Death of the Moth
As the title suggests, it was about how to start non-fiction works: essays, chapters, books.
I gave a lecture for an hour, then we talked for another hour. The questions were excellent, ranging from how to deal with painful issues (I outlined two schools of thought), to whether or not my ideas apply to biography (yes), to collaborative writing (rare but rewarding).
Here's a sample from my lecture:
Humans are narrative animals. There is an ongoing argument, in philosophy, about this: is human consciousness basically storied, or do narratives come after? Whatever the conclusion (my bet’s on the first argument), the power of stories is obvious.
And not only in fiction: the essay or non-fiction book can equally use a story for its prologue. It can be a simple personal anecdote or a more novelistic tale. For economy's sake, I use the first for opinion columns, the second for books. But the principle is the same. Some examples:
Christopher Hitchens, in his brutally moving Mortality (quoted here), does this with characteristic straightforwardness. “I have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death. But nothing prepared me for the early morning in June when I came to consciousness feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse. The whole cave of my chest and thorax seemed to have been hollowed out and then refilled with slow-drying cement.” Note how much is given to the reader in these lines. Hitchens hints at his own past with alcohol, and gives a palpable idea of paralysis and pain. Note the simple, detached language. The details are telling: not just ‘cement’, but ‘slow-drying cement’, suggesting creeping coagulation. He then tells the story of his first diagnosis and introduction to the world of cancer, which then provides the direction for all his next Vanity Fair articles.
Anne Fadiman, ‘Marrying Libraries’, from Ex Libris, begins with a domestic tale. “A few months ago my husband and I decided to mix our books together. We had known each other for ten years, lived together for six, been married for five. Our mismatched coffee mugs cohabited amicably; we wore each other’s t-shirts and, in a pinch, socks… But our libraries had remained separate, mine mostly at the north end of our loft, his at the south.” Fadiman then tells of the anxieties at common books: their different shelving styles, and whose copies to bin in case of duplicates. Note the specific words: denoting particular things that suggest a life. The story not only suggests their marriage, but also reveals the basic power of literature; the way its divisions are prefaced on a more profound unity: the love of books.
Virginia Woolf, in ‘Death of the Moth’, begins her haunting essay with these lines: “Moths that fly by day are not properly to be called moths; they do not excite that pleasant sense of dark autumn nights and ivy-blossom which the commonest yellow-underwing asleep in the shadow of the curtain never fails to rouse in us. They are hybrid creatures, neither gay like butterflies nor somber like their own species. Nevertheless, the present specimen, with his narrow hay-coloured wings, fringed with a tassel of the same colour, seemed to be content with life.” Woolf’s essay is not a typical scholarly or journalistic argument. It’s almost a short story. But in these three sentences, she has provided a world, and its characters: herself, the moth, and every other living thing. Note her precision: not ‘a life’ or ‘its life’, but just ‘life’. The moth becomes a meditation on the inevitability of death, and the strange nobility of fighting against this.
John Armstrong, in In Search of Civilization, begins with an anecdote. The idea for his book came to him while reading to his son. In the story, the Walker children are camping out on an island, pretending to be savages: “‘What is civilization?’ asks Bridget, the youngest. ‘Ices,’ explains her brother Roger, ‘and that sort of thing.’ It is, perhaps, the briefest definition of the term in English. If Roger’s reply does not do justice to the idea of civilization, it serves at least to stimulate ambition. It is not just ice cream, so: What is civilization, really?” Armstrong’s story allows him to ask the question, but it also allows him to ask it domestically, privately: as if civilization were something personal, rather than the province of typical historians or economists.
The philosopher A.N. Whitehead, in 'Mathematics and the Good', from Essays in Science and Philosophy: “About two thousand three hundred years ago a famous lecture was delivered. The audience was distinguished: among others it included Aristotle and Xenophon. The topic of the lecture was The Notion of the Good. The lecturer was competent: he was Plato.” Whitehead, one of the great thinkers of the twentieth century, was a master of the aphoristic summary, putting thousands of years into a single phrase. Note the combination of straightforwardness and irony, which suggests the importance of the lecture, and therefore of Whitehead's essay.
One of the virtues of narrative is that it gives the essay or chapter—sometimes the book as a whole, in fact—a distinctive direction. Beginning leads to middle leads to end, which points to the ideas and impressions to come. The end can, as I noted earlier, then point back. Fadiman, for example, ends her essay: “My books and his books had become our books. We were really married.” And some essays and chapters keep coming back to a story: the work's argument moves along with implied time.