The World Was Whole

The World Was Whole
Fiona Wright

I found out about this book during the hazy final days of editing my thesis, a body of work all about Fiona Wright’s first essay collection Small Acts of Disappearance (2015). My first thought was, ‘Oh no, now I have to go back and mention a book I haven’t read so my research is up to date’. It wasn’t until this year that I felt ready to tackle another essay collection, especially one by an author I’d studied so intensively for a year. Boy am I glad I did. Nonfiction lovers: this is a must-read.

In many ways The World Was Whole acts as a sort of sequel to Small Acts, though the two can still be enjoyed on their own.  At the centre of both books is Wright’s personal experiences living with anorexia nervosa and anxiety. In The World Was Whole, Wright uses her personal experiences to explore the modern world’s relationship with the home. She doesn’t look at the home as just the physical buildings we live in, or the spaces we interact with, but also the bodies we inhabit and how they can represent both sanctuary and uncertainty.

Throughout the essays in The World Was Whole, Wright examines her own life, which is built heavily upon repetition and routine, both of which are upset constantly by the circumstances of her health and finances. Like many millennials, particularly those with unstable financial situations, Wright rents. This means she is almost always on the move from house to house, from space to space. Forever trying to settle in and make these spaces her own, only to be flung elsewhere by circumstances beyond her control. She gets to the heart of the constant anxiety and uncertainty of renting when she writes: ‘I want to be able to get attached to a place, without knowing that my presence there is always subject to someone else’s needs or whims’.

Another strong aspect of Wright’s writing is her exploration of her own experiences of chronic illness. Within literature there is a tendency towards stereotyping the sick, particularly the mentally ill and female, as helpless victims or self-obsessed attention-seekers. Wright brings a strong current of humanity to her writing, showing what her lived experience of anorexia nervosa is like. She isn’t afraid to critique the limitations of Australia’s healthcare system, which often causes a great deal of grief and frustration for people struggling with chronic conditions. Importantly, Wright describes her illness in terms of the constant shift back and forth between getting better and getting worse, and the anxiety and fear that comes with this flux. ‘On the first day in the hospital,’ Wright writes, ‘I curl on my bed and cry for a full hour after every meal, and I keep thinking, I can’t do this, I can’t do this, I don’t think I can do this. I panic at the piece of meat that’s on my plate for dinner, I gulp for breath, great ragged gasps that hurt my sternum and then I sob outside the dining room because I hadn’t realised, somehow, that I’d gotten quite this sick. I’m so afraid of what I’ve done and of who I have become.’

There is a rawness, a brutal honesty, to how Wright writes about her illness that is so important. It’s the kind of writing that gets under your skin, touches something familiar within you and forces you to experience, even for just a moment, what it is like to live with such an illness. The rawness isn’t always shown through pain. There’s also joy. Wright shows the complexity of her life in all its facets, both difficult and special.

Wright’s essays are a delight to read. Often painful, always beautiful, they represent the growing skill and relevance of Australian essayists today. Personal essays like these allow for engaging discussions of issues that affect contemporary society: from poverty to racism and the need for change on a government level. Wright is only one of many Australian essayists using the essay to spark conversation and give readers a new way of looking at these issues by engaging them through the personal, as well as the purely factual. To avid essay readers and newcomers alike, this is a book worth putting on your list this year.


Words and photography by Lisandra Linde

Don’t Fear The Essay: A Simple Guide to a Complex Form

When I say I’m writing my thesis is on the Australian essay most people recoil in horror, usually muttering something along the lines of ‘why would you do that to yourself?’. No doubt when they hear ‘essay’ they get flashbacks to assignments, rubrics, grading percentages and – perhaps most terrifying – bibliographies. This dreaded form of essay – the kind we’ve all suffered through for the sake of our education, be it high school or university – is the academic essay. But when I say essay, that isn’t what I’m talking about.

There is another kind of essay, a far less bristly, terror-inducing essay. It belongs to the growing realm known as creative nonfiction and it has something of a cult following amongst nonfiction writers in Australia, and the world. So what is an essay? Who writes them and which ones are worth reading? And most importantly– should you try your hand at writing one?

What is an essay?

An essay is a piece of prose, relatively short in length, which seeks to discuss a subject. Unlike its brother, the dreaded academic essay, this sort of essay is less interested in concrete facts or answering a question and more on the act of contemplation or discovery.

Let’s unpack this a little. The basics of an essay are a subject and the author’s take on it. For example, in a personal essay the author uses their own experiences to discuss a subject. Essay writers can draw on anything to discuss a subject – from science to history to literature. As long as the essay looks at a subject in some way (usually without a definitive conclusion or ‘answer’) it is an essay.

In his book Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: The Art of Truth American novelist and critic Bill Roorbach put it perfectly when defining the personal essay in particular: ‘A personal essay is never only an idea, but an idea illustrated with experience, an idea juxtaposed to competing ideas, and exposed to emotion’.

Alongside the personal essay you have all kinds of essay – the lyric essay, essays as literary journalism, nature essays, political essays. What they all have in common is an interest in open discussion, contemplation and the author’s own unique voice.

By now you might feel a little overwhelmed, but don’t worry: it’s not as complicated as it sounds. Essays can be a lot of fun, both to read and to write. It’s a form that can take a little getting used to but which is open to interpretation and experimentation.

Where can I find essays?

Many literary magazines and websites publish essays, such as Overland, Kill Your Darlings and The Lifted Brow. Black Inc. published an anthology of essays annually from 1998. However, their 2018 collection of Best Australian Essays will be the final collection, as announced earlier this year. Single-author essay collections are far more common in America than in Australia, but there have been a few Australian collections in recent years. One of the most notable is Fiona Wright’s Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger (Giramondo, 2015). Like most Australian essayists Wright’s shorter pieces can be found in publications like Meanjin, Island, Overland and more.

Why write essays?

Essays are a unique form of prose that allows writers to explore their experiences and interests in new and interesting ways. There are no concrete rules for the essay and experimentation is encouraged amongst most creative nonfiction writers. Because of this, it is a versatile form which can be adapted to personal writing styles and can cover subjects as big as world politics or as small as the dynamics of a household.

The essay emerged courtesy of a renaissance Frenchman called Montaigne, and it has been considered a form of the elite for some time but it is definitely not as exclusive today. Many essay writers are primarily writers of fiction or poetry. The benefits of writing essays as well as your main form of writing – whatever it may be – is that it gives you the chance to develop a very different set of skills. The essay forces you to think about things from multiple different angles, using your own experiences alongside factual evidence in order to consider things outside the realm of absolutes.

Should I write an essay?

Definitely. The essay is something I would recommend to all emerging writers. It is a unique and interesting form worth trying your hand at. If nothing else, it will get you thinking differently about the world around you. You might find that trying your hand at this form will challenge you and help you develop some new skills that can enhance your everyday writing.

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Some recommendations:

– Fiona Wright, ‘Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger’, Giramondo, 2015.

– Jessica Friedmann, ‘Things That Helped: Essays’, Scribe, 2017.

– Leslie Jamison, ‘The Empathy Exams’, Graywolf Press, 2014.

– Roxane Gay, ‘Bad Feminist’, Harper Perennial, 2014.

 

Works consulted:

Bill Roorbach, ‘Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: The Art of Truth’, Oxford University Press, 2001.

 


Image from Thought Catalog (https://thoughtcatalog.com/)

Words by Lisandra Linde

lizLisandra Linde is an Adelaide-based writer of fantasy and creative nonfiction. She is currently working on her honours thesis on women’s mental illness narratives and the personal essay at Flinders University. She tweets at @KrestianLullaby