Leaving Your Own Brand of Breadcrumbs in the Forest

In Lauren Slater’s introduction to The Best American Essays of 2006 she writes lucidly about the art of the essay. Here’s my favorite thought:

Essay writing is not about facts, although the essay may contain facts. Essay writing is about transcribing the often convoluted process of thought, leaving your own brand of breadcrumbs in the forest so that those who want to can find their way to your door.

Yum. Or how about this, in response to the uproar over her book Opening Skinner’s Box (which I read last year and enjoyed):

Being the object of such predation over an extended period of time has led me to think a lot about the critical role of kindness in writing and in life. It has led me to see that I…have in the past written pieces with too much tooth, something the press generally rewards. I no longer write this way. I cannot abide ill will in my own work, and I dislike it when I see it in the work of others. I now believe that good writing, and good living, must have a core of gentleness.

Good living must have a core of gentleness. I like it.

4 comments on “Leaving Your Own Brand of Breadcrumbs in the Forest
  • Interesting. Often writers load some tooth to their creations to leave an impact, to get a desired reaction, whip up some reader frenzy for an altruistic cause or simply to get a message across without losing intensity.

    Should we call Bob Sutton a fan of profanity ? Could the term Jerk have created an impact as `A__hole’ did ? Does it amount to `ill will’ in his work ?

    I see where Lauren comes from. Perhaps she says “You don’t have to spew venom in your creations” if that is. Or am I missing something here ?

  • I have no patience with detailed explorations of an essayist’s interior life.

    There are few people whose minds are so interesting that they should command our attention for such an exercise in narcissism.

    Frankly, I think that anyone who’s ever read all of Remembrance of Things Past is even more of a monomaniac than that ultimate egoist, Proust.

    There are pearlescent jewels to be discovered in that heavy-lidded gay man’s oeuvre, but to indulge the vanity of such a supreme Narcissus requires a superhuman effort.

    I think that energy would be better spent exploring the exterior world that exists outside one man’s ego.

  • Vince — I disagree. Exploring the interior dimensions of someone’s life is a rich and interesting experience. It’s not narcissistic — it’s an attempt to understand what it means to be human. We spend much of our day trying to communicate to others what’s going on inside our head. The essayist who can illuminate those thoughts in a captivating way is wonderfully engaging.

  • Ben, I take your point.

    After I read your response, I thought of how Hermann Hesse’s works, especially Siddartha and Steppenwolf, affected me when I was 17.

    Hesse’s stuff may not be fashionable now (not that I would know), but the introspection of Buddha and the tension between the high spirit and the steppenwolf as presented by the subtle mind of a great artist made a lasting impression on me.

    Consider it a communication from a man who “listen[s] to the radio music of life.”

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