Odd Objects, Discomfort, & Joy: A Conversation with Lisa Knopp

John Brown Spiers: Your essays are layered almost impossibly well. Not only are they never about just one thing (or even just a couple of things), they very rarely meander, or “essay,” in the sense of a journey without a firm destination or even a firm path. Similarly, you admit from the outset of “Still Life with Peaches” that “the peaches were the center of my attention because in so many ways I’d invested them with significance,” and acknowledge several other potential outlets for that attention. And “Still Life,” in its sketch-like, highly visual approach, is somewhat representative of your style of writing. Was the focus of this essay evident from its earliest stages? Are you always sure which objects, memories, and observations will direct your attention while working on a piece of writing?

Lisa Knopp: The process that produced this and most of my other essays is a messy and circuitous one. A good essay is about more than one thing, but I often start writing with only one subject in mind. Along the way, I discover the second or third thing that will give my essay texture and dimension. I think of myself as an “inclusionist.” I throw in everything have, giving little thought to focus, selection, or what the reader may or may not want. For instance, early drafts of “Still Life with Peaches” comprise of a dozen or so segments, including ones about eating canned peaches as a child; sitting beneath a peach tree with a calico cat as my parents toured a farmhouse for sale near the Mississippi in western Illinois; remembering a former lover who once tried to kill me, a man who my aunt referred to as a “peach of a guy”; helping to plant and tend the fruit trees that I gave my ex-husband for Father’s Day; gathering peaches on the day my daughter left home for New York City; and noting the frequent occurrence of peaches in still life paintings. What usually results from working this way is a bloated, sprawling, unwieldy, directionless draft written primarily for my own entertainment.

After all of this overwriting, things get interesting. I turn outward and encounter the ideas of others, usually through books and articles and conversations with people. I search until I find what the essay needs, which usually is a conceptual framework, a focus, a structure, or all of those things. In the case of “Still Life with Peaches,” I was intrigued by the comments I read about the tendency to suggest or force a narrative on many in 16th and 17th century still life paintings, such as Harmen Steenwijck’s allegory about the “vanities of life.” This revealed to me that I am more drawn to contemporary renditions, like Alice Neel’s “Still Life Spring Lake,” because the featured objects are relatively unencumbered with symbolism and story. When I returned to my draft with this new focus on narrative, I was able to throw out entire sections and write new ones. The ideas I encountered about narrative also influenced the ways I crafted the verbal still life scenes in my essay.

Just as new wine can’t be poured into old wineskins, the new information, the new focus or framework that results from my research rarely if ever easily fits into or with the material in the old draft. This point in my writing process reminds me of that stage in cognitive development that Jean Piaget calls disequilibrium, a state of imbalance between what is understood and what is encountered. One reduces the imbalance either by developing a new schema or by adapting the old one until equilibrium is achieved. This can be a frustrating, even agonizing, part of the process. Because I prefer wrestling with the disequilibrium away from my writing desk, I scrub bathrooms, clean out closets, weed my garden, and take really long walks while I’m thinking things out. (Sometimes I declare the essay a failure, abandon it, and begin working on other writing.) It’s while I’m away from my writing desk that the “eureka” moment (or series of moments) arrives and I see how the new ideas fit with or reshape the old. What follows–watching things fall into place, watching new material come to light–is the most pleasurable part of my writing process.

In “Still Life with Peaches,” I knew from the start that I had to write about gathering peaches with my daughter on the day she left home for good, but I was surprised by the appearance of that story about my son’s bone infection and those few desperate days in which I thought I might lose him. And I was delighted by how right it was to include that story.  Once I have almost everything in place in terms of content, what follows is a lot of honing, sculpting, tinkering and fussing, sometimes across dozens of drafts.

Despite the predictability of this process, the discomfort and joy I feel is genuine–almost as if I’m experiencing it for the first time. I say “almost” because now when I write, a still, small, confident voice speaks to me from the midst of the chaos, “Trust your process. It’s going to work this time, too.”

JBS: In “Excavations,” an essay in your first book Field of Visions, you observe that “the nature essayist’s reason for witnessing is often more mundane than soul salvation,” and relate that two centuries earlier Crevecoeur shared an anecdote with his readers two centuries earlier “simply because the circumstances were ‘as true as they are singular.'” Do you believe that his M.O. is more appropriate to the nature essayist than the essayist in general? What is it about a nature writer’s task that requires the mundane, given that at least part of the essayist’s job is to illustrate the life that was in it all along?

LK: “Excavations” is an essay that I wrote over twenty years ago. I proclaimed several things in that essay that I now think and feel differently about. The quote that you selected is one of those.

