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I Am Not Myself Today

A short piece, of a personal nature, wherein the author endeavors earnestly to reveal himself in simple fashion, only to find that he is still hiding something somewhere.

by Steve Peha

 

AUTHOR'S NOTE: The piece you are about to read, entitled I Am Not Myself Today, was the introduction to the essay collection I submitted as my final project for Advanced Composition, English 314, Spring Quarter, 1985, at Central Washington University. I have included this piece here, not to drag you the scrapbook of my early life and have you ooh and awe at all my clippings, but because of something life-altering that occurred to me as a result of having written it, something about the teaching of writing that I hope I never forget.


“The parturition of a writer, I think, unlike that of a painter, does not display any interesting alliances to his masters… A writer can be seen clumsily learning to walk, to tie his necktie, to make love, and to eat his peas off a fork. He appears much alone and determined to instruct himself.” — John Cheever

I’ve always liked that quote by Cheever. It had the crystal clear ring of truth when I first read it, and now as I experience my own parturition as a writer, it strikes a chord within me that is even more resonant. After reading the essays in this collection you may be surprised to learn that I greatly admire the writing of John Updike, William Kennedy, and John Cheever, and that I have recently discovered the joy of E. B. White for you will find no interesting alliances to the writers I revere. It’s not that I haven’t tried to incorporate into these essays certain stylistic aspects of their work, I simply haven’t been successful at rendering an Updike sentence or a Kennedy metaphor in my own. In my brief initiation into the craft of writing, I have stumbled many times on awkward turns of phrase, sloppy syntax, and the dreaded passive voice. I walk now, clumsily at best, and, as I look back upon on my experience, I am not surprised to have arrived at this juncture, necktie askew, virginity lost, empty fork in hand as I turn, reluctant and embarrassed, to confront a trail of fallen peas, ten weeks long, stretching back to the first day of class.

When a writer chooses to express himself in the form of the essay, he takes on a huge personal responsibility, a burden not inherent in other literary forms. Every essayist is his own biographer. Even when his “I” is not his subject, he can never divorce himself completely from the focal point of his discussion. The presence of the writer can always be felt lurking in the events he selects or the ideas he emphasizes, and in his use of language. His essay, even when it is nothing more than an objective rendering of some occurrence, amounts to several pages in the book of his life. Every essay he creates (and this is the scary part) is, in essence, a self-portrait. If he includes information which is not factual, or makes a statement which is not based entirely in truth, he not only misrepresents his subject, he misrepresents himself. With every straining metaphor he strains his credibility. With ever conclusion he asserts which does not follow logically from his premises, he abuses his reader’s trust and needlessly maligns himself.

It is for these reasons that I am terrified by essay writing.

Never as an artist have I felt so naked as I do now. Never in all my creative experience have I felt so unsure of myself, so precariously perched above failure. The ego of a young writer is a delicate thing easily bruised. The ego of a young essayist is fragile beyond belief. By contrast, writing fiction seems a much safer pursuit. Unlike the essayist, the novelist or short story writer, hiding behind intricate twists of plot and numerous characters, can, if he wishes, conceal himself quite well. A good storyteller exercising the control he has over his own anonymity by hinting from time to time about where he stands in relation to his characters and their actions can invest his work with a wonderful richness. Such a device is unavailable to the essayist. If every time a novelist began a new work he was made to sign a legal document binding him to the parameters of his fictional medium, his contract would have a built-in anonymity clause to be invoked as often as he wished. Under the same hypothetical constraints, the best an essayist could do would be to attach a statement to each essay in which he felt he did not adequately convey his meaning. This statement would take the form of a short disclaimer, probably something like, “Please be patient. I’m still struggling with this idea.” Or, if an essay turned out even worse than usual: “Please accept my apologies. I am not myself today.”

Essay writing is not for people deficient in spirit or courage. If it is true that after the Apocalypse the meek shall inherit the Earth, I suspect the post-Armageddon period in World Literature will be characterized by a conspicuous absence of essayists. As you would expect, there have been times when telling the truth has been an arduous and painful endeavor for me. But it is my lying that has hurt the most. There have been brief moments when the truth flowed painlessly from my fingertips, but all too often as I composed at my computer, my treacherous hands possessed an almost pathological penchant for falsity.

I have always been bothered by introductions, particularly those introducing bodies of literature which are not properly introductions at all, but conclusions. All too often, an editor attempting to introduce the work of a fine writer will organize and categorize and summarize that writer’s work so exhaustively there is nothing left for the reader to discover on his own. As I read through what I have written up to this point, I am not so sure I haven’t committed the same indiscretion. And so it seems appropriate that while searching for the right words to finish this “introductory” essay, I have discovered instead the irony implicit in my effort. As a young writer, innocently experienced, I possess neither the maturity to accurately assess my world, nor the ability to express these assessments in such a way that I am certain my meaning will not be misconstrued. I speak from my heart, in all sincerity, of essay writing — of telling the truth — and yet I am almost positive that somewhere in this essay I have told you a lie, or two, or ten. So, if my work bears not the mark of truth let it at least bear the mark of my humility for I am painfully aware of my myriad shortcomings. As you read the following essays, remember that to each one an unwritten disclaimer is attached, probably something like, “”Please be patient. I’m still struggling with this idea.” Or, if an essay turned out even worse than usual: “Please accept my apologies. I am not myself today.”

 

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