In his introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, the text for my fall Loft course, Phillip Lopate quotes the early eighteenth century British essayist Joseph Addison:  “I live in the World rather as a Spectator of Mankind than as one of the species.”  In fact, Addison and his co-editor, Richard Steele, chose to name one of their periodicals The Spectator.  The other was The Tatler. I am guessing that many writers, both those inclined toward essay and those who create fiction out of their observations of “real” life, could comfortably clothe themselves in Addison’s self-definition.  The term “Tatler” fits us, too, because we make tall or true tales of what we observe.

We are the people who drift around in social gatherings, tuning in to conversations in progress but seldom initiating our own.  Eavesdropping on others’ conversations yields a wider comprehension of human life than we can attain through our own narrow lines of inquiry. Mine is limited by my knowledge, my imagination, and my Scandinavian American sense of propriety.  As an oral historian, too, I look forward to the moment when the interviewee launches into a story that opens the memory wide and loosens the tongue, and I can set aside my prepared questions and relish the unexpected.

We spectators tend to get pegged as either shy or aloof.  People who perceive us as shy and want to invite us into conversation begin with the kind but dreaded question, “What are you writing now?”  We dread it because material not yet fully articulated in writing is even harder to express in speech–especially with pleasant spontaneity.  We may have an answer at the ready that sounds so pat it discourages further conversation.  If we fumble to describe our work in the moment, we entangle ourselves in a monologue of arcane information and half-baked ideas that drives the listener off to fetch another drink. We could, of course, forestall the question by asking one ourselves, but hmmm, which question? The proper, expected how are you? A quirky, revealing one? The one we are truly curious to have answered? No, we’d rather watch and listen. A cloak of invisibility would be nice.

Our writing vocation requires us to spend most of our working hours in solitude.  We string words together, rearrange them, delete some and replace them with others.  We become, at times, too mired in language to speak it fluently, or too rapt in fertile silence to break it easily. This habit of solitude has led me to identify with other solitary creatures.  My totem, if I had one, would be the white egret standing alone at the edge of a wetland, all senses alert to fish.  The sight of an egret turns a bland day euphoric.  One gorgeous day this past August, I left the usual freeway route and took a road that crosses a floodplain of the Minnesota River.  Standing in a wetland alongside were scores of white egrets, each at its own post, focused on its own fishing task.  The scene reminded me of Ragdale, a writers’ and artists’ retreat in Lake Forest, Illinois, where residents wander the adjacent prairie alone, sit in the garden alone and daydream, or pass each other with a quick meeting of the eyes, mouths resolutely shut. At dinner at the end of the day, we are happy and ready for conversation. Awkward conversation, sometimes, but no matter.  We know most of us would rather spectate, then go back to our desks and tattle.


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