Elaboration: Anatomy of an Essay
On Eula Biss's "Goodbye to All That"
Robert Graves fought in the trenches of the First World War, after which he wrote a memoir called Goodbye to All That in 1929. Later, Joan Didion wrote an essay called “Goodbye to All That” about her experiences as a young woman working at Vogue in New York, consciously referencing Graves’s memoir. And finally Eula Biss wrote an essay called “Goodbye to All That,” consciously referencing Didion’s essay (and Graves’s memoir). This kind of thematic and structural reference in the composition of a new work is what one might call a shadow text. It’s a device of elaboration, a way of composing that makes a text more complexly interesting to the reader. When you have a series of three works like this, you can start speaking about a recession of reference (and in my lecture linked below, I read a passage from a student’s work based on Biss’s essay, for a series of four linked works).
You might look back at my first newsletter about techniques of elaboration here to remind yourselves what I mean by elaboration and how it works as a compositional strategy in writing. Here’s a brief extract, if you don’t want to bother looking up the original.
Elaboration is my word for a bundle of techniques and processes for expanding, filling out, detailing, and concretizing a given subject, passage, sentence, clause or phrase (you could also add making the topic entertaining and interesting to the reader). The rhetorical term for this is AMPLIFICATION, which you can look up. You can think of them as techniques for working upon a given subject, manipulating it and adding information by using forms, by formal means.
In this view, all techniques are techniques of elaboration, ways of creating opportunities (I call it aesthetic space) for inventing new material, perspectives, patterns, and meanings. In other words, technique is not just something one learns for the sake of learning it. Technique is a mode invention (elaboration) in itself. It creates content.
Eula Biss writes beautiful essays. She is one of those new young writers riding a boomlet in essay writing, a tidal wave of intricate, dazzling nonfiction that has perhaps got something to do with the late 20th century proliferation of creative writing schools or, on a deeper level, an epochal yearning for solitude and the grace of good craftsmanship. Essays are intricate miniatures; they are often more about their own form than their presumed subject matter. Essay writers are like figure skaters carving their arabesques and curlicues on the ice, focused on the pursuit of form, alone on the frozen page.
The first thing you notice about a good essay is that it doesn’t just deliver the message, tell a story, or convey the facts. An essay’s allure depends on its rhythmic structures, its elaborations of theme, and its density of internal and external resonance, those rhymes, echoes and textual recollections (recognitions) that create a fizzy sense of activity, circulation, ebullience, life itself. But an essay is protean, too. It’s formal without being a single form, a basket of forms. To understand an essay well you need to read a lot of essays, proceed by induction, collect a took kit of devices, an app directory, useful for reading as much if not more so than for writing.
Biss's essay "Goodbye to All That" is an essay about a young woman, Eula Biss, living in New York for three years. It's a female adventure story, the portrait of an artist as an office temp (among other things), full of dreams, encountering Gotham for the first time. It's also about the nature of narrative. It's an essay about the passage of time, about our habit of telling stories to explain what happened to us and how we changed. Living in New York for three years and then an essay about telling stories — already you have two things going on. Add to that the shadow texts (Didion and Graves) adumbrated in the title, and you have a structure of three simultaneously developing elements that form the basis of the essay.
You can follow the link below to listen to my lecture. You can also download my lecture outline (.docx) and an annotated pdf of the Biss essay. You’ll need a pdf reader to access the annotations.
The lecture is dense, fast paced, and full of quoted examples of devices and techniques. You’ll probably need to listen more than once, read the essays by Biss and Didion, and study my outline and annotated pdf. Besides shadow texts (and the rewriting of shadow text), I discuss the technique of authorial branding, chronology vs anachrony, then/now constructions, theme (and how to develop one), forcing, word patterning and branch patterns, aphorisms, lists and series, anaphora and parallel construction, dissonance and denial of expectation, and pre-stories.