A Modest Genre

Lake Chelan by David Ansley


Last week, I attended a workshop on The Personal Essay  led by Ana Maria Spagna (http://www.anamariaspagna.blogspot.com/). One of the prompts she gave us resulted in the following essay.

A Modest Genre
This morning I watched the lake change from green waves, to black glass, and now to gray ripples. According to the dictionary on my laptop, a ripple is a small wave or series of waves on the surface of water.  I looked the word up as I started to write on this last morning of a workshop on the personal essay. I’m two hundred miles from home, in a cabin at the end of a long lake in the mountains, out of reach of the phone, the Internet, and my well-worn dictionary and thesaurus that I turn to in search of different words to say the things that I want to say, to write the things that it seems so many writers already have written.  I’ve spent the past four days with six other women, other women like me diving into the depths of memories, emotions, and dreams to bring those series of waves to the surface.
This morning I watched the lake change from green waves, to black glass, and now to gray ripples. In physics, my laptop dictionary tells me, ripples are small, periodic, usually undesirable variations in electrical voltage. Such ripples have surged through our little group in the cabin in the mountains, at the end of the lake, as we’ve approached, avoided, and re-approached losses, fears, regrets, mysteries, and discoveries. One woman said a teacher once told her all writing is about grief. Though we protested and recalled stories of joy and hope and redemption, we’ve all felt those undesirable variations in electrical voltage as grieving words coursed through our fingertips, as tears streamed down our cheeks.
This morning I watched the lake change from green waves, to black glass, and now to gray ripples. I’m relieved the boat that will start me on my journey home will be carried on these small waves, rather than the white caps that rollicked across the lake yesterday. In the coming days and months, there likely will be plenty more ripples of the undesirable jolt type as I study this form first described by that sixteenth-century Frenchman, Michel de Montaigne. He derived the name essai from a French verb that suggests experimenting, testing, and weighing out; so similar to my spiritual journey. Essayist Sara Levin claims, “The essay is a modest genre. It doesn’t mean to change the world. Instead it says – let me tell you what happened to me.” All these centuries since Montaigne, many of us still compose essays to make sense of life, or at least some wedge of it.
This morning I watched the lake change from green waves, to black glass, and now to gray ripples. My dictionary offers another definition of ripple—the particular feeling or effect that spreads through or to someone, as in her words set off a ripple of insight within her readers. This group of writers will leave today on this rippling lake, recommitted to experimenting, testing, and weighing out to make sense of slices of life, packing new tools to tell others what happened to us.  Our words may not mean to change the world, but they will.

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