Expansion, Contraction, and Time
I love that the term “essay” means “an attempt.” In the case of “Notes on Gastropoda,” my attempt was to take a subject many find repellent make it beautiful.
My subject came about just as described in the piece: one afternoon (a Sunday), late summer/early autumn, as I worded in my garden. I was surprised to witness two slugs doing anything more than slinking beneath a leaf or stone and struck by their slowness and sensuality, and by my changing perception, from seeing the slugs as pests to seeing them as lovely.
When I think of the essay process, words like expansion, contraction, and time come to mind. After recording the event in my journal (I keep a journal intermittently—some writing I build on, a lot of it just languishes), I hit the library and Internet, which led to reading about morphology and anatomy, the use of slugs as experimental models in memory research, and the history of biological taxonomy. I also did a fair bit of associative writing. Ultimately, I had far more material than what I would end up including. My earlier drafts were four or five times the length of this one, and while they contained ideas and language I was attached to, those drafts tried to be about too much and lacked focus.
So I did what I often do—what I should accept as an important part of my process—and I put the drafts away for a long time, close to a year.
Eventually, there was a workshop I wanted to apply to, and I decided to use some of “the slug essay” for a writing sample. But my sample could only be two pages; I had to pare it down.
Through that forced culling, from eight or ten pages to two, I had to focus on what was most important. I knew I wanted to mirror the “slugness” of the subject with “humanness” of the narrator. I also knew I wanted to stay with a “Notes on __” structure, as it worked as a way to integrate research and observation with reflection, and because it connects to the tradition of naturalists. I turned in my two pages to the workshop still feeling like what I’d given the group was an excerpt of something bigger, and was surprised to find that many of my readers felt the 2-page version was more or less complete.
I continued to revise, moving sections around and adding or clarifying language, but what I kept or added was in service to a tighter focus: a parallel between simple and complex species, division in terms of taxonomy, divisions of labor, and the inherent separateness between individuals, and ideas about interpretation and intuition. I have a writing group—three wonderful readers—and their feedback helped keep in check the included details and ideas—that everything belonged.
I am still surprised to find some of the original sections gone—yes, Mark Twain’s call to “kill your darlings” certainly came into play here. Maybe those jettisoned words from early drafts will eventually make their way into other essays. Regardless, they informed the words that do remain here. Every word in this final draft is a direct result of those earliest, protracted pages. Like a garden, I suppose, in which everything that leafs and blooms is dependent on something else that has already had its time or otherwise goes unseen.