Disclaimer: It is difficult, sometimes, when you truly enjoy someone’s work, to avoid discussing it like a fangirl. However, for the sake of scholarly effort, I will endeavor to be slightly more critical then pouring out purely biased adoration.
I was first exposed to Ander Monson’s work during my Art of the Essay workshop with David Griffith during the fall semester of my sophomore year of college. That semester turned out to be the perfect context in which to read Ander Monson’s work, because I was taking two other writing workshops at the same time: playwriting and fiction. I was also collaborating on a semester-long video project. So while I was learning how to distinguish between multiple medias and genres, I was becoming enthralled in the work of a man who – in my opinion – is teaching many modern writers how to utilize and combine them. In fact, what continues to grab me each and every time I read a piece of Ander Monson’s work is the way he utilizes the page and various expressional forms.
I still remember one of his first essays I read, entitled, “I Have Been Thinking About Snow” – which appears in his collection Neck Deep and Other Predicaments. In the piece, Monson uses periods between thoughts, almost as if he held the key down while thinking. At one point the periods completely swallow two full pages, with the exception of a brief phrase I no longer recall, until it looks as if the text is actually sitting on a bed of snowflakes, or perhaps falling with them. The text becomes the image, and as such is further expressed by it.
I’m not sure if Ander Monson chose to put the grey images of the Is behind the text of this essay, but my guess – based on his previous work as well as his role on his website and other online or mixed-media projects – is that he did, and so I read it with that assumption in mind. What that led me to see at first is the way that this essay starts with the large and universal. On the first page the I is present as everything it could be: a typeface character, a person, even God. Monson also often plays with words to reflect more than one of those concepts at a given time, and transition between them. For example:
“The world is filled with them, jutting, jousting, rutting, roasting them on television cooking and other shows. Sometimes it’s easy to believe that without I there would be no world. Certainly there’d be no universe.”
This excerpt highlights my second favorite aspect of Monson’s work: the poetic language. So many times in this essay I feel that Monson’s control of language, of form, of every single word on the page, is so strong that it is almost as if I’m reading a very long prose poem. Throughout the essay words, and Is, are imbued with double and triple meaning. And that is what comes of being a hybrid, I suppose. But what impresses me is not only what Monson attempts with his work, but that it is achieved. Monson combines picture with image, prose with poetry, and does it successfully.
We live in a world where, as Monson phrases it, “Students in creative writing programs are toiling by the thousands trying to find their voices. Meaning, partly, trying to select their voices from the thousands of voices they encounter in book, in life, in workshop, at readings, in songs, at bars, chat rooms, online.” He’s right, of course. As students, we all try so desperately to be original (while maybe conforming just enough for that A+), and yet in many cases fail spectacularily. Monson, who many consider a highly original and innovative writer, even admits, “I read DeLillo, I write a DeLilloish story. … We become possessed, we no longer I but a kind of nested us.”
This struggle with voice, with who or what the I is, or is if even exists, continues through the essay, with the background Is shrinking and moving. Indeed, as Monson states, “The more you press on it, think about I, about what we present as our individual pieces of I, the smaller it gets.” As the Is shift with the essay, I goes from being the predominant image to the framework, to the barely present background, to not being present at all except for where it is imbedded within the text. The lens changes, so to speak. Monson transitions from examining the I to increasing the discussion of his own experience as an I. The effect is compelling, as it becomes quickly apparent that – in the context of the essay, at least – Monson defines himself as an I through personal memories such as those from a camp one summer, and through the insecurities that come with things as insignificant as the straightness of teeth. From there the essay concludes with the resonating image of a palm tree, both significant for its shape and Monson’s use of it as a metaphor for the I.
In all honesty, the only portion of this essay that I am struggling with, that I feel especially critical about, is the last page. I felt a bit as if the meaning of the essay had been engraved in stone just for me, and I missed out on the accomplishment of discovering the meaning on my own. I believe that this I, like other attentive readers, could understand that the palm tree is a metaphor (that Monson turns into a simile) for the I, that everything is a metaphor for the I, because the I is embedded within everything. If I were to presume to take an editing eye to this essay (and I don’t dare imply I am qualified to do so) I would simply put the last sentence on the final page, like so:
“Removed from our histories of self, our lives, that constant backward looking, searching for what we might sontain, or in what we are contained – we might well disappear.”