Lia Purpura, author of Rough Likeness and NBCC Finalist On Looking, shares some thoughts on the epistolary essay:
The essay is a form whose intimacy with a reader differs significantly from the intimacies achieved by fiction or poetry. In many ways, the essay—which can combine lyrical, meditative, and even journalistic drives in a single piece—feels, to me, closer to a letter than any other form. The old-fashioned letter provided a space for communion between friends. Upon receiving a letter, one would repair to a place of solitude to read it, to allow the essence of the distant friend to fill up the space. A letter cordoned off a sanctioned area of mind, too, and allowed the lucky recipient to spend a bit of deep time conjuring up the feel of being with a friend, the friend’s sensibility, as bodied forth in language.
To get close to the epistolary spirit while working, I have found it clarifying to read my essays-in-progress in environments that are wholly different from the environment in which they were drafted. In this way I can keep constant the sense of discovery. Reading a piece over in, say, the car at a red light creates an urgency, a close, fast, focused, intensified listening. Reading in a coffee shop (best if it’s in another country) allows for a form of enclosure created by ambient, atmospheric bustling—that sense of being happily on the sidelines of others’ busyness. Reading a work-in-progress in a library, in a space of enforced silence, can make the encounter with my words a private, secret kind of event. I can’t quite explain these reactions and why they generate the thrill they do; I can only report that it’s different to hear my way into a piece than it is to reason my way in.
How else do we read letters—and in what ways might those forms of reading inform creation? Well, we carry letters with us and pull them out during the day, at certain moments, when only that voice will do, or when we need reminding of exactly how X, Y, or Z was so idiosyncratically stated. The ritualistic gestures of letter-reading are powerful, too: the unsealing, the unfolding and smoothing out, the squinting (if you’re lucky enough to be reading a hand-written thing) the pausing, and musing, the refolding and tucking back in—all add to the physicality of reading.
Essayists I love best make a burn, a print on the page: they blow their internal climate onto my skin, like the Scirocco, the Mistral, those dreamy, named winds, so that I feel in the presence of. So much so that I experience that itch, that urge to respond right away—as I do to a really great letter.
Lia Purpura's essays are full of joy in the act of intense observation; they're also deliciously subversive and alert to the ways language gets locked and loaded by culture. These elegant, conversational excursions refuse to let a reader slide over anything, from the tiniest shards of beach glass to barren big-box wastelands. They detonate distractedness, superficiality, artificiality. In the process, Purpura inhabits many stances: metaphysician and biologist, sensualist and witness-all in service of illuminating that which Virginia Woolf called “moments of being”—previously unworded but palpably felt states of existence and knowing. Rough Likeness finds worlds in the minute, and crafts monuments to beauty and strangeness.