Robin Hemley



1. Is it the aim of this essay to allow wonder and speculation and not one fact?

2. Is it the aim of this essay to speculate about topics of which the essay is not expert?

3. Might the essay be overly self-conscious, and coy? Does it concern this essay that it cares too much for form and has nothing to state (formerly known as “meaning”), that it actively avoids meanings, messages, interpretations, that it has no author, that it might be a trick that someone is playing on you, that you have always suspected that God was out to “get you,” and now here is your proof, that perhaps you should not follow that line of inquiry?

4. Are words measurable? Do they have a pulse? Is this essay really writing itself or is it even now being written by someone on a plane going to Turkmenistan while the essayist tries to shield what he is writing from an inquisitive seatmate? Does that mean you, buddy?

5. Will the essay work the Friday shift if the Manager calls unexpectedly?

6. Is the essay a bit of a narcissist? A solipsist? A mensch? (Circle all that apply).

7. How did the Essay do on the Essay section of the Foreign Service Exam?

8. If the Essay were stranded on a desert island, would anybody notice?

9. Is the essay concerned that it might be getting too self-serious as it matures, that even the terms “essay” and “essayist” are a little overused? Does it long to have lines that don’t blend fact and fiction?

10. Do essays have feelings? Are there little starving essays on other continents? Would you sponsor an essay for as little as five cents a day?

11. What will the quiz cover?

    Fact: the Treaty of Tordesillas     Fact: Type B Blood     Fact: From 1953 to 1975.     Fact: The Tang Dynasty

A Slight Digression: The essay has apparently failed in its original intention not to admit a fact. But it does not care. Because essays are full of contradictions. This is what makes the essay more essayistic. It essays onward because it feels empowered. This essay has agency.

12. What if everything is a digression? Certainly, if there is no afterlife, then our lives are a digression. But this essay believes in an afterlife, so for the time being we’re all safe.

A Second Digression: This essay has been considering a topic lately though it isn’t sure it can afford one. The topic has something to do with good health, but the essay is having difficulty settling between Bernarr McFadden, a health guru of the 1920s as well as a media tycoon, and the We-Di-Co Peptomist, an in-