In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Chris Arthur
Your essay “Listening to the Music of a Vulture’s Egg” from Volume 23 takes the reader on a philosophical journey through time and space, and it begins with this griffon vulture’s egg that you bought as a child. Starting an essay from unlikely objects seems to be a trend in your writing, and then you take a reader through a meandering process of exploration, and to me this feels so vulnerable for a writer to do. Do you ever feel overexposed in presenting such an intimate portrait of your interiority?
You’re right about unlikely objects being a trend in my writing. I’m fascinated by the way they can provide the impetus for an essay. Before I started to explore this genre, I never realized how many things are poised to spring ambushes, luring the essayist into astonishing mazes of meaning, memory, and association. Essays help attune the ear to the music of things. But I’m still startled – and delighted – by the sheer unexpectedness of the connections that proliferate once I start to really listen to the notes that sound in the objects that happen to catch my attention. The vulture’s egg was precisely one such object.
Do I ever feel overexposed in presenting such an intimate portrait of my interiority? I’m often surprised that I don’t feel more inhibited by the risk of this. I’m a private sort of person. The idea of writing as undressing in public doesn’t appeal to me at all; I certainly don’t set out to reveal my innermost thoughts and feelings on the page. But I go where the writing takes me. I guess focusing on objects makes it feel more as if I’m unravelling their secrets than mine. Clearly, though, in choosing objects, I tend to select those that are in some way implicated in my life, so when I delve into them, I also reveal aspects of myself. But the magic of the object is paramount. It lures me into following threads and connections that I might shy away from if I approached them directly.
As for vulnerability, a measure of this is a useful quality in a writer. You need to be open to things, to let them touch you, if you want to chronicle their nature. That can sometimes be painful, but I think it’s preferable to cultivating some kind of armour-plated indifference, or staying always at the superficial level of common-sense and routine description.
The way unlikely objects spark my essays is something I’ve touched on in two of the short pieces I’ve done for the Royal Literary Fund: a talk for their “Writers Aloud” series, entitled “Confessions of an Odd-Object Essayist”, and a film about a Japanese temple bell, recorded for their “The Writer’s Talisman” series.
There’s a line in your essay that always sticks out to me: “The slow wave of time’s tsunami, surging from beginning to end, is of course impossible to picture.” Time feels like such an essential component to this essay. Can you tell us a little bit about your process for writing this piece and how you tracked time in the narrative?
Yes, time is certainly central to this piece. I think part of the reason that objects have such an impact is because they often seem like frozen nodes of time. They reach our present still redolent of the past that birthed them, they bring aspects of their time into ours. The vulture’s egg not only took me back to the moment when my twelve-year-old self bought it, but to the moment when the egg was laid. And thinking about this specific object’s provenance and the journey that it’s made also nudged me far further downstream in the rivulet of time it occupies – thinking about time in terms of the evolution of a species rather than just the brief lifetimes of individuals. The bone flute and The Tibetan Book of the Dead were also suggestive of temporal perspectives that dwarf the lifespan of any single person.
You ask about tracking time in the narrative. It’s more a case of trying to make clear the depths of time that underlie the shallows of our everyday experience, showing that the trackings of memory and history, however gripping they may be, are only a kind of superficial lacework laid over something that can’t be caught in their calibrations.
As for the process of writing this piece, “process” sounds a bit too organized and planned. Like every essay, it starts with a chaotic jumble of ideas, impressions, and images. I slowly refine these through multiple drafts into the finished piece.
What is the “aha moment” for you in an essay, that moment when you know that you’ve spiraled enough to finally glean some connecting point to bring the essay’s meaning to its fruition? How long do you let yourself spiral until you either give up or continue to press forward?
I don’t think I follow any pattern that’s as regular and predictable as a spiral. Things unfold in a more erratic and less tidy way. But the key moment in terms of recognizing that a piece is viable, that it’s worth persisting with and bringing to completion, comes when it ambushes me with insights I hadn’t been expecting.
