Rambling As An Art Form
By Richard LeBlond
Aldous Huxley said "the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything." That statement is so broad it becomes the opposite of a definition.
Wikipedia’s definition is more useful: “Formal essays are characterized by ‘serious purpose, dignity, logical organization, length,’ whereas the informal essay is characterized by ‘the personal element (self-revelation, individual tastes and experiences, confidential manner), humor, graceful style, rambling structure, unconventionality or novelty of theme.’” The quotes are from William Holman’s A Handbook to Literature (9th ed.) (Prentice Hall, 2003).
The formal essay may be the source of PTSD for some high school seniors who must write one for their college applications. By comparison, the informal essay appears to be almost pleasurable. I am an informal essayist and can confirm that at times it is almost pleasurable.
In college, I wanted to be a novelist and changed my major from journalism to English literature. I then spent the next 40 years avoiding coming to terms with what was the biggest disappointment in my life. I became an administrator in the National Park Service, then a citizen at large in dangerous countries, an environmental administrator, a bookkeeper, an editor. I finally settled on a career as a biologist for a state natural heritage program.
Shortly before I retired in 2007, I decided I would try to do something with the stories I had been collecting since childhood. I had thought they would be the genesis and content of my novels. But after 40 years I finally accepted that I am incapable of being a novelist because – and this was a stark realization – I have almost no imagination. My inspiration comes from observation. I sit at the back of the literary bus, behind the poets and fictionistas, writing essays. Telling stories from memory rather than from imagination is as close as I can get to the novel.
The two essays in issue 11 of Split Rock Review are from my life on Cape Cod in the 1980s, and that is when they were first drafted. I thought they were ok back then, but I did not hold them in high regard. They were, after all, just essays and not the novels I was supposed to be writing. But after accepting my limitations, I realized I can now shamelessly tell my stories as they had originally unfolded, embellished only by the tatters of memory.
Yes, you can smell the exhaust fumes in the back of the bus, but the view out the window is still good, and I am rambling with impunity.