When it comes to writing personal essays, self-absorption is the authorial equivalent of rat poison—injurious to the writer’s reputation, fatal to the little essay itself. Narcissism may play well in celebrity memoirs and on the staged sets of “reality TV” dramas (wink, wink), but in personal essays, even the comical varieties, it just won’t do. Robert Atwan, the Olympian anthologizer who founded and edits the Best American Essays series, recognized the toxicity of self-absorption and prescribed “self-skepticism and a respect for uncertainty” as the essay writer’s surest corrective. Phillip Lapote, who brought us the magnificent doorstop of an anthology, Art of the Personal Essay, advised writers, paradoxically at first glance, to outmaneuver self-absorption by “baring the naked soul.” This would, he assured, “awaken the sympathy of the reader, who is apt to forgive the essayist’s self-absorption in return for the warmth of his or her candor.” This is all splendid and nurturing advice, if a bit abstract. It’s one thing to harangue a high school pitcher to “Throw the curveball, for chrissakes!” but another to show the kid how to place the fingers on the baseball seams, how to snap the wrist to let the ball loose to find its confounding trajectory. What the kid needs is technique—a special, studied way of efficiently executing a task—to arc the ball across the plate. The personal essayist needs technique to avoid sounding like a self-obsessed jackass.
And here we arrive at Minneapolis writer Richard Terrill and his diverting collection of personal essays, titled Essentially. The book is a marvel of expertly calibrated technique. In eighteen essays, Terrill demonstrates an astonishing mastery of voice, composition, and scene-writing, chopping a path through the routine entanglements of his life while avoiding the quicksands of self-absorption. More anecdotalist than aphorist, he focuses on small moments— lingering memories, really—to weave elegiac stories that resolve into meaning or mystery, or something delightfully in between. Be warned, he is no spelunker of the soul; he never retreats into the darkest recesses of his psyche merely to entertain us. We come to understand Terrill, rather, as we watch him turn his camera eye onto the surrounding terrain, like a Mars rover of the Midwest. We witness scenes of his family summering in their Wisconsin cabin, of his frail mother struggling in a nursing home. We hear the lively conversation of his aunts, the annoying bark of suburban dogs, the unsolicited opinions of bothersome neighbors. We feel the boredom of disinterested students in professor Terrill’s college class. There are few milestone events on display here, only a kaleidoscope of minor scenes that, so artfully joined together, touch on themes ranging from hearing loss and jazz to nostalgia and mortality; meanwhile, they persuade us that any long life, whatever its sundry vexations, has a certain lovely and oceanic languor. It’s difficult to fix these essays in time. Terrill is sparse with dates, and the essays appeared in various literary journals over the years. Yet they speak clearly to our Zeitgeist. Terrill uses our invasion of Iraq, Trump, the climate crisis, and Covid as the backdrop to the scenes he stages. Finally, the book is a hogshead packed with humor and sly drolleries, much of which is probably best described as “comedy in a doleful key,” in Truman Capote’s memorable phrase.
But technique. Let’s start with Terrill’s temperate and amiable voice. Writers, like the magicians they are, rely on a bag of tricks to achieve their designs. Terrill’s bag is big and his arm long enough to reach into the bottom, it seems. To win our trust, he gets colloquial, chummy. He uses contractions (don’t, won’t, isn’t, etc.), knocks his train of thought off the rails with barreling parenthetical asides, lobs questions at his readers, invokes the imperative mood (“don’t tell me” he says in one essay) and insistently refers to “you” and “we.” Between the front and back covers of this collection, the word “you” appears more than 400 times. Having established himself as a sociable fellow, he then behaves like a real pal. He can be sincere (explaining why his college is offering a class on film, he deadpans, “We need the money”), cheeky (“OK, I exaggerate—because I’m good at it”), self-deprecating (“At any given moment, I don’t know much”), and a bit of a practical joker (“If you’re among the majority of people on the planet who don’t listen to jazz and have never heard of Bill Evans, you could have skipped the preceding passage. But I decided not to tell you that until now”). The technique employed to create this intimate voice transcends connivance. It’s conjury and of the most agreeable sort. By the final essay, we feel as if we have strolled down shaded streets with one of those patrician wits who flourished in Rome back in the day, wiser for the conversation, and also amused.
