As a writer, I’m particularly enamored with Werner Herzog’s notion of ecstatic truth which he talks about in this clip. “I’ve been after something like…justice within pictures,” he says in his German accent before letting out a faint moan of frustration and moving his hands in gestures similar to those portrayed in antiquated Italian paintings of Christ’s apostles. “It’s very strange to explain it,” he says, looking at the floor.
I’ve felt this need for balance, for a certain justice, most acutely when writing short stories. Every word has to be tuned or the whole narrative falls apart. I’m looking for a certain tone, a pitch that remains just so for the entire piece. This pitch is just above my abilities of hearing. This is to say that when I am doing my best writing, my truest writing, I am operating right there at the edge of my capabilities. I am trying to hear something impossible for my eardrum to pick up. This is why this artistic truth is essentially ecstatic. It’s extrasensory. It’s beyond the flesh.
When I write short stories, the fundamental problem for me does not seem to be one of form—and this is especially true when writing realistic, linear narratives—but one of this elusive pitch. I’m not disoriented by what I’m doing. Of course I’m writing a story. I don’t know exactly how to tell it, but I already understand the concept of story and can, at the very least, decipher a direction in which to head.
Yet when I work in an essayistic mode, form opens up for me. I do not think linear nor narrative and the words of course leave me and instead I wonder how and what and where am I and begin to imagine boxes and spirals and one time a beautiful clay vase glazed in rich azure. These are the shapes or forms to hold what I have to say.
For me, this is what makes the essay such an exciting endeavor. If we are operating with Herzog’s notion that “…there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization…” then the essay, first and foremost, isn’t an act of fact or reportage. It is an act of art without any predefined outlines. Today I will write an azure vase. Tomorrow I will write my father’s boot.
The essay as art. That’s what I’m interested in when I talk about an “ecstatic essay.” We are used to our stories being artistic but those among us used to, as Herzog puts it, “the truth of accountants” in the traditional “factual” essays may become uncomfortable with an alleged essay that babbles, that lies, that features an obviously concocted narrator, an essay that’s broken apart into shards or that could double as a prayer or spell. Yet how are we to tell the truth without absolutely every tool and trick at our disposal, without the ability to warp time and space and “reality” so as to make it more, well, real?
Intrigued? Want to learn more and craft your own ecstatic essay? Then make sure to attend Rachel’s “The Ecstatic Essay” workshop June 26-28th at the David R. CollinsWriter’s Conference at McCarthy Hall on the St. Ambrose University campus in Davenport, Iowa.
Rachel Yoder is a founding editor of draft: the journal of process which publishes first and final drafts of short stories, essays, and poetry along with author interviews about the creative process (draftjournal.com). She holds an MFA in Fiction from the University of Arizona and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Iowa where she was an Iowa Arts Fellow. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Paris Review Online, The Kenyon Review Online, and The Sun Magazine in addition to many other print and online publications. She was awarded the 2013 Editors' Prize in Fiction from The Missouri Review and has also received notable distinction in Best American Short Stories and Best American Nonrequired Reading. Her work has most recently been anthologized in Writing That Risks: New Work from Beyond the Mainstream (Red Bridge Press) and YOU: An Anthology of Essays Devoted to the Second Person (Welcome Table Press). She's taught creative writing at the University of Arizona, Prescott College, the University of Iowa, the Lifetime Enrichment Adult Program at the University of Iowa, and currently teaches writing classes in the Iowa City community. More info at racheljyoder.com.
The conference also features other three day workshops on memoir, poetry, flash fiction, and novel. Critiques, pitches, and free evening events open to the public are also planned. Mention this blog post and receive the early bird discount even though it’s after June 15th. Click here for moredetails. The conference is made possible by our generous sponsors: Modern Woodman of America, St. Ambrose University English Department, Illinois Arts Council Agency, and Genesis Health Systems.