To Write a Great Essay, Think and Care Deeply
The nonfiction writer Lucas Mann offers advice for essayists worried about whether they have anything interesting to say.
By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Karl Ove Knausgaard, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.
Every memoirist, at least implicitly, advances a fraught claim: My life makes a good story. But Lucas Mann—like most nonfiction writers—isn’t always so sure. When he struggles with self-doubt, questioning the literary value of his own, lived experience, Mann turns to J. R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip, an unabashed, lyric tribute to a well-loved German Shepherd. In his essay for this series, Mann celebrates Ackerley’s ability to make anything compelling—even the discreditable genre of pet lit—demonstrating how honesty and specificity have the power to redeem the banal, imbuing our smallest private moments with significance.
In Lord Fear, his second book, Mann takes on his brother, Josh, who was two decades older, handsome, talented, and helplessly addicted to drugs. Josh died of a heroin overdose when Mann was just 13, leaving behind big, unfulfilled ambitions and scads of self-castigating notebooks. (In sternly worded lists with headings like “Rules!!,” Josh details the things he hopes he will no longer do—take drugs at work, at the Met, before noon, after 9 p.m., etc.). As Mann tries to learn more about a sibling he loved and lost, he grapples with the fact that his portrait can never be objective or complete; the book explores the imperfect nature of our recollections, the way cherished memories tend to blend with myth.
Mann attended the University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program. His first book, Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere, profiled a minor-league farm team, the Clinton LumberKings. He teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, and lives in Providence, Rhode Island.
Lucas Mann: When I first encountered J.R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip, I was in a particularly angsty phase of my graduate-school career. I got my M.F.A. in nonfiction writing, a tiny, separatist sect within the already over-specialized community of literary academia. When anyone asked what I was working on, I couldn’t simply answer “my novel,” and be done with it. This might seem to be a very minor concern, and it is—still, I winced each time someone found out my chosen genre and asked me, with a sneer, “Oh, so what horrible event brought you here?” Again and again, the type of work I aspired to was met by outsiders with either confusion or derision, and that pattern only served to create within me a heightened sense of panic and defensiveness every time I sat down to write. It felt as though the gnawing question that plagues every fledgling writer was extra-magnified for those of us writing essays; it extended beyond What makes you think that you have something interesting to say? into, What makes you think you could possibly have something interesting to say about the petty circumstances of your own life and interests?
As a general guideline, I don’t think this is a bad line of inquiry—ultimately, all writers should put that pressure on their work. But as I wrote about baseball and about my family, two topics that can easily verge into the maudlin or the insular, I faced more than literary self-doubt—I exhausted myself questioning whether the things I cared about were worth care in the first place. Enter My Dog Tulip, a book-length essay dedicated entirely to a poorly behaved German Shepherd that Ackerley cared for more deeply than anything else in his life. (So much, in fact, that he changed her name for the book, as though protecting her from the attention, a detail that still gives me a ton of joy. Her real name was Queenie.) I’d just finished Ackerley’s investigative family memoir, My Father and Myself, which had really resonated with me, and I wanted to read more of him. Still, I came to Tulip with some skepticism. After all, dog writing is … a challenge, to put it gently, something most commonly found alongside tributes to dead grandparents in the personal statements of unsuccessful college applicants. I can’t bring myself to write about my own beloved dog, because I imagine a reader reacting the way I do when a celebrity goes on a talk show and tells a story about their kids as though no other child has ever existed.
But Ackerley, amazingly, seems immune to shame. He spends no energy on the page justifying why Tulip is a worthy literary subject. Instead, he focuses on detail. Every detail. The book features a chapter called “Liquids and Solids,” which is about exactly what you think it’s about, beginning with a quote on a particularly satisfying [bowel movement] of Napoleon’s and then moving into careful descriptions of Tulip in the act: “A mild, meditative look settles on her face.” As the book moves forward, the specificity only increases. At first, the reader is suspended in a sort of purgatory of literary expectation. Something has to happen soon, we reason. The plot will kick in or the larger purpose of the book will reveal itself. But the plot is only that Tulip is alive, and the larger purpose is only Ackerley attempting to support and record that life. Somehow, though, we begin to feel a subtle yet undeniably forceful momentum. It’s as though we’re building to a critical mass of the mundane. I notice this, he tells us. And I notice this, and this and this. When Tulip wakes up, I watch her. When she goes to the bathroom, I watch her. When she falls asleep, falls ill, gives birth, I watch her.
My favorite passage comes at the very end of the book. Every time I return to it, it has the same goosebump effect on me, even though I know what’s coming — Ackerley had been building to a crescendo without me even noticing it. After 170 pages, he tweaks the register he’s working in. I feel him open up the throttle and finally, after so much careful observation and notation, the emotion begins flowing freely out of his descriptions. There are a few more paragraphs after this one (I’m leaving them out because I don’t want to spoil it), but this is the moment where my heart begins to quicken as I read.