To explain what I mean by this, let me refer to a comment by the great Lydia Fakundiny. When she died in 2013, the world of the essay lost one of its keenest minds. She was perhaps the closest thing I’ve had to a mentor. I still miss the in-depth correspondence we exchanged. Lydia taught a course on the essay at Cornell and edited a brilliant anthology called The Art of the Essay. I can’t remember how we first came into contact, but it led to a whole series of emails. I valued her comments enormously. She was one of the most perceptive readers my essays have had. She once said: “If an essay doesn’t at some point surprise the writer, it probably isn’t worth writing.” I agree with that. It’s when a piece surprises me that I know I’ve found a thread worth following. So, I guess that’s my “aha moment.” If there are no surprises, I’m probably writing an article rather than an essay, or it may be one of those frustrating dead-ends that I occasionally get into where, despite initial promise, a piece just doesn’t gel. Then the best thing to do is abandon it, hopefully without having lost too much time trying to push forward.
This issue was birthed during this pandemic, and the political and social unrest that’s been spilling over on the streets in cities all over. It feels like day after day we witness more violence and division, and we felt that the title “hunger for tiny things” took on a multi-faceted poignance for this issue. I’m curious—what tiny things do you hunger for these days?
Like millions of ordinary citizens, I find the routine mendaciousness of so many areas of public life dispiriting, and the ready resort to violence concerning. Politics seems often now to be little more than a squalid scramble for sectarian advantage, profit or self-aggrandisement. Humane ideals, a sense of duty, honesty, respect for evidence, valuing education and expertise – all seem in woefully short supply in our 21st century technopoly (to borrow a phrase from Neil Postman). It’s hard to know what to do in the face of this, and easy to become disheartened. When I heard the phrase “hunger for tiny things” it made me think first about all the ordinary routines and experiences that I miss in these days of pandemic lockdown – coffee with friends, a hug, a kiss, going on holiday. But the tiny thing I hunger for most is in fact massive – it would amount to a sea change – but it can only happen through countless, small-scale individual actions. I’m thinking of an embracing (or reembracing?) of basic decency and truthfulness, being kind to and respectful of each other, recognizing that education is a more worthwhile goal than profit, and that caring for the environment is everyone’s responsibility.
Writers tend to write what haunts or obsesses them. What are some themes/topics that are important to your writing, or tend to show up a lot in your work?
When I’m writing an essay, I don’t think in terms of themes or topics. I’m just trying to get whatever’s in the mind – whatever sparked the essay – into as satisfactory a form as I can manage on the page. Each essay starts anew and doesn’t follow any pre-set pattern. It just unfolds according to whatever fits the particularities of its composition, as this addresses the ideas/feelings that brought it into being. The independence and unplanned nature of each piece notwithstanding, I think it’s fair to say that, overall, my essays are variations on the theme of highlighting the extraordinary nature of the (apparently) ordinary. In writing them I’m trying to see beneath the skin of the quotidian, the language of routine naming and assumption – our everyday diction – which tends to settle on things like a veil, stopping us from seeing their incredible real nature.
The nineteenth century Scottish essayist Alexander Smith said “The world is everywhere whispering essays and one need only be the world’s amanuensis.” I agree with Smith that there are openings into essays all around us. But his use of the word “amanuensis” makes it sound as if essay writing is just a simple process of taking down dictation. First, you’ve got to hear the world’s whispering – and that’s harder than it sounds. There’s always plenty of distraction and of course it’s easier to lapse into conventional labelling and description rather than portraying things with the kind of depth and detail that hints at the incredible cargoes they carry.
In writing essays, a large part of my motivation lies in a desire to try to scrape away the dust of impoverishment from my vision and to see the astonishing richness of our experience. You don’t need to travel to exotic places or look for fantastical objects in order to appreciate this richness. All of the ordinary things around us are imbued with it. It’s just (just!) a matter of being alert to it, of not letting routine dull our perception. An observation of Mary Oliver’s sums up what I think of as my essayist’s credo: “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” So maybe that – paying attention – is another underlying theme in my work.
