Thursday Think Day: Brevity, Lia Purpura, and the moral essay

It’s Thursday Think Day again, and I’m excited to tell you what I’ve been thinking about.

I attended a meeting last night, in which I was to pitch my genre – creative nonfiction – to some undergraduate students who were interested in hearing about it, possibly even writing it.  I knew I couldn’t do this alone – or, I was too tired to do it without help from some pieces of paper with writing on them – so I turned to Brevity, the journal of concise literary nonfiction that lends itself so well to this purpose.  It is readily accessed, and its content is conducive to presentation in a limited time, as it is all remarkably short.

To demonstrate the virtues of creative nonfiction – and of the essay in particular – I turned to Lia Purpura’s “On Being a Trucker.”  It begins with speculation as to the language used by truckers to describe their cargoes, and then follows a quick series of associations to reach a conclusion that is utterly astonishing, given the sweep of its implications, its apparent distance from the opening lines, and the celerity with which its author leads us to them.  You don’t need me to tell you this; I urge you to follow the link and read it, which is something that requires so little effort I sometimes feel guilty for not giving thanks to the Internet more often, it makes some tasks so easy for us.

Purpura’s essay is like a precisely landed punch to the chest, and it makes plain several of the things I value in the essay, or in creative nonfiction generally.  One is obvious:  Purpura’s relationship to her reader is a rather unique one, one by which she may offer her simulated train of thought in a more or less straightforward fashion, directly from writer to reader.  The essay as a genre is also known, I explained to my very small audience, for precisely the sort of movements Purpura makes, as an essay follows a series of unlikely associations, often to their equally unlikely conclusion.  Not only does the piece demonstrate – and very briefly – the virtues of the essay; it is simply a great piece of writing.

So what have I been thinking about this today?  Well, whenever I come across an essay that warrants great enthusiasm – which isn’t rare – like an entomologist, I want to catalogue it, and decide what kind of essay it is.  I don’t think Purpura’s is a personal essay, though I couldn’t rule it out; it reasons things out a little to explicitly to be a lyric essay – a conclusion I suspect many would disagree with; and I would have a hard time calling it a familiar essay.  Rather, I have been interested, more and more lately, in the moral essay, an essay subgenre you don’t hear much about anymore, but which I think might be in for some recognition, and which I think this might be an example of.  Because it’s Thursday Think Day, and not Explain Yourself Sunday, I’m going to leave it at that.

Robert Long Foreman is The Missouri Review’s Social Media Editor.