Updated Fri, Dec 21, 2012 2:19 pm
How is writing an essay like fishing for trout?
For award-winning Ohio author Kevin Haworth, both involve trying to snag a shimmering, elusive quarry that’s forever darting away downstream.
Stuff is always flowing past you," explained Haworth, whose new essay collection, Famous Drownings in Literary History, won him a $5,000 Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council.
For Haworth, assistant professor of English and executive editor of the Ohio University Press and Swallow Press, hooking the right material to work into the mosaics of his richly detailed, highly personal essays is a crucial first step in creating them.
Examining themes that range from the literary lore of drowning to the ten plagues of Egypt, Haworth typically starts with autobiography—a memory, conflict, or question of his own.
Then he spirals outward, stalking his topic wherever it leads, and bringing in anything new he’s discovered—literary, historical, or personal—that will bounce echoes off what he’s writing about.
When he writes about drowning, for example, Haworth roots his essay in graphic, real moments—times when he’s pulled gasping children, including his own, from the water, and a moment in childhood when he nearly was drowned himself.
Before he’s finished probing the idea, however, he manages to bring in his lifeguard training as a young man; the death of Icarus in Greek mythology; the Jack London novel Martin Eden; and the drowning of Ophelia in Hamlet. What the essay ends up describing is the mystery, allure, and terrors of water for those who live on land.
Often, Haworth said, after getting an initial idea for an essay, he’ll free-associate to find out what sparks a topic throws off, and then "list what I call in my own mind 'sites of inquiry.'"
List in hand, he’ll head off to Ohio University’s Alden Library, where he’ll start punching search terms into a database of journal articles, to see what bobs up that he might be able to use.
"Part of it is that I don’t know, at the beginning of the essay, what it is I’m going to write about," he explained. Sometimes his library fishing expeditions haul up a gleaming catch. "It brings back the weirdest stuff – really oddball references," he said.
Haworth, who also writes fiction, compared his "hybrid non-fiction" approach to that of some pop music artists, who construct new tunes by layering together snippets of existing records.
His latest work, he said, "has things in common with what kids call 'mash-up' culture, or sampling culture, where you’re taking all the elements, and putting them into a different context."
Margot Singer, a writer who teaches at Denison University, said she admires Haworth’s ability to mix the techniques of story, essay, and poem. "He moves very flexibly across those permeable borders, in ways that make for very exciting work," Singer said.
In his essays, Haworth seems to hold a motif up for inspection, turning it this way and that, and placing it against different, sometimes unexpected backgrounds. The essays don’t usually drive to some ringing conclusion; instead, they move over, under, and around a subject, looking at it from multiple angles.
In a piece about the Biblical plagues of Egypt, for example, Haworth—who looks deeply, reverently, and critically into his Jewish heritage in many of his essays—begins with his family. His wife, who’s a rabbi (and also an award-winning writer), is telling their son richly embellished stories of the plagues God levied against the Egyptians. The boy is fascinated.
"He wants to know more about how the Egyptians suffered," Haworth writes. "The burns from the hail, the itching from the lice bites. The terribly rank smell of their dead cattle. How they could have endured all this, nine times, and not let us go."
The essay then segues into a counterpoint topic—the extraordinary 1938 work U.S. 1 by the American Jewish poet Muriel Rukeyser. In this long piece, Rukeyser, well before her time, mashed up material including lyric poetry, monologue, and transcripts from Congressional testimony. The poem tells the story of a modern-day "plague"—the horrible health effects suffered by hundreds of miners who worked in a West Virginia silica mine.
As the essay progresses, Haworth also folds in the grief of a funeral for the wife of a colleague and his own family’s careful preparations for Passover.
Every strain weaves in and out of every other—Rukeyser’s poem, the plague of the West Virginia miners, a tragic death, the faithful keeping of Jewish tradition, and the notion of plague itself. Miraculously, at one point Haworth’s wife finds a box in the basement of the local synagogue, full of "Jewish kitsch" from "the lost age of Hebrew School"—a set of ten children’s masks, one for each Biblical plague.
"The masks, despite their undeniable strangeness, are cute," Haworth writes. "The mask solemnly labeled 'First Born' indicates death through X’s over the eyeholes, like a 1930s comic strip."
The children don the masks and play happily; the essay ends with an image of the kids, making paper "hail" to re-enact that particular plague. It’s followed by an image that mirrors the children’s paper hailstorm—the miners Rukeyser wrote about, walking home from their deadly work in a cloud of silica.
"When they came out of the tunnel, that narrow white place, they were not liberated," Haworth writes. "They walked home dying."
Ben Ogles, former dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Ohio University, and now a dean at Brigham Young University, used to read many of Haworth’s pieces as soon as he finished them. Though Ogles is a psychologist by trade rather than a creative writer, Haworth says he always valued his feedback as a "great reader," a fellow parent, and a man who shares his interest in spirituality.
"I guess what really appealed to me (in Haworth’s work) was the psychology," Ogles said. "The way that he could get inside a person’s head, and explain what they were thinking and feeling, was just so accurate to me that I wondered if he had a tap into somebody’s brain."
Haworth admits that the trick is in eavesdropping intensely on the world and the people around him. Once he gets a theme for an essay, he says, he begins to feel like a spy, listening for any clue that might relate to what he’s writing.
To work in the hybrid non-fiction form, Haworth also draws from his experience as an accomplished fiction writer and creator of character. His novel The Discontinuity of Small Things was published in 2005. He stresses, however, that while fiction techniques help make his essays come alive, he keeps the genres distinct in his mind.
"I am very aware of use of dialogue, shifting scenes, shifting the reader’s attention," he said. "But (my essay work) is non-fiction; I'm not making anything up."
This story appears in the Autumn/Winter 2012 issue of Ohio University's Perspectives magazine. Illustration by Christina Ullman.