Sometime around the middle of this month, I tossed a piece I’d been writing on and off for a while. That’s not something I generally do. Part of what I love about essays is the process of writing myself into—and then out of—a corner. Or to work with a slightly more claustrophobic image, since that’s mostly how it feels, writing my way out of a paper bag. The idea is to set up a problem and then solve it, whether it’s ideological, stylistic, or a matter of working through my own convoluted logic to figure out what I really wanted to say in the first place. But at some point I realized that this one—which had revolved loosely around issues of class and privilege among writers, among other things—had nowhere to go. Or rather, I had the sudden feeling that there was nothing I could say on those topics that hadn’t been said already, and better, by other people. It’s become a bit of a buzzword, the whole “check your privilege” reflex, but it’s also the source of some good and thoughtful writing. The more I wrote myself into that particular corner, the more derivative I felt I was getting. So I just chucked the whole thing—as my more polite Macbook would say, moved it to the trash.
Earlier this week, Flavorwire posted a great list titled 50 Essays Guaranteed to Make You a Better Person; great not just because I want to be a better person—who doesn’t?—but because it was a good bunch of essays to have in one place. I was of a mind to just post the link with minimal commentary, so that all Like Fire readers could have the opportunity to become better people too. But then the completist thing got a hold of me and I decided I should go the Full Better Person Monty and read them all myself first. I’d read a number of them already over the years, and figured they’d all round out to a good creative nonfiction experience.
OK, faithful Like Fire readers, who can remember the title of our very first post? I’ll tell you: it was called “Perfect is the Enemy of Good,” which is a concept I do constant, unwavering battle with. It was true five years ago, when I was dithering unreasonably with the CSS of this blog and finally just had to hit the “publish” button, and it’s true today. I got 11 essays in (although I’d already read Zadie Smith’s and Aleksandr Hemon’s, and one was a link to the entire collection, rather than an individual essay—Janet Malcolm’s Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers—which made me sad because I had been very much hoping for a freebie sample). And then I hit the 12th, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” and bogged down completely; the idea of writing about the series languished as I tried to pound my way through it several late nights in a row.
I’d never read Emerson, but I’ve long felt that I should. My literary education is snaggle-toothed, with all sorts of unexpected gaps, and I’m definitely not up on my Transcendentalists (except for Walt Whitman, if he is one—I can never remember). The Flavorwire commentary just rubbed it in:
[T]here’s a reason we all had to read this in high school. Emerson’s basic message is so elemental, so American, perhaps, but still worthwhile: “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” Self-reliance, self-trust, self-belief—these things can go a long way towards just about anyone’s personal betterment.
Clearly, I didn’t have to read it in high school. All the better reason to tackle it now. But it was slow, slow going. Not because of the quality of Emerson’s writing; it’s very good. But it’s dense, and—for me, anyway—doesn’t scan easily. Maybe if I read an entire collection of his, I’d get into some kind of groove. This one took some real labor on my part, obliterating hours when I could have been doing any number of other, more productive things. Although, in fact, it did turn out to be productive in an oblique way. I see why it’s assigned in high school; it’s pretty much what you’re already thinking when you’re 16, and therefore a good gateway to more difficult writing and a more pan-historical perspective. And if you weren’t thinking that way when you were 16… well, that’s a shame, but it’s never too late. There’s good stuff for any age, particularly if you’re pondering online writing in 2014:
My life is for itself and not for a spectacle. I much prefer that it should be of a lower strain, so it be genuine and equal, than that it should be glittering and unsteady. I wish it to be sound and sweet, and not to need diet and bleeding.
It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.
It turned out that there was a good takeaway for me here after all. What I ended up appreciating about Emerson wasn’t, ultimately, that he wrote so amazingly that it became the be-all and end-all on the subject. It was that he wrote about it well in 1841, and then Joan Didion did it well in 1968, and George Sanders did it well in his lovely commencement speech at Syracuse University in 2003 (all of which are linked to in Flavorwire’s collection). One of the pitfalls of having blogged for a long time, and finding yourself knee-deep now in hundreds of blogs interested in the same things you are, is that you start to doubt the value of your own take. Someone else with more time on their hands has already scooped the very topic you were so hot to discuss, or has found a far better cross-reference for the link you were about to post, and so on. You start to feel like an indistinct component of the greater babble—and really, what’s the point of that?
So it’s good to read Emerson’s thoughts from 175 years back and realize that they’re just as interesting, in their own right, as Didion’s or Saunders’s or anyone else’s in that 50-essay selection; that the voice matters just as much as the subject, just as much as the quality of the writing itself. And there’s always room for another voice. The trick for me is believing in the value of mine long enough to finish the damn essay, and only then sit back to worry about its jewel-like qualities (or lack of them). What’s been moved to the trash can be moved back. Because as Emerson counsels,
When good is near you, when you have life in yourself, it is not by any known or accustomed way; you shall not discern the foot-prints of any other; you shall not see the face of man; you shall not hear any name;—the way, the thought, the good, shall be wholly strange and new.