Why choose the essay form?
History and inclination, I’d say. I spent quite a few years teaching what we called, hopefully, “expository writing.” We didn’t expect anything like finished essays from our students; we were trying to coach them into writing clearly and concisely so that they could be good communicators in their various jobs. But we used the best essays for models and springboards for student writing, and I got used to looking at how good essays were put together, and also to encouraging students to see how they worked. Those were really lit classes where I taught the literary form that was somewhat neglected in the rest of the literature curriculum.
But I like the essay form because it’s not just a way of trying to craft something that is satisfying; before I get to the revising and refining stages, writing an essay is a way of thinking about a subject that does not happen until I seek to form sentences about it.
What is the hardest part of creating a collection of essays?
Well, just as in all writing, you have to murder your darlings. I put the whole corpus of work since my last collection together and tried to look at it as ruthlessly as I could. Is there really enough good stuff for a collection there? As it turned out, there wasn’t; I had to write a couple of essays to make up for the weakest parts I kept finding in the collection, and I was doing that cutting and substitution right up until the time we went into production.
How did you decide what went into this book?
As I have said, it was a decision based on the quality of the whole group of essays I was choosing from. I do not see this collection of essays as having a theme or unity beyond those features of style and favorite structures and methods of development that are unique to me, and those features, while they may be obvious to others, are mostly opaque to me. I think this omnium gatherum sort of nature is reflected in the title: And Other Essays. The subject matter too, keeps coming back to what Michael did last summer: there are a couple of essays about flying, a couple about gyms, one about golf, and a bunch about what I’ve read and reread.
Are essays primarily sources of information or entertainment?
I suppose a writer’s unique viewpoint about a topic might give you information of a sort, but I think mostly what you find out about by reading a book like this is my take on things. Of course I strive for accuracy in writing about climate change or the New Atheism or what various writers have to say, but I certainly hope I’m not the main source of your information about any of those topics, and I hope also, fervently, that you find what I have to say about them entertaining, because I’m convinced you won’t continue reading me very long if you don’t.
What experiences have helped shape you as a writer?
The short answer is everything I’ve done or read. And also what I’ve written: I wrote academic essays and books all during my teaching career, and when I retired I knew I didn’t want to do that anymore. But I still wanted to write, and I discovered that I could think about things that had happened to me and things I’d read in a very free and enjoyable way by writing about them without the sorts of constraints I had while writing about Shakespeare or nineteenth-century English paintings and novels for an academic press. I know, though, that academic writing is very useful, and mostly for the person who’s doing the writing. Again, it’s because it’s a concentrated way of thinking about the subject. And there were plenty of things that had happened to me throughout my life that weren’t very well sorted out in my mind before I began to write about them. Reading is the main way we learn about what’s going on in other people’s heads, and knowing what other people are thinking is a way to see that our troubles and concerns aren’t unique. Writing is a way of giving back to that conversation and when it works at all, it works both ways, for the reader and the writer. Once I had realized a few of these things, I became a writer in the sense that writing became as necessary for me as reading.
— Michael was interviewed by Lauryn Garrard, Assistant Editor, IP, in October 2020
Michael's previous book with IP is A Place to Read