Serendipity

Essay sources
Bones of an essay. Photo credit Karen Kao

I started writing in high school. My metier then was parody of the sort that only a teenager could find funny. From parody, I went to poetry, from poetry to prose, from novel to short story to the personal essay. My road has been anything but straight.

Of course, not all my writerly moves have been random. I started this blog because someone told me I should. Who knew that I would love it? To feed my blog, I collect scraps of paper. A museum brochure. A newspaper clipping. Some old photographs. Then I wait until that magic moment when the bones of an essay emerge.

Memory

In 2011, I quit my law practice to write. I had plenty of ideas and arrogance, too. It eventually became clear to me that I needed an education. I needed to read. What better place to start than The New Yorkers lying about my house?

At the time, I didn’t know what to look for. All I wanted was to be surprised. By a pregnant image, a flash of insight, a chord of pure emotion. It didn’t matter whether those gems might be hidden in a poem, an essay or a short story. Even today, I can’t simply scan a page to discern the richness inside. I have to follow the author all the way down the rabbit hole to see what she’s buried inside.

Although, sometimes it’s obvious from the very first line. Listen to this beautiful introduction.

My wife, Carol, doesn’t know that President Obama won reëlection last Tuesday, carrying Ohio and Pennsylvania and Colorado, and compiling more than three hundred electoral votes. She doesn’t know anything about Hurricane Sandy. She doesn’t know that the San Francisco Giants won the World Series, in a sweep over the Tigers. 

Roger Angell, “Over the Wall” in The New Yorker, 19 Nov 2012

Roger Angell was, for many years, the New Yorker fiction editor. His wife Carol died in April. His loss was so palpable yet so elegantly described that I saved his personal essay. One passage in particular caught me in the throat.

Quite a lot of time has gone by since Carol died, and though I’ve forgotten many things about her, my fears about that are going away. There will always be enough of her for me to remember

8 years ago, I cut out that passage and hung it on my mood board. The page is now the color of chai.

Walking

The mood board originally adorned an office on the Keizersgracht, here in Amsterdam. I felt at the time that I needed a place to work. Some place to inspire me to roll out of bed, brush my teeth and get some writing done.

Those days, I was knee deep in a manuscript about the Song siblings: Anyi, the dancing girl, and her brother Kang, the counter revolutionary. Each day, I would write until I ran out of steam and then I walked. Sometimes, I would meander through the canals of Amsterdam, puzzling over my manuscript. How old Anyi was when her brother left for the United States? Was Kang older or younger than my grandfather when he made the same journey?

Walking essay
Cadzand. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Increasingly, my walks ended in bookstores. The New Yorker had whetted my taste. I bought a copy of Granta and then another. I found a third issue in a street library. Granta opened up a new constellation of authors. For example, Robert Macfarlane wrote of a treacherous path known as the Broomway. I’ve quoted him before and I probably will again. The opening paragraph of his essay is an irresistible invitation to read further.

Half a mile offshore, walking on silver water, we found a curved path that extended gracefully and without apparent end to our north and south […] whose invitation to follow we could not disobey, so we walked it northwards, along that glowing track made neither of water nor of land, which led us further and still further out to sea.

Robert Macfarlane, “Silt” in Granta Issue 119: Spring 2012

Looking back at these old essays, I’m struck by their tactility. The moths that flutter through Angell’s elegy to his wife. The brooms, stone and thread that once were a walker’s only hope of navigating the misty Broomway. I didn’t understand, back in 2012, how details work to ground a reader in a scene. All I could register was that I liked them a lot.

Bread

This week, I read a personal essay about bread baking. Serendipitously, the author is a former editor of both The New Yorker and Granta. Bill Buford describes a time when he and his family lived in Lyon, France and met the baker Bob.

Once, I asked Bob, “Which of your breads makes you the proudest?”
No hesitation. “My baguette.”
“Really? The French eat ten billion baguettes a year. Yours are so different?”
“No. But mine, sometimes, are what a baguette should be.”
Bob took one and brought it up to the side of my head and snapped it. The crack was thunderous.

Bill Buford, “Good Bread” in The New Yorker, 13 Apr 2020
Bread essay
My bread baking class. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Buford learns to form a baguette without leaving a fingerprint. To eat a baguette as his children do. Break it open, stick your nose inside, inhale, then smile.

What do these 3 works have in common? First, they moved me. It could be the context as in the Angell essay or the view as Macfarlane describes it. Every detail is as sharp as the razor Buford uses to score his loaves. I am present in each essay and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.

There are touchstones. I don’t mean Carol Angell or Bob the baker but a detail that is more than mere description. Carol seeded the beach with sea glass to delight visiting children. Macfarlane relies on a hand-drawn map to walk the Broomway. The secret ingredient in Bob’s baguettes is flour from the Auvergne marked only by its picture of a goat for who needs a label when you have a goat?

For an essay about death, none of these works is sad. The mood shades closer to acceptance, albeit tinged with regret, lit by a ray of hope. This is life, they seem to say.

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