There are many reasons why one would write about nature. Some essays are an elegy to lost, threatened, or diminished wild places. Some are a celebration of a special place. Some are a polemic aimed at those who, directly or indirectly, participate in the destruction of habitats. Some are arguments for a less anthropocentric–a more biocentric–viewpoint. And some tell the story of experiencing, through the act of mindful attention, something essential about God, the Oversoul, Great Spirit or whatever else you might want to call the creative force in the universe. Of course, you can experience rebirth, salvation, or redemption through that act.

I believe it is the job of any essayist to pay attention to the mundane, the common, the quotidian and to derive a whole world of meaning from it. Some of my favorite examples of this are Paul Sheehan’s essay about his collection of crack vials, Kyoko Mori’s essay about yarn and knitting, W. E. B. DuBois’s essay about his cane, and Joan Didion’s essay about the Hoover Dam. Nature essayists pay attention to the land and to members of what Aldo Leopold called “the land-community.” Examples of such essays include Lee Zacharias’ “Buzzards,” which is about the biological and cultural significance of vultures, her efforts to photograph the birds, her relationship with her misogynistic father, and his suicide; and Annie Dillard’s “Sojourner,” which considers the unremarkable formation of mangrove islands and whether the earth is home or a place of exile for humans.

In a sense, each of the essays I just mentioned are examples of what Adam Gopnik calls the “odd-object essay.” In his introduction to the Best American Essays 2008, Gopnik explains that in this type of essay, one “takes a small, specific object, a bit of material minutia . . . and finds in it a path not just to a larger point but also to an entirely different subject.” Gopnik says that this essay works so well in our “materially-minded time” because we’re surrounded by things “waiting to be made into metaphors”—like DuBois’s cane or Dillard’s mangrove islands.  And, too, says Gopnik, “you can smuggle a lot of Self into an essay on Something Obviously Else.” Some of the very best writing I receive from the students in my Modern Familiar Essay class at the University of Nebraska-Omaha is in response to the odd-object essay assignment that I created for them based on Gopnik’s observations. By writing about objects as varied as a stethoscope, a necklace, a beard, a skillet, a fossil, a skateboard, a Kleenex, a bulb of garlic, or a tea set, my students say something significant about themselves, their culture, their philosophy, their world. It’s a great formula to work with. Many of my nature essays are about “odd objects” found on or near the grasslands and rivers in the middle of North America–sandhill cranes, geodes, mussel shells, hemp, cottonwoods, crickets, opossum tails, sumac, and Little Bluestem. “Still Life with Peaches” also works as an odd-object essay, since I allow peaches to lead me to larger points about exile and return, loss and fulfillment, and the human love of narrative. Along the way, I include quite a bit about myself.

JBS: Your website gives a rather intriguing description of your current project. Like Salt or Love: Essays on Leaving Home “represents a confluence of [your] intellectual, spiritual, and psychological development as a writer,” but, in contrast with much of your earlier work, eschews nature- and place-based writing in favor of essays that are “autobiographical and contemplative.” Can you speak to the distinction between those two kinds of writing? I would argue that most of your essays are not completely nature- or place-based anyway–for example, Flight Dreams, your second book, is full of essays that are as rich with detail about your hometown of Burlington, Iowa, as they are about your own interior development. Have you noted a shift in content or tone, with your most recent collection? What would you say are the biggest differences between Like Salt or Love and your earlier work?  What about your latest essays is heightened, autobiographically or contemplatively?

LK: After writing nature essays for over twenty-five years, I feel that I’ve said everything I have to say about the land and the land-community, and have exhausted the metaphors. Done. Though I will never banish nature from my essays, it is no longer front and center. I’m far more interested in writing about my relationships with people, human communities, and God. To that end, the essays in Like Salt or Love: Essays on Leaving Home are more people-based, more autobiographical, more spiritual, and more narrative than my earlier collections. “Still Life with Peaches” is probably the most analytical and cerebral essay in the collection.

Interestingly, about ten years ago I believed that I’d written myself out autobiographically. I had no stories left to tell about myself. But here I am a decade later with all of this new and old autobiographical material to probe, though from a different perspective and approach. I suspect that someday I’ll return to nature and write about it in new ways, as well.

In terms of the subject matter, Like Salt or Love is the most courageous book I’ve ever written. Many of the essays are about my experiences with aging. In our youth-oriented culture, aging isn’t very popular. Rather than exploring the delights and dilemmas of the process, most people seem to prefer denying or ignoring them, so in choosing this as my subject, I’m going against the grain. And, too, in some of these essays, I speak candidly about myself as a Christian, something that I’ve only occasionally and rather obliquely written about in the past. This, too, is risky, since I feel an enormous responsibility to present anecdotes and reflections about my deepening, evolving relationship with God accurately and frankly, but also in a way that will encourage some readers–those who may never have been part of such a relationship and so aren’t sympathetic or open-minded toward such experiences–to at least hear me out. Either one of these subjects would be a dicey enough undertaking. But to tackle my experiences with God and aging in the same collection is extremely challenging, probably a bit crazy, and very liberating.