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Inspiration in Three Quotes

                                    Sonja Livingston

Considered in this essay: "Dare: A Parenthetical Aside" from Waccamaw No. 7, Spring 2011


“Make Voyages! Attempt them…there’s nothing else.”
—Tennessee Williams

I begin with a quote about voyages because for me, essays are nothing so much as a means of travel. An essay moves. It is unbridled freedom and is, at times, as difficult to pin down as the wind. And why not? Essays are human thought made visible, limited only by the writer’s imagination. The essay becomes an imprint of the writer’s interior world, and as such, is as varied as the human mind; sometimes tight and highfalutin, other times as wild and flapping as a determined bird. But whether they meander or gently excavate or come at their subject like little hammers, they venture through space and time, and in this, essays are more like airships than anything else.

In the essay, "Dare: A Parenthetical Aside," I used the writing to journey to the 16th century and the beginnings of English colonization of the New World. Not only do I travel, but I find the one topic I’d set my sights on, locking onto the child abandoned at Roanoke Colony, embracing the mystery of Virgina Dare and the girl herself: picking her up and examining her, eventually cradling the baby as we sit together in the sand.

“An idea, like a ghost, must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself.”
—Charles Dickens

The essays I’m writing these days push against the expectations of traditional biography, memoir and philosophical rumination—of which they are a hybrid. The essays explore their subjects not only through the acquisition and arrangement of fact, but by sifting fact through the personal filters of language, memory, and intuition. In this way, they are more like conversations than anything else. In the Virginia Dare essay, I wanted to embrace creativity more fully and insert myself into the dialogue. As a result, this essay is the book report I wanted to write in 4th grade, before the teacher routed out the “I” and outlawed the use of imagination. This essay, and the others in the collection, are anti-book reports then, not only allowing for personal intrusion, but depending upon it.

“Only good girls keep diaries, bad girls never have the time.”
—Talullah Bankhead

In fact, most girls do not keep diaries. Nor do most people. In the case of the lives of women, which I’ve been writing, even the most unusual, there is little record of their accomplishments, and certainly little record of their interior lives. People were too busy surviving to write, or lacked the resources, inclination, or audience to record the stories of their lives.

In the Virginia Dare essay, I wanted to shine a light on the little known colonist, hoping people might think of her more, or think of her differently, or think of her at all—but the real truth is that I simply followed what fascinated me. And whether my subjects are torn from the dusty pages of history, pulled from the gauzy folds of memory, or channeled through personal experience, the subjects become real to me as I write her.

In this case, it was the mystery of a particular child, and the experience of being so new to the world, and lost at the same time that captivated me, as well as the powerful and arbitrary role of chance. I didn’t know where the essay would lead. I simply wrote, and found myself accompanied by the sentiments inherent to any expedition; the uncertainty and curiosity, the hesitation, and moments of pure wonder.

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