I’m worried about the state of the essay. To be specific, I’m worried about my contributions to the state of the essay. To be blunt, I’m worried that real essayists—E.B. White, Joan Didion, Edward Hoagland—would scoff at the cheap and facile nature of what I produce today.
As an example, I wrote that last line—about real essayists—then immediately erased it. This happens automatically. Any time I wander down even the most worthwhile tangent, or explore an idea for more than 20 words, a little alarm goes off in my head. You’re losing readers! it says. Click, tap, swipe, they’re gone.
So I cut the line because I knew it would be the point at which many people, holding their waxed paper cup of coffee and trying to read on the screen of their smartphone, would give up. Then I brazenly pasted it back in. (Click, tap, swipe.) Because that’s what this piece of writing is about.
Three months before my first novel was due to launch, I published a wandering, personal essay on Salon called “Finding Fargo.” The piece was about a trip that my older son and I made to Fargo, North Dakota, on the occasion of his 17th birthday. Now, there are so many things wrong with what I just said.
First, three months prior to launch: “What a waste!” my then-publicist said. “No one will remember you by the time the book comes out.” Second, wandering: this was a “journey” story that started out with our preparations and languidly unpacked the road trip on which I—a lonely, driven single mom—discovered how the gift of this kid’s quiet could gentle my world. Third, the title. For Christ’s sake, Finding Fargo! What the hell does that even mean and how many click-throughs is it going to spark?
This was a character-based essay, its momentum slow and built through a series of fairly unremarkable scenes. A woman being chastised by her trainer; a mother and son in the car, listening to the theme from Ghostbusters; a dusty coffee shop and a game of chess. I didn’t even mention Andrew’s autism until the 11th paragraph, and then it was in reference to his past. Instead, I introduced him this way:
A rigidly logical and uniquely random boy, he had first consulted the road atlas he received last Christmas and keeps by his bedside to read in comforting bits, like a book of poetry. Then he went online and brought up a colorful Yahoo map so he could chart each area within a 300-mile radius.
After considering the options for a couple days, he chose Fargo because it is exactly four hours from our home in Minneapolis, because it is to the west — in the direction of Seattle, which he very much wants to visit — and because he had never been there. I was making dinner when he shuffled into the kitchen, head averted, and presented the request to me in his typically desultory way: spiraling from his desire to leave town and practice driving on the highway to the fact that we could stay in a hotel, have pizza for dinner and shop for new jeans with a 34-inch inseam. “I’ve decided,” he spoke into his shoulder. “For my birthday, on Saturday, if you don’t have too much work to do, and you think it wouldn’t be too far, I’d like to go to Fargo.”
Rather than use shorthand or labels, I was given space to develop the situation. I didn’t think about news hooks or name checks or even audience. I really just wrote the truth. But the truth takes time: time to observe and reflect, to analyze and record.
Midway through the essay, I related the story of how Andrew advanced one small step.
“I’m trying to talk more,” my son abruptly volunteered. The dining room was staticky with midmorning noise — babies chattering, tables of women laughing, couples shuffling large sheets of newspaper back and forth between them — but his voice pierced through all of it, low and clear. He’d eaten his breakfast quickly and I’d given him mine to finish. He picked up my fork and wiped it carefully with his napkin, turned his head and coughed, then cleared his throat and returned to the plate but stopped, fork aloft, to look at me. I tried not to move. “It’s hard,” he said, finally.
I struggled to find an answer. But he was still, holding my eyes in a rare and brave way, forging contact through the air over the tabletop. And I realized he had not asked a question but simply stated a fact. I nodded and he nodded back, then bowed his head over my eggs.
When it appeared, “Finding Fargo” was accompanied by a beautiful artist-rendered image of a boy trapped in a series of concentric rings. It was eerie and wonderful and said something I’d always known about my son but couldn’t quite quantify. People left comments after the essay—as they still do today—but the tenor of them was remarkable. “After reading this, I am more human,” said my favorite one.
My publicist was right. By the time my novel came out, not a single sale could be attributed to my by-then-forgotten essay. But it reached the right people and remains a piece of work that I’m proud of. I read it aloud at a fundraiser for The ARC and at least half of the audience got weepy, then opened their wallets and gave.
