Cleansing the Palate

Last night, at a reading in Sausalito at the wonderful Why There Are Words series curated by Peg Alford Pursell, I ran into a former student.  We chatted during the break, and she told me that since taking my class, she’d applied for and been accepted to three MFA programs in creative writing.  This made me happy.  I asked what she was working on, and she mentioned writing flash fiction.

Flash fiction has always made me nervous.  Not because I don’t like it, but because it intimidates me.  Maybe it’s the word “flash,” which makes me think of Flash Gordon, which makes me think of comic books, which makes me think about how in fifth grade I liked only the corny ones, featuring Archie and Veronica and Betty.  Maybe “intimidates” is the wrong word.  Maybe my resistance to the term “flash fiction” is that I write long, I write wordy, I write (too much) back story.  The thought of getting in and out that fast—well, I don’t do it.  I’d love to write a 100-word story, but I think of it as an exercise more than an end in itself.  More reason to try, I know.   Maybe I’ll surprise myself, but I feel about short-shorts the way I regard the luge—Wow!, but not for me.

This former student writes long, too, she said, and does the short, 100-word pieces as palate cleansers.  We talked some more and then said good-bye.  I’ve been thinking about palate cleansing ever since.  Sorbets.  Light, slightly astringent, neutralizing.  Another metaphor might be cross-training: writing a short-short as balance, or complement, to working on the marathon of a longer work such as a novel.

Then, this morning, I found the latest PW (as in Publishers Weekly) Tip Sheet in my in-box.  Usually, after glancing at the subject line, I move these to Trash.  This morning, though, I clicked open The Top Ten Essays Since 1950.

Personal essays are my palate cleansers.  I have loved the form since discovering the essays of Mary Cantwell in Mademoiselle back in the days when women’s mags published literary writing.  Since then, I’ve written plenty of my own.  They’ve impressed, wowed, stunned, and knocked me out—but they’ve never seemed foreign, never out of my skill set.

I’m not suggesting that I do them as well as the names on Top Ten Since 1950 list do—far from it.  Just that I keep trying.  I haven’t been on skis in, well, I can’t remember how long.  Give me a cup of cocoa; I’ll wait for you by the fire, as I re-read the ten essays listed.  Yes, “sorbet” sounds too light, too melting-on-the-tongue, too much water content for the meat in these pieces.  But there’s someone refreshing and, yes, cleansing about reading a good essay.  The best of them are explorations, soundings – as the original French verb essayer (to try, to attempt) suggests.  My former student referred to writing short, but I find reading short (nonfiction) leaves me with a welcome tartness, a sharpening of the senses, a lively jolt.

Here are the top 10 since 1950, chosen by Robert Atwan (editor of the Best American Essays series).  No surprises, but all worth looking at again and again.  Read more about why Atwan chose what he chose here.

James Baldwin, “Notes of a Native Son” (1955)
Norman Mailer, “ The White Negro” (1957)
Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp’” (1964)
John McPhee, “The Search for Marvin Gardens” (1972)
Joan Didion, “The White Album” (1979)
Annie Dillard, “Total Eclipse” (1982)
Phillip Lopate, “Against Joie de Vivre” (1986)
Edward Hoagland, “Heaven and Nature” (1988)
Jo Ann Beard, “The Fourth State of Matter” (1996)
David Foster Wallace, “Consider the Lobster” (2004)

What about you?  What refreshes you, as a writer and a reader?  When immersed in a longer work, do you dip into something shorter from time to time?

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