Intricate and Articulate
I can still hear her [Annie Dillard] say it: Put all your deaths, accidents, and
diseases up front, at the beginning. Where possible.
– Alexander Chee, How To Write An Autobiographical Novel
Thank you, Sarah, for being so insistent I read Chee’s book, and for your no-contact bicycle delivery. You are right – it was important for me. Reasons:
1. Chee’s teacher Annie Dillard wrote my favorite essay – “Living Like Weasels.” Reading about her as a college professor was both helpful and funny.
2. I finally looked up a word I’ve been hearing since the 1960s: pusillanimous. Remember when the Wizard of Oz says to the Scarecrow: "Why, anybody can have a brain. That’s a very mediocre commodity. Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain."
But Chee is quoting The Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry on despair, which is apparently a sin. “The pusillanimous person has not so much relinquished trust in God as he is unduly terrified at the spectacle of his own shortcomings or incapacity.”
The entry is both psychologically sharp and somewhat hilarious. “Unduly terrified,” I think is what makes me laugh. And “spectacle" attached to such ordinary human foibles.
3. And because I needed this passage, in which Chee describes with such clarity what it is to write:
My mother’s most common childhood memory of me is standing next to me trying
to be heard over the voice on the page. I didn’t really commit to writing until I
understood that it meant making that happen for someone else. And in order to do
that I had to commit the chaos inside of me to an intricate order, an articulate
All morning and most of the afternoon, I have been working on my book of essays, tightening, moving things, reconsidering. The essays try to commit my chaos of memory and confusion to something approaching articulate complexity. I keep rewriting the book description as I learn more about what I’ve written over the past 5 years by reading and rereading, by revising and cutting, putting back in, moving, and trying to attain something approximating intricate order.