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by Joan Cannon


Something I remember reading long ago by Joan Didion, I believe, is absolutely right: that to write is one of the best ways to discover what you think. In fact, it may also be a way to discover what you know.

My recent excursion into this world inhabited by columnists and professional essayists has thus far been a double learning experience. (I have to confess that’s partly because it seems so much easier than writing fiction.)

After embarking on an untried subject I have either some knowledge or opinion of, I suddenly realize neither is what I thought when first approaching the keyboard. Like any other lucky high school graduate, I was taught to develop a premise, outline the argument, and arrive at a conclusion. You couldn't take an essay exam without having absorbed how to do that.  Now I've found out how much more revealing it is to begin and “let the devil take the hindmost,” as my father used to say.

I'm reminded of a conversation I had with one of my college professors. He said that we should select courses for the  instructors rather than for the content. The really important stuff isn't in the lectures, but in what he called the obiter dicta, the parenthetical comments, the throwaway lines that an attentive student picks up. They may not have been written down, but spring to mind through those flashes of mental connection we can seldom pin down. They are what will matter ten or even fifty years later. 

Book reviewing tends to be composed in that way. I wanted to analyze what pleases or displeases me. I’m surprised at how often what I hope is going to be a reasonably objective comment is so colored by my impression of the author that I have a hard time being fair to his work. Was that because of some subliminal unintended message, or my subconscious inferences?

For instance, having read a novel set in New York City, I became incensed by the author’s (I thought) exaggerated and one-sided view of private education there. I had to remind myself that everything has doubtless changed in the many decades since I experienced it in that city.

Even in my day, the author’s generalizations would have caused me to recall S. I. Hayakawa’s wonderful essay about the folly of stereotyping. Given the author's clearly satirical intent, that was unfair of me. Still, I couldn’t escape the impression that she should not have ignored the obvious, “…cow A is not cow B.”

That remark leads immediately to a consideration of how much any writer, especially of what we call “personal essays” risks. If I got a strong and/or wrong impression from a novel, what will readers of these essays infer from what we all write here, or even in another context — in print or online? The question is daunting.

Until recently, I’ve been trying to write the kind of fiction that seems to justify “lying for a living.”

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©2008 Joan L. Cannon for
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