A Solemn Pleasure: To Imagine, Witness, and Write (The Art of the Essay)
By Melissa Pritchard
Bellevue Literary Press, 2015
192 pages, $16.95
Reviewed by Megan Galbraith
Pritchard’s essay collection is one to keep by your bedside to read again and again. Like Lewis Hyde’s, The Gift – Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, Pritchard plumbs the depths of why we write, in order to uncover the important reasons we need to write.
Echoes of the divine resound throughout the book, whether Pritchard is peeling back layers of grief about her mother’s death in “A Solemn Pleasure,” reporting on the plight of a resilient Sudanese boy in, “Still, God Helps You,” or showing us the steely backbone of Georgia O’Keefe and what drove her life and work in the essay, “A Graven Space.”
Taken together, this collection is a treatise on the power of writing, but more importantly it is about honesty, humility, and vulnerability. Pritchard implores us that honesty is the only divine way toward writing what matters and what is universally relevant.
In her first essay, “Spirit and Vision,” which reads like a gospel, Pritchard leads us in a meditation about writing as the ultimate pilgrimage, or rather “the notion of each one of us as a vessel for the whole, unintelligible world.”
She asks us to be “singing the praises of the divine in all ordinary things,” and that “Our one great Promethean labor is to reconcile humanity to itself and to reconnect, through language, humankind to the universe.”
She asks us to strip away jealously, envy, and greed, and to write from a place of emotional honesty, which is often the hardest thing for a writer to do and a skill that is not teachable in any writing program anywhere:
Be at the heart and soul of your time. Try to free yourself from attachments to results, to awards, publications, praise, to indifference, rejection, and misunderstanding. Immerse yourself in the common ground of the universe so that your true voice – not the egoistic voice that clamors vainly for power (for it will ruin you if you listen to it) – your authentic voice, supported by sacred reality, may be heard.
This particular essay is perfect as a balm for when feeling buffeted by negative inner voices, as many do who struggle with the blank page, jealousy, and inferiority on a daily basis.
“A Solemn Pleasure” is an essay that is vast and ranging in its depth of feeling, its structure (that serves to lend itself to the narrative), and its grace.
Pay close attention to this piece. It will show you how to write and how to grieve. It will show you how to treat a subject that is as universal as death in a precise way. It will show you how to plait place, with intense emotion, with meaning, with imagery, and with time. It will show you how to use your craft to open and close the aperture of a story so the reader sees everything at once, and yet only the thing the writer wants them to focus on:
Womb of my own dear self, source and friend, my petty quarrel and perpetual conflict, the one I had grown so intimate with in those final terrible months. She was gone, a common word that had assumed grave, terrible, stony weight. Gone. Vanished. Gone. Invisible. Gone. No More. Gone. Incorporeal. Gone Departed. Gone. Disappeared. Anglo-Saxon, gan. As if she had never been. There was nowhere on this earth I could ever again go to find her.
The hummingbird that appears on the cover makes guest appearances throughout this collection. A hummingbird comes to Pritchard as a sign after her mother’s death in “A Solemn Pleasure,” and again in “Finding Ashton,” about a female GI in Afghanistan.
“A female Anna’s hummingbird appeared in my garden the day after her death,” she writes about her mother:
It hovered outside my study window, looking in at me for a long, suspended time. It came back the next day and the next, hovering before that same window as I sat at my desk. And one final time, as I sat in my garden, praying to her to show me a sign that she was free now and approved of how I was handling all the earthly details of her life, for I missed her terribly and falling under my burdens, the hummingbird appeared, this time hovering, hanging in the air inches from my face.
The hummingbird is a harbinger of hope and a reminder of the natural world and all its beauty and grace. Seeing a hummingbird in nature is something precious and fleeting. In Pritchard’s essays, the hummingbird serves as a reminder to slow down and respect the moment. The intimacy of Pritchard’s writing forces you to slow down; to savor it.
Pritchard is at her masterful best in A Solemn Pleasure, as she is in the heartbreaking narrative of a young Sudanese boy in, “Still, God Helps You,” which was recognized by The Atlantic as one of the year’s “Fantastic Pieces of Journalism.”
These essays will linger with you. You may find yourself, as I did, writing down snippets that serve as motivation in times of duress. This one, for instance, from “A Graven Space,” about the tenacity of Georgia O’Keefe, “… she broke the scale most of us restrict ourselves within and did so not without fear, but without fear stopping her.”
A Solemn Pleasure is a treasure of a book. Keep it nearby, because in the darkest depths when you are confronted with the beautiful pain of the blank page, Pritchard will remind you how words can create light.
“We are characters wandering largely unaware, inside an inconceivably grand body of narrative,” she writes in the quirky and seductive last essay, “On Bibliomancy, Anthropodermic Bibliopegy, and the Eating Papers.” “If I kiss you, will you taste of all the books you have read or only the last one? If we are writers and we kiss, will we taste one another’s unwritten, still undreamed, books?”
Kiss a writer today. And know that this book will give you super powers.