Creating Ourselves as We Go Along:
The Book-Length Essay
My memoir, The Book of Knowledge and Wonder, was a grueling task that took five years. It is about reclaiming memories of my mother who committed suicide when I was a boy, and I became so consumed by it that I could never get it off my mind, even when I was teaching my college classes. When it was finally done, I decided that my next project would not take me to the past, but would stay in the present, and while playing my ukulele and watching my granddaughter skip along the boardwalk at dawn on my annual family vacation at Folly Beach, I found my topic. I would take notes in the small composition book I always carry in my shirt pocket as the week passed, and when it was done I would write a about it.
It just happened to be the year that I retired from a long career of college teaching so I was weighing what all of that meant as well, but I quickly decided that the book would not be about reclaiming those years, but about rummaging through the present of my retirement as it happened. I inevitably thought back on students, classes, and books I had taught, but I was less concerned with holding on to all of that than I was in understanding the ways that we negotiate the present, creating ourselves as we go along. It seemed to me that the best way to redeem time was to live it fully alive to the moments as they came. Thoughts of loss, letting go, saying goodbye periodically swept over me as I watched my young family play, but when I played with them those feelings were washed away, and when we created projects together such as the sand castle or the incompletely understood sundial in sand, a joy swept over me that was worth savoring. Melancholy simply could not get a hold on my time at the beach.
When I got home and started putting together my notes I quickly decided that I had an essay, not a memoir, and that it would be long: a book-length essay. It is an unusual form perfectly suited for a deep dive into the mind at work and at play. Unlike the memoir it did not rely on an unfolding chronology. Instead it seemed to stop time and hold the moments before me for contemplation. It was not shaped by events but by its slowly emerging theme: that our hedges against inevitable losses are the myriad ways we in the name of love participate in the ongoing creation of the universe. These ways include our families, our books, our expanding knowledge that circles the globe like a cloud, and of course our many follies which fulfill the time they fill. Oh, there is death and war and irony and erosion and anger in the book, too, but in Folly Beach love and the creativity it engenders pushes back against all that. As one thing led to another in the composition process I quickly figured out that if this project were an essay it would fill a book.
A baggy compendium, Folly Beach creates itself as it goes which in a way is an emblem for its ideas. As I wrote it, I just hung on, letting it slowly build. In the end it became my folly, a book that does little more than celebrate its own creation.