That was in 2005, back when Mothers Who Think still occupied Salon. Sallie Tisdale, Camille Peri, Anne Lamott. Their essays sometimes took a page to get to the point—and I fit right in. But today, if you go to Salon, “Finding Fargo” appears under a photo of Owen Wilson dancing with a beautiful woman (WTF?). A sub-head with the words “my autistic son” is in bold above Owen’s tousled head. The comments, which seven years ago numbered in the hundreds with hardly a troll-ish one among them, are gone.
In his 1574 “Use Makes Perfect,” Michel de Montaigne—widely considered the originator of the personal essay—pondered the topic of mortality for nearly 1,100 words before finally getting to the story of his own near-death experience after falling from a horse.
“The beauty of this as a meta-essay is the last third,” says Brigham Young University professor Patrick Madden, “where Montaigne essentially defends his method of writing, his ‘rambling and uncertain’ style, which, of course, has become an essential quality of the essay form.”
No more. These days, you must cram your point plus a provocative image or a celebrity (Owen!) into whatever people glimpse first. It’s like a game: Made you look! Consider the TIME cover that took your father’s dying small-type news rag and made it the darling of social networks. Who could resist posting the photo of a gorgeous, sexy young mother, bare-breasted on one side, nursing a standing child who looks to be five (though sources swear he’s only three)? None of us, that’s who.
I’m not judging these publications; they’re only doing what the industry demands. In fact, I love my current editor at Salon and believe she is one of the finest, most thoughtful people who’s ever touched a red pen. It was partly for her that I wasted seven hours this week working on an “essay” that never grew beyond 300 words.
Anyone who’s read me lately knows I have a son I’m worried about, a young man who keeps me up nights wondering if he’s dead in a warehouse or lying in the wreckage of a burning car. I am that mother who has steeled herself for the phone call from the police, the prison, the hospital or the morgue.
For years, this is the child I was closest to. My older son was charming, yes, but remote; my daughter so self-sufficient she potty-trained herself at two. But my younger son and I were the crux of the family: two aggressive caretakers with similar habits and tastes. This is the kid who went with me to restaurants when I was a food critic, learning the difference between Beluga and Ossetra by ten.
But he’s also the child I counted on to be fine. While I was observing and analyzing and writing about his brother, this boy—the “gifted” student who could read at 4 and took over as man of the house at 9, after his father left—started using drugs.
At first, it was just marijuana in a friend’s parents’ basement. (They, apparently, were aware; I was not.) By the time I found out, he was in college…or rather, he was flunking out of college. Then, things got awful pretty fast. My most able, mature, loyal kid turned into an addict. It happened right in front of me. And watching this—helpless to stop it—has been the worst mothering experience of my life.
I’ve tried to intervene. Literally. I once staged an intervention that went horribly, gruesomely wrong. I’ve sent him to treatment, twice. Now, I’m in the tough love stage and let me tell you, it is a thousand times harder to do nothing than it is to do something. Anything…Each day, I use up most of my energy not acting. Not picking up the phone, not sending money, not hiring one of those cult deprogrammers to kidnap him and bring him back home.
A few months ago, I decided to be honest about this issue. Addiction feeds on secrecy and I don’t want to be a part of that. After I wrote briefly about my son’s drug use in an earlier essay, two national editors (including the one at Salon, whom I consider a friend, and another from the NYT) asked if I was ready to write the whole story. They’re people I respect and their requests were sensitive. So I sat down and tried.
But even as I was doing so—here in 2012, the era of Owen Wilson and bare-breasted TIME covers—I knew what would be required. Some shocking revelation up front; delicious, seamy details about drug binges; a headline something like, My Son: From Junior Varsity to Junkie. What’s more, I couldn’t quantify precisely how my most cuddly baby traveled to this point of sleeping in abandoned buildings. Is this its own story, or is it tied up with the fact that his brother has autism? I read Susan Senator and Joe Blair, both parents of autistic sons who allude to a sibling’s substance abuse. But I couldn’t find the thread.
After hours of wrestling with the same few paragraphs, I quit and sent both editors my regrets.
It isn’t that I’m ashamed or hopeless. I am neither. But I couldn’t let this story be packaged and labeled, as if there were a conclusion. And I couldn’t let someone plaster a photo of River Phoenix on it. Or run it in a place where vicious people would write hate-filled comments saying I’m a bitch and a whore whom God has punished with two sick sons.
I want to be truthful but I also want to be human, observing what’s real and raw without making it lurid. Using prose to investigate rather than answer. Despite the pressures of today’s tabloid world, I had to write this essay in my own rambling and uncertain style.