Terrill has enjoyed a long career as an English professor (now Professor Emeritus at Minnesota State University, Mankato), and the remarkable multiplicity of essay structures in Essentially suggests he could, if academia ever required such an undertaking, teach English composition courses in a narcoleptic deep sleep. He understands his material and fashions the appropriate essay form—the guidelines for writing personal essays are infamously flexible and fluid in this regard—to meet the material’s architectural demands. Take, for example, the first essay, titled “Solstice.” It opens in a nursing home, where Terrill is tenderly and gingerly trying to assist his mother, who is losing her memory and withering to incapacity. She blurts out, testily, “I just want to be somewhere where I can help someone. I’m trying to be a person.” The scene ends with him walking her down to the lunchroom. The next scene immediately follows. Terrill goes kayaking by himself and, while putting his kayak back atop his car, notices a turtle burying eggs in the sand at the edge of the parking lot. He hurries the turtle back to the lake and on his drive home stops six more times to hurry turtles out of the middle of the gravel road “before they’re run over by some driver who doesn’t care.” The end. A small meditation on compassion delivered in two scenes. Other essays are more complex. One titled “Who was Bill Evans?” is almost improvisational in form, consisting of seemingly random strings of facts on Evans (a jazz pianist whose life has been elusive for biographers), juxtaposed with snippets of an interview with Evans, a critical review, and random quotes from people who knew him. A Japanese poem is stuffed somewhere in there as well. Every sentence, every paragraph, every scene is composed to serve Terrill’s purpose. And what is his purpose? A tricky question. Obvious “moral of the story” lessons have largely absented themselves from these imagistic essays, spun out with such raconteurial artifice. Terrill’s disposition grows garlicky only when he’s lamenting the loss of wilderness and environmental degradation, which is also when the few “moral of the story” moments become obvious.
As for Terrill’s skills as a scenarist, they’re what make his essays so enjoyable. One scene intelligently follows another, culminating in metaphorical sigh, mild bemusement, or modest revelation; the scenes always add up. It’s probably best to let the man speak for himself. Here is a scene from the essay “Yet Again to the Lake,” in which Terrill returns to the Wisconsin lake where his family owned a cabin and he spent his childhood summers:
But in this oldest memory the porch is just being built. It must be 1956, and I’m barely three years old. I remember feeling far away, out there alone by the lake, maybe fifteen adult steps from where the others are standing and talking in the back yard of the cottage. I look at the unfinished structure of the porch, the floorboards laid on the frame, and its incomplete nature frightens me, as if it’s something I shouldn’t see. Maybe it’s like seeing someone in their underwear, the immodest beams and joists. Or maybe I know that this work has been done by other men, not by my father, who has no talent for carpentry; thus I have no call to be here.
Next I look toward the lake, and the sky gray with dense clouds. There is something other out there, a landscape outside of my body, unpeopled and thus alien, exciting. I turn and run back toward the driveway, towards family and safety.
That’s it. Not even a story, hardly a picture. Just some boards lying on an unenclosed floor, and fall coolness in the air, me running awkwardly in too many clothes. A little trip away from civilization and back again.
And here’s a scene from “On Hearing/On Listening,” which Terrill relates while constantly reminding the reader that he is spinning the story for his own ends. Notice also that he amusingly invites the reader to participate in the scene’s construction:
Beethoven was near the end of his life, but still doing what he could to keep people from knowing about his deafness, which by this point was profound. He was conducting an orchestra in rehearsal of one of his works — let’s say it was the Ninth Symphony, since that makes the best story.
In this story, Beethoven, knowing his score by heart, conducted with his eyes closed. Or perhaps he’d just finished writing the movement the orchestra was rehearsing, and his eyes were buried in the score. Choose the detail you like best; this was all a long time ago.
Then for some reason the orchestra and chorus (Was it the last movement of the Ninth? Were there singers present too?) all stopped at once. Perhaps the manager of the theater walked in, waving his hands, to announce what time the green room would be available before next weekend’s opening night. Did the nineteenth century Vienna concert halls have green rooms? If so, were the green rooms green?
Or maybe the concert hall was old and heavy snow had fallen over Vienna all that winter. And now, finally, the roof began to leak, and pieces of plaster from the ceiling were dropping like light rain over the music stands of the second violins. Stop!
Or maybe a malcontent rushed into the empty theater and shouted fire.
What happened next, though, was that the eyes of the orchestra’s players rose up from their parts to the figure of Beethoven — who continued to conduct with as much passion, as much vigor as he’d had the moment before. His shock of hair, unkempt now, thrown from side to side, a half second behind the beat. The great eyes indeed closed, as if alive in death, as if dying but still in this life.
He listened through his dark silence, and for him the music went on, glorious and undiminished.
Terrill is a grandmaster at recreating this kind of moment, providing enough detail to convey the actuality of his surroundings, but never piling on too much furniture, a move that would disrupt the narrative flow and injure the essay’s internal feng shui. The writer Kathleen Norris suggested that personal essays should “feel less like a monologue than a dialogue between writer and reader,” the result of this abracadabra being that “the reader finds that what might have been the author’s self-absorption has been transformed into hospitality.” Hospitality—this is the quality we find in our dialogue with Terrill. His language wafts between wit and eloquence, his thoughts run from mere musing to trenchant contemplation, and every sentence affirms the mastery of craft, the triumph of technique.