What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work, now or in the past? Is there one book or writer that you would say has been most influential in your work?
I agree with Mary Oliver that “To write well, it is entirely necessary to read widely and deeply.” Fortunately, I enjoy reading, so it’s a pleasure rather than a chore to keep on doing it. I must have drawn inspiration from scores of writers over the years, both ancient and contemporary, and across many genres. J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine stands out as a book I keep going back to, but I wouldn’t want to nominate any single book or author as “most influential.” I mean, in a list that would include Thucydides, Montaigne, William Golding, Seamus Heaney, Barry Lopez, Mary Oliver, Pierre Ryckmans, and lots more brilliant writers, how could I possibly choose?
The Best American Essays series, edited by Robert Atwan and with a different guest editor each year, is a treasure trove of good writing. I’ve derived a great deal of pleasure – and instruction – from these anthologies, which have been published every year since 1986. The appearance of a new volume is a highpoint in my reading year.
My fascination with haiku poetry also means that Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) and the other great practitioners of this form provide an important touchstone. I find myself repeatedly drawn back to this minimalist verse form. I first encountered it in my teens via one of those lucky accidents that secondhand bookshops are so good at engineering. The fact that the first volume of R.H. Blyth’s Haiku in Four Volumes, published in Tokyo in 1947, happened to be on the shelves of that particular bookshop on that particular day in 1972 seemed improbable. It was in an area of Belfast more noted for ugly sectarianism than an appreciation of Japanese literature, still less the Zen aesthetic in which this literary form is steeped. I’ve often thought there must have been an interesting story behind this battered volume’s journey. In the several decades since buying it, reading, composing, and occasionally publishing haiku has become part of my writing life. R.H. Blyth’s monumental – and monumentally eccentric – work has become well thumbed. The three other volumes were acquired along the way. I refer to haiku in the introductions to several of my books, using them as points of reference to cast light on what my essays do. My third collection even embedded the name in its title – Irish Haiku – a choice I sometimes now regret given how often the book is mis-shelved under Irish poetry (though there are worse things to be mis-shelved under!). Despite their obvious dissimilarities, haiku and essays share considerable common ground. Their modus operandi is different, but both are sparked by a desire to express as accurately as possible what falls on the fabric of their writers’ consciousness. They’re both concerned with seeing clearly what’s there and putting it into words as precisely as possible. Although they often start from something seen, haiku, like essays, are more about insight and realization – how a moment falls upon the mind, how extraordinary it is – rather than its purely visual components. Both forms foster a sense of wonderment at the familiar. I’ve always liked Graham Good’s assertion that “Anyone who can look attentively, think freely, and write clearly can be an essayist.” I think the same thing holds for haiku writing. Of course, Good’s prescription is easier to state that to put into practice. Looking attentively demands an alertness to the moment as it lays its presence upon us. This kind of looking occupies the same cognitive bandwidth as Mary Oliver’s paying attention. It’s a fundamental prerequisite of essays and haiku.
I’m also intrigued by the great Japanese artist Hokusai’s two series, Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji and One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji. The latter is less well-known because it appeared in book form rather than as separate prints, and because it was in black and white not colour – but it’s no less brilliant. In all these scenes Hokusai explores his chosen idée fixe. The way in which Mount Fuji features so variously in so much of his work fascinates me. It underscores a simple but often under-emphasized truth that I think is encountered in essay writing too. Namely that there’s a richness in the familiar scenes around us, the things we think we know. If we keep looking at them attentively, they can appear in unexpected guises, suggest new avenues of meaning to explore. Whether it’s a majestic mountain or a vulture’s egg, there are extraordinary dimensions in the things that meet our gaze. No single account can come close to doing them justice; repeated framings can only hint at their fecundity. In my fourth collection, Irish Elegies, I was pleased to include an essay entitled “Thirty-six Views, None of Mount Fuji”. Inspired by his multiple takes on Mount Fuji, I attempted thirty-six views – in words – of a place in Ireland as close to my heart as Japan’s sacred mountain was to his. My essay in Vol.23 could easily be recast and expanded as “One Hundred Views of a Vulture’s Egg.”
