Did you know the list is a legit narrative nonfiction form? Yep, and it’s ancient. McSweeney’s did not invent the list. Around the first day of the first month of Noah’s 601st year, as the ground was drying out, a writer in Sumeria (now southern Iraq) carved wedge-shaped letters into stone tablets, composing a work of wisdom scholars consider to be the first work of literature. It was different from the lists kept for commerce or civic life: goats, bushels, grapes, and the like. The List of Ziusudra showed the writer’s mind in thought. It was, arguably, an essay. Some of the most well known examples of the form come from ancient writers whose lists persist as time capsules, preserving the writers’ thoughts and cultural contexts. So for your weekend writing prompt, sharpen your pencils and write away. Make up some paint colors that describe your day, your week, or a month or year in your life, and list them. It’s fun, and discovered years later a list can be a little bit fascinating. I found this list in the free-write vault, no doubt leftover from 2010 when I was eyebrow deep in kitchen remodel decor decisions. It’s not the most refined list, and to say it’s an “essay” is a reach, but each silly little entry instantly revives in my memory a story from my family life at the time it was written.
My Paint Chip Memoir (2010)
Age Spot Tan
First Gray Hair Greige
Stubborn Toilet Ring Gris
Heart Cath Bruise Purple
Dust Bunny Taupe
Burnt Rhubarb Pie Crust
I want to read your paint chip memoir, I really do. Post them in comments?
Collage, fragmented, montage, segmented, lyric, sectioned: a mosaic by any other name was still a thorn in my flesh. The first mosaic I ever tried to write amounted to little more than a clumsy knockoff of a Richard Rodriguez essay assigned in my first MFA nonfiction workshop.
Three years later, I tried again. I picked up the same Rodriguez and works by Montaigne, inventor of the form.
I read and froze.
I re-read Rodriguez. I couldn’t grasp the peculiar features of the form firmly enough to do it myself. Reading Rodriguez did not help.
Stained glass makes sense, the image my professor used to illustrate the mosaic essay. Like stained glass in a church, each paragraph or group of paragraphs a single scene, which viewed with all the other scenes, make sense alone but make the most impact only when the last scene clicks into place.
But my own mosaic attempts continued to be stilted, round-peg-square-hole experiments. Shrinky Dinks in my mother’s oven.
More research. More reading. If I can grasp “the rules,” I can write a mosaic.
Montaigne, On Some Verses of Virgil. I meditate more on Montaigne’s words searching for clues. Of Books: “Let attention be paid not to the matter, but to the shape I give it.”
Nester’s Teaching Blog. Daniel Nester: “What Papa Montaigne means, I think, is that the form of the essay, the way the essay reflects the consciousness of the writer, is just as important, if not more, than what is addressed.”
Ned Stuckey-French lights a candle and guides me toward understanding in his characterization of Rodriguez’s Late Victorians. “(Appearing) as a mosaic personal essay – constructing a solid theme through bits and pieces of different subjects.”
Closer to clarity, I can’t think of a single topic to squeeze into a patchwork prose quilt. Maybe I’m trying too hard to get it.
I scour my public library, the Internet. Ninety-day diet.
I gobble up every mosaic essay I can find. Over three months, I rack up $10 in overdue fines for the convenience of Best Creative Nonfiction anthologies on my bedside table for multiple nighttime readings of the same mosaics.
Magic. Osmosis. Click. Eula Biss breaks through with pure, original mosaic, with only the faintest hints of Montaigne or Rodriguez.
Robin Black grabs me by the throat, her heartfelt essay reflecting the angst of parenting decisions in its own herky-jerky structure and section titles.
Ander Monson’s quieter mosaic offers another, contrasting example of how a fragmented essay can be daring in its structure, through the use of titles, tone and pace.
Dev Hathaway breaks my heart. “North Pole, South Pole, the Sea of Carcinoma” presents medical facts with deft restraint of sentiment.
All my favorites differed from examples left by the inventor of the mosaic and from one another; but they are all indeed mosaics. I immersed myself in these works. I stopped trying to apprehend the concept of mosaic and gave in to the experience of mosaic. And I got it.
The more I tried to comprehend the rules the more I realized that the key to mosaic is its suspension of the usual narrative rules. Nester’s rationale behind Montaigne’s approach to mosaic personal essay was the final tile in the mosaic of my search that made the form clear to me, at long last:
The demands of a narrative, of exposition, of having to explain everything can frustrate the writer who has other things to say. The desire to write a piece of nonfiction that lets other, perhaps nonlinear, factors affect its shape goes back to the origins of the essay itself.
Nester nailed it. I had other things to say. I scanned through my daily writing entries, found one with a topic that had eluded me for ten years, and started riffing. Riffing sans structure freed an essay to collage itself to life. I gave it permission to emerge in tiles that “tell a story individually and in the aggregate” with its its content and its form.
Me and Mosaic
In the process of grasping a form I’ve found a new friend, a secret weapon that helps me write about the most complex and slippery subjects from as many different angles as my mind can think to write.
“Creative nonfiction is a gloriously flexible genre. What we don’t know or can’t know doesn’t have to wreck our writing. Instead, what seemed at first to be only an empty space can be an opportunity to shape and expand a narrative, exploring the gaps and writing our way through the myths.”
–Jessica Handler, author of Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss and Invisible Sisters: A Memoir