During my last VCFA workshop, Robert Vivian often sat in front of the window. Framed by the purplish hue of the waning winter afternoon, he quoted other writers as though inviting them into our discussions. He has a way of honoring the writing of a student by asking sincere questions of the work without agenda and with an open curiosity typical of his humble nature as a writer. Patrick Madden has always felt like an old friend to me. Dressed in sporty shirts and slacks, he seems too young to be the father of six children. He asks the hard questions because I think he wants to push his students beyond the comfortable limits they’ve set for themselves. Pat has a special dedication to the history of the essay but is also a student of its current forms.
Eight months pregnant, I relished this workshop because both Pat and Bob approach the essay with due reverence for its vital need to lay bare the soul of its writer. The essay is a place where we meet our reader with more than courage, but with an enduring trust in her humanity. As Vivian writes in “The Essay as an Open Field,” “(T)he best essays function as places of intimate encounter as we get to know the “I,” the writer at a very deep level even as we come to a better understanding of ourselves.” Rereading my notes from their workshop on the meditative essay, I realized I’d jotted down a number of quotations that offer particular insight on the subject. Here is my top ten list:
10. “The meditative essay is a piece that allows us to think along with the author.”
9. “I like boring essay titles. There is a tradition of boring essay titles that start with ‘On’… such as On Lying in Bed, On Laziness, On Chasing After One’s Hat. Patrick Madden
8. “Perhaps the meditative essay is about observing or noticing more than it’s about ideas.”
7. “Loss becomes a form of longing.”
6. “I’m not sure thinkers can experience awe.” Robert Vivian
5. “Begin by realizing that the world is in you, not you in the world.”
4. “The consciousness that said ‘I think’ is not the consciousness that said ‘I am’.” Sartre
3. “Start with something humble and small and see where it will take you.”
2. “People experience sacramental moments—moments that remain with us our whole lives.” Czeslaw Milosz
1. “Distance is the soul of beauty.” Simone Weil
For more on the meditative essay, see Robert Vivian's "Thoughts On the Meditative Essay"
An incredible library of essays can be found at Quotidana, Pat Madden's website