What craft element challenges you the most in your writing? How do you approach it? You have such a prolific writing career; has this challenge changed over your career progression, and if so, how have you approached it differently?
What challenges me most is what I assume challenges all writers – how to put ideas and feelings into words. Flaubert once confessed to feeling “like a violinist whose ear is true, but whose fingers refuse to reproduce precisely the sound he hears within.” I’d be suspicious of any writer who couldn’t identify with that. I know all too well how horribly off-key my writing is in early drafts. It offers only the roughest approximation of the music that I want to play. After multiple re-writings I can approximate more closely to the notes I’m struggling to put into words. Then sometimes – those Eureka moments – what’s in mind and what’s on the page sing in harmony; they dovetail so precisely you can almost hear them click together. When that happens, it carries an extraordinary sense of completion and accomplishment. So I guess the “craft element” that challenges me is trying to ensure this dove-tailing happens as often as I manage it – and I don’t think that’s really changed over the course of my writing career – it’s always the same essential business of getting thoughts and feelings into words as precisely as possible.
I often bring to mind the advice given by Basho: “Let not a hair’s breadth separate your mind from what you write.” In writing essays I’m trying for as close a fit as possible between words on the page and what’s in my mind and heart, trying (and of course failing) to push the hair’s breadth closed.
What projects are you working on right now?
In terms of book-length projects, I’ve got two things nearing completion. One is what I hope will become my 8th essay collection, which I’ll probably call Hidden Cargoes. The other – provisionally entitled Pages from the Vivisection of a Journey – is a kind of essayistic commentary and meditation on a bus journey that I’ve made hundreds of times. I’d like to think that by this time next year I might have secured publishers for both these manuscripts – but of course placing books in the shadow of a global pandemic makes the whole process even more uncertain than usual.
Although less well advanced, I also have plans for a book of haiku. I’m not sure yet what form this will take, possibly an illustrated book of bird haiku. A recent essay in the Scottish journal Northwords Now – “Zen and the Art of Catching Birds in Words”, which is accompanied by Vawdrey Taylor’s wonderful artwork – was a tentative try at some of what I might include in such a book. [Editor’s note: In order to view Taylor’s accompanying artwork, please see this pdf version, with permission from Chris Arthur.]
Books apart, I always have a cluster of smaller-scale things sitting on my desk. As one of their Fellows, I contribute now and then to the “Showcase” section of the Royal Literary Fund’s website. I sometimes take on commissions for single pieces if the subject interests me – recent examples would be an essay for World Literature Today’s climate change issue, and a short think-piece on what we’ve learned from the pandemic for Media Development. And I pretty much always have an essay that I’m working on. At the moment it’s one about the very different ways a photograph of a street in my hometown in Ireland can be read. I rarely write book reviews any more, but I thought a volume edited by Thomas Karshan and Kathryn Murphy might be interesting, so I’m reading On Essays: From Montaigne to the Present (OUP, 2020), and will soon be writing my assessment of it.
Chris Arthur is author of several essay collections, most recently Hummingbirds Between the Pages (2018). He has published in a range of journals such as Hotel Amerika, The Literary Review, Orion Magazine, Southern Humanities Review, and Threepenny Review. Among his awards are the Akegarasu Haya International Essay Prize and The Sewanee Review’s Monroe K. Spears Essay Prize. His work has appeared in The Best American Essays and is often included in that series’ Notable Essays lists. He’s currently a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the University of Dundee in Scotland. You can learn more about Chris and his work at his website.