memoir is frequently the work of
an emerging writer aspiring to be well established.
The memoir is easily abused by those who feel that the genre
automatically confers upon the author some sort of importance. It"s
only natural, isn"t it, to be the heroes or heroines of our own
lives? And as the main protagonists how can we resist the impulse to
occupy center stage and not consider ourselves gifted with greater
sensitivity, finer values, higher moral authority, and especially
keener powers of recollection than any member of our supporting cast
of characters? The most interesting autobiography ever conceived, I
think, must be Mark Twain"s. Partially written, partially dictated,
never published in its entirety, and never according to his
intentions, in many ways a colossal failure of a book, Twain"s
autobiography grappled with every psychological and compositional
difficulty characteristic of the genre. Twain knew how easy it was to
exhibit ourselves in "creditable attitudes exclusively" and tried to
display himself as honestly as he could. It was a noble experiment,
but it proved impossible: "I have been dictating this autobiography
of mine," he wrote, "for three months; I have thought of fifteen
hundred or two thousand incidents in my life which I am ashamed of
but I have not gotten one of them to consent to go on paper yet."
To say that memoir, autobiography, and the personal essay can
be easily abused is not to disparage these vigorous genres. The
democratization of the memoir has resulted in many wonderful books,
not a few crafted by young or relatively young writers. I remember
being in a Greenwich Village bookstore in 1976 with a friend who was
struck by the arrogance of Paul Zweig"s newly published Three
Journeys: "Autobiography -- hell, the guy"s not even forty!" I
remember chuckling at that remark and later agreeing that an
autobiography composed in one"s mid-thirties perhaps was, as
Christopher Lasch argued shortly afterward, a prime example of what
he memorably called The Culture of Narcissism. Yet I would feel
terrible about my response only a few years later when I learned that
Zweig had been diagnosed with a nasty form of lymphoma. He would die
at forty-nine, struggling to complete a second series of memoirs,
Departures (1986); its conclusion remains one of the most compelling
and illuminating essays I"ve ever read about someone"s final days.
What prevents personal writing from deteriorating into
narcissism and self-absorption? This is a question anyone setting out
to write personally must face sooner or later. I"d say it requires a
healthy regimen of self-skepticism and a respect for uncertainty.
Though the first-person singular may abound, it"s a richly complex
and mutable I, never one that designates a reliably known entity. One
might ultimately discover, as does Diane Ackerman in the intricately
textured essay that opens this collection, "a community of previous
selves." In some of the best memoirs and personal essays, the writers
are mysteries to themselves and the work evolves into an enactment of
surprise and self-discovery. The "strange thing about knowledge,"
William T. Vollmann says in the essay that closes the collection, "is
that the more one knows, the more one must qualify perceived
certainties, until everything oozes back into unfamiliarity."
Surprise is what keeps "life writing" live writing. And, finally, as
Kathleen Norris aptly observes in her introduction, there must be
what she calls resonance -- a deep and vibrant connection with an
audience. The mysterious I converses with an equally mysterious I.

The Best American Essays features a selection of the year"s
outstanding essays, essays of literary achievement that show an
awareness of craft and forcefulness of thought. Hundreds of essays
are gathered annually from a wide variety of national and regional
publications. These essays are then screened, and approximately one
hundred are turned over to a distinguished author, who may add a few
personal discoveries and who makes the final selections.
To qualify for selection, the essays must be works of
respectable literary quality, intended as fully developed,
independent essays on subjects of general interest (not specialized
scholarship), originally written in English (or translated by the
author) for publication in an American periodical during the calendar
year. Periodicals that want to be sure their contributors will be
considered each year should include the series on their complimentary
subscription list (Robert Atwan, Series Editor, The Best American
Essays, P.O. Box 220, Readville, MA 02137).
I would like to dedicate this sixteenth volume in the series
to the memory of Charles Frederick Main (1921-2000), a marvelous
teacher, Renaissance scholar, and warm and generous man. As always, I
appreciate the enormous help I receive from the people at Houghton
Mifflin, especially Janet Silver, Eric Chinski, Larry Cooper, and
Erin Edmison. It was a great pleasure this year to work with Kathleen
Norris, whose prose and poetry I"ve admired ever since I began this
series in 1985. In fact, hers was one of the first essays I
encountered back then. It appeared in The North Dakota Quarterly and
later grew into her wonderful book Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. In
1985 my publishers and I weren"t sure we"d find enough genuine essays
in a given year to issue an annual volume. Coming early on, her essay
convinced us that the series was indeed possible. In subsequent
essays and books, Kathleen Norris has subtly and patiently explored
the dynamic relations between our participation in communities and
(to borrow an outdated expression from the Dominican nuns who taught
me as a child) our "inner resources." That theme and its variations
can be discovered at play throughout her splendid collection.
R.A.
Introduction:
Stories Around a Fire

Writing is done in solitude, and without much hope of gaining worldly
fortune. But the culture of celebrity that permeates American life on
the cusp of the twenty-first century has in the last decade trickled
down so that even lowly writers can indulge in the illusion that, at
least while we are promoting a book, we are somebody. The first time
I landed at an airport on a book tour, I assumed that the person
greeting me at the gate was a volunteer or an employee of the store
where I was to read that night. When I said it was kind of her to
offer to carry my garment bag, she insisted, "But this is my job." I
had encountered my first "author schlepper," known to the trade as
a "media" or "literary" escort, to distinguish them from the other
kind. As we made our way to her car, I stood a bit taller. I had a
handler; I had arrived.
A few years later, I spent three days in San Francisco with
an escort whose previous employment had been in public television,
and during traffic jams we sang songs from The Muppet Show. She knew
all the words; I did the best I could. The book I was promoting was
about the two years that my husband had spent living on the grounds
of a Benedictine monastery in Minnesota, and was full of stories
about discoveries I had made: the fact that monks have a unique, home-
grown sense of humor, that celibate people can make good friends,
developing a remarkable capacity for listening, and that their wise
understanding of human relations had helped me to better understand
and appreciate my own marriage. I would not have thought this was
bestseller material, but people were buying the book, and I was glad
to read from it in stores. Sharing the stories made the people come
alive for me again -- the elderly monks in the monastery nursing home
who were an inspiration, and the beleaguered young nuns who bravely
struggled with the uncomfortable emotions raised by the cursing
psalms.
On our last day together, my escort said to me, "I think I
get it. You"re a real writer." Surprised, I asked her what she
meant. "I mean," she replied, "you didn"t write a book in order to
get a radio talk show." Her experience to date in the Book Biz had
been with self-proclaimed counselors and spiritual gurus who regarded
their books as steppingstones to greater things. And the escort
quickly realized that she was merely one of the "little people" they
would use and discard on their climb to the top. Authors screamed at
her over trivial matters; one writer of a book on relationships
banished her from a bookstore because she was "giving off negative
energy," and then appeared a few minutes later preening and smiling
before the audience, a model of calm assurance. A psychic phoned her
at 3 a.m. to see how many copies of her book were in the stores they
were to visit the next day. Because she wanted to keep her job, the
woman did not respond by saying that if she were truly a psychic, she
would already know.
It is safe to say that none of the writers in this book are
struggling to put words on paper because they want a radio talk show
or a syndicated column in the daily newspaper. They don"t want
anything at all other than to tell a story, to explore an idea or
situation through the act of writing. Unable to escape the sense that
this story must be told, the writer of literature more or less
reluctantly concludes, I am the person who must tell it. Or try to
tell it. An essay, after all, is merely an attempt. It has no
presumption of success and no ulterior or utilitarian purpose, which
makes it unique, a welcome open space in the crowded, busy landscape
of American life. A place to relax and take a breather.
Human storytelling was once all breath, the sacred act of
telling family stories and tribal histories around a fire. Now a
writer must attempt to breathe life into the words on a page, in the
hope that the reader will discover something that resonates with his
or her own experience. A genuine essay feels less like a monologue
than a dialogue between writer and reader. This is a story I need, we
conclude after reading the opening paragraph. It will tell me
something about the world that I didn"t know before, something I
sensed but could not articulate.
An essay that is doing its job feels right. And resonance is
the key. To be resonant, the dictionary informs us, is to be "strong
and deep in tone, resounding." And to resound means to be filled to
the depth with a sound that is sent back to its source. An essay that
works is similar; it gives back to the reader a thought, a memory, an
emotion made richer by the experience of another. Such an essay may
confirm the reader"s sense of things, or it may contradict it. But
always, and in glorious, mysterious ways that the author cannot
control, it begins to belong to the reader.
And the reader finds that what might have been the author"s
self-absorption has been transformed into hospitality. Detail that
could seem merely personal and trivial instead becomes essential and
personal in the truest, deepest sense, as it inspires us to take in
this story, recognizing in it something greater than the sum of its
parts. It is our story too, the human story of work and rest, love
and loneliness, grief and joy. In the essays in this book we are
invited to take time to notice how the world goes on, and how often
it is the simple things -- a student"s letter, the memory of a first
job, the markings left in a library book, an old friend"s recipe for
yellow pepper soup, or a glimpse of night sky -- that allow us to
dwell on the issues of life and death that concern us all.
Kathleen Norris

The Best
AMERICAN
ESSAYS
2001

Copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company
Introduction copyright 2001 by Kathleen Norris
All rights reserved

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