The passage begins quite simply; Ackerley is walking Tulip in the park. The sentences are very intentionally matter-of-fact, at first: “It is winter. It is her thirteenth day. It was on her thirteenth day that she was fertilized, three years ago.” This is almost cartoonishly deadpan, a doctor reading a chart. Ackerley is reaffirming for us just how dedicated he is to every detail. But look how quickly he turns from the matter-of-fact to the operatic, as he shows us how much he worries for her:
I pick up the broken glass that is everywhere to be found and upon which Tulip sometimes cuts her feet. I pick it up throughout the year whenever I notice it, but it is only now when the high summer seas of bracken have sunk to a low brown froth that I can see it where I fear it most, at their roots. Here, where she was so lately pouncing … The scattered fragments of broken bottles are bad enough—so sharp that, cautiously though I gather them, I often prick my fingers—but in their midst I sometimes find the butt-end still planted upright in the turf where boys stuck it, the other day or years ago, as target for their stones. Its splintered sides stand up like spears. I gaze at Tulip's slender, long-toed feet in dismay. The little knuckly bones that curve over the four front pads are more delicate than a bird's claw. And the pads themselves: I used to suppose them made of some tough, resistant, durable substance, such as rubber or gutta-percha; but they are sponges of blood. The tiniest thorn can pierce them, a sharp edge of glass, trodden on merely at walking pace, can slice them open like grapes. How they bleed! And what age they take, by slow granulation, to heal! Together they fit, indeed, to form a kind of quilted cushion; but dogs spread their toes for pouncing, and in between is only soft furry flesh and all the vital tendons of the leg. One pounce upon this bottle, with both front feet perhaps ... I pick it up. I pick it all up, every tiny fragment. I seek it out, I root it up, this lurking threat to our security, our happiness, in the heart of the wood; day after day I uncover it and root it up, this disease in the heart of life.
Shards of broken glass, the kind found in every public park in every city in the world, become spears; overgrown grass that hides the spears becomes the high summer seas of bracken, and when the grass recedes we’re left with a low, brown froth where the spears lurk. Every word is ominous. The details of the setting loom larger and larger, not because they grow but because Ackerley creates the opposite effect. We feel him leaning closer, looking so carefully, and it’s the closeness in his gaze, his dedication to looking, that transforms the subject.
Tulip’s paws are sponges of blood, he realizes. What a phrase. It is, on the one hand, simply put and true. But it also takes on such weight. Tulip is so full of life, she is life, and yet the blood can be drained so quickly, from one prick or squeeze. How they bleed! Ackerley writes of her paws, and we feel every bit of the emotion behind these words, the tiny trauma that occurs whenever he sees the dog he loves in pain. So much narrative power is derived from this simple series of observations: There is glass everywhere; Tulip is fragile enough to be cut by glass; Ackerley remembers how it looks when she gets cut. There is both story and back story pulsing through this moment, and there’s suspense, too, as he wonders on each new walk whether he’ll fail to protect her and she’ll get cut again.
Life is small. Our routines are rote and nearly imperceptible. Often, in writing classrooms, we’re told that it’s this smallness that makes a piece of literature. There are a million quotes to this affect adorning a million white boards in every school in America: Most of our lives are basically mundane and dull, and it’s up to the writer to find ways to make them interesting (that’s Updike). Or, Life is not plot; it’s in the details (that’s Jodi Picoult). I could go on. Usually, though, this sentiment ends up seeming as hollow and insincere as write what you know. Because we do cherish plot, we do fetishize the arc, the action, the twist. In nonfiction, we also fetishize the aboutness. We openly question if the reality of a writer’s subject is worth discussing. We prioritize a weighty topic over the force of an author’s gaze, the clarity of her prose, the sincerity of her emotion. Underneath it all runs that same droning question that plagued me as a student, and still does sometimes: Who cares? Who cares? Who cares?
Ackerley answers this simply: I do. And he goes on to give us a virtuoso performance of care. I think I keep returning to this passage, and the book as a whole, because it’s important for me to remind myself sometimes that, at its heart, that’s all a great essay is: a virtuoso performance of care. Sure, Ackerly is not the only writer who seems to intuit this. There are many wonderful and far more canonical examples of this quality that I can turn to: Virginia Woolf really cared about that poor moth, and Didion really cared about her notebook, and Montaigne really cared about, well, everything. But Woolf’s moth was a metaphor, an animal being used very overtly to get at larger themes within Woolf herself. And Didion’s style is always as much of her passion as her subject (as well it should be). And Montaigne is constantly pushing out into the grandiose; whatever topic any of his essays is originally “on” quickly gets left behind. I read Ackerley because his care for his subject is ever-focused, non-metaphorical, pure. He understands the narrative power of a writer’s concentrated gaze, and he never wavers. So we see Tulip’s “little knuckly bones” and the “slow granulation” of her healing wounds, details that mean so much because he bothers to notice them.
I know there’s some danger in celebrating a writer’s blind fidelity to his own interests. It can smack of over-supportiveness—kumbaya, all essays are special snowflakes, etc, etc. But that’s not the sense that reading My Dog Tulip gave me. It didn’t absolve me from hard, self-critical work. Instead, it woke me up to the fact that spending one’s time fretting about aboutness is a deflection from the essayist’s real challenge: to think and feel as deeply and specifically as possible about whatever it is you’re looking at. Tulip reminds me that the subject of an essay does not need to prove itself worthy of the writer or reader’s care, but rather that the force of the care in the writing should be able to render any subject worthy. J.R. Ackerley had a dog and he watched her live her life and he cared about every detail of that life while knowing that someday it would end. What could be a worthier subject than that?