Why This Collection Of Essays By Women Is Essential For Literature And For Life

by Gila Lyons

In an age of mansplaining, misogyny, and a sexist buffoon about to take office, women’s voices, and voices of all marginalized populations, need amplification and bolstering. So I was thrilled when I got my hands on a copy of Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women, edited by Marcia Aldrich. The collection comprises new and previously published essays by such literary stars as Cheryl Strayed, Eula Biss, Roxane Gay, Margo Jefferson, Meghan Daum, Leslie Jamison, as well as lesser known female essayists like Kyoko Mori, Neela Vaswani, and Bich Minh Nguyen.

Aldrich, a writer, editor, and professor of creative writing at Michigan State University, writes in the book’s introduction: “Women have been instrumental in moving the essay to the center of the literary stage. They have been writing in the form brilliantly for decades and centuries, a lineage that runs back through Jamaica Kincaid and Joan Didion to Virginia Woolf, Harriet Martinueau, and further still. Yet the current flourishing of the form is unprecedented in both variety and volume….versatility and range.”

French writer Michel de Montaigne was the first to describe his writings as “essays,” or “attempts.” In 1580, he categorized his work as such, borrowed from the Middle French, “essai” meaning “trial,” from the Late Latin “exagium,” “a weighing.” Phillip Lopate wrote in his canonic anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay, “As Michel de Montaigne, the great innovator and patron saint of personal essayists, put it, ‘Every man has within himself the entire human condition.’” So does every woman.

For hundreds of years only men had access to the printing press, education, and platform. So while women and people of color and gender non-conforming writers catch up, a space to thrive, flourish, and gain airtime is essential. Woolf demanded for women a room of our own. Now we have a book of our own.
Waveform is not arranged thematically and does not focus on “women’s issues.” Rather it highlights “the writers’ interaction with all manner of subject and circumstance through style, voice, tone, and structure,” as Aldrich writes. And the subject and style vary hugely. There are pieces about race, pain, family, pop culture, literature, politics and religion. There are narrative essays, lyric essays, graphic essays, found essays and essays whose forms resist definition.

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Aldrich asserts, “There is no one-size-fits-all essay today, just as there is no one-size-fits-all woman. Individual women explore the form in their own way, and neither the writer nor her work can be pigeonholed. The contemporary essay is alive and breathing, and it changes, reshaping itself in every moment.” This struck me as a particularly feminine description of the form — shape-shifting and fluid like the moon, the womb, water. Aldrich explains, “The essay is today a site of invention and innovation, with experiments in collage, fragments, segmentation, braids, triptychs, and diptychs. There are found essays, collaborative essays, list essays, not to forget the potent rise of the flash nonfiction essay.”

In the last decade, many female essayists have published books that have sat solidly on the New York Times Best Seller List for weeks, months, and in some cases, years. Many of these women are included in this anthology. So is this book necessary? The Sunday Book Review asked Cheryl Strayed, Is This a Golden Age for Women Essayists? Strayed responded, “As long as we still have reason to wedge “women” as a qualifier before ‘essayist,’ the age is not exactly golden. Would we ever think to ask if this is a golden age for men essayists?” Touché.

Aldrich writes, “This book is not a memorial. Although we need to remember the women writers who have come before, this book is about women writing essays now. The wave is an image that catches the sense and motion that define the current movement, its fluidity and momentum. Waves are continuous, one coming after another, but a single wave shows the water’s shape at a given time. This book is part of the larger motion of many women bringing essays into being, building on the energy and daring of other writers, essayist adding their work to what is bigger than any one writer.”

Her remarks remind me of a Ram Dass parable a friend told around a camp fire one night — there were waves deep in the ocean coming into shore, a big wave, and a little wave. The big wave grew increasingly anxious as they neared the shore. The little wave asked what was wrong. “You don’t want to know,” the bigger wave said, “If you knew, you’d never be happy again.” The little wave begged the bigger wave to spill the beans. The big wave sighed and explained, “You can’t see it from down there, but I can see that all of us waves are crashing on the shore and disappearing. Forever.” The small wave looked up at its friend with serenity and a peaceful smile. “But we’re not waves,” it said, “we’re water.”

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