MY POOR ELEPHANT:
27 MALE WRITERS AT WORK.
Edited by Eve Shelnutt.
416 pages. $21.95. I wasn't quite certain what I'd be reading while flipping through the essays in "My Poor Elephant: 27 Male Writers at Work." Would these selections by notable writers such as Lee K. Abbott, Madison Smartt Bell, Fred Chappell, Jack Matthews and Reginald McKnight be literary essays discussing influences and evolution of craft? Or were the essays philosophical reflections on the why of writing rather than the how? Maybe the pieces were autobiographical in nature, along the lines of Eudora Welty's memoir "One Writer's Beginnings"?
In intent and form, the essays are all of the above -- a hybrid of memoir, literary essay and meditation. The strongest ones vividly capture the confluence of forces shaping the writer and his writing. Even the less successful essays (which suffer from a lack of focus, balance and continuity) are insightful and revealing.
Is there anything distinctively male about the experience of writing as evident in the essays? I'd argue no. In fact, the route traveled by all the writers is similar to the one laid out by Ms. Welty in her memoir: listening, learning to see and finding a voice. Listening to the family stories of parents and grandparents seems to have sparked many of the contributors' interest in reading and writing. Their writing developed from being simply an internally driven need for self-expression, consolation and escape to becoming a consciously crafted art -- whether poem, story, essay or novel -- aimed at connection and communication.
Lee K. Abbott's "The True Story of Why I Do What I Do" stands out because of the confidence and charming bravado of his voice and his energetic storytelling ability. He begins by stating his agreement with Willa Cather's tenet that the "basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen" (there are 27 pieces of proof in this collection). With humor and compassion, he writes about his crazed father, his drunken mother and how he grew up with a sense of the precariousness of life and with a need for the sanctuary of the imagination.
From early childhood, Madison Smartt Bell -- the writer-in-residence at Goucher College -- was spellbound by the incantatory magical power of words and stories. In "One Art," he recalls with affection his parents and his rather idyllic childhood on a farm in Tennessee. The combination of geography, illness and temperament made him feel isolated, and he turned to books for company, comfort and entry to "a world that was magic."
Fiction was not an escape for him but a ground for learning about the world and himself, as he writes, "from learning to read . . . I first learned to reflect. In bouncing off the books, I got some sense of who I was, or might be." At the age of 15, he wrote his first short story titled "Triptych" -- the collage of seeming discrete narrative lines is one of the great strengths of Mr. Bell's fiction, and indeed, this essay. Not only does that technique re-create for the reader the process that formed him as a writer, but reinforces his contention that "to believe in the unity of truth, I must also believe that everything is potentially revealed in any part."
In "First Attempt," Fred Chappell gently and humorously mocks his youthful fantasy of being a writer. He writes, "I knew what I would like to look like as a writer . . . being an enormously successful writer, my wardrobe would include detective trench coats, suave tuxedos, spotless laboratory tunics . . . these would be the togs in which I gathered the raw materials for my writing." Soon enough, Mr. Chappell, author of many books of poetry and fiction, learned it was not quite so easy to separate the writing life from daily life, and that for the serious writer, they were one and the same. "The work is the life. One of the grand things about writing is that it never stops; the writer is not always sitting at his desk, but he is always writing. This fact also marks one of the most wearing things about the discipline, that there is no escape from it. The writer is sentenced to a lifetime of observation, of analysis, of emotional rigours; he is sentenced to a lifetime of sentences."
And from the testimony of these essays, none of the writers would want it any other way.
Ms. Posesorski is a writer living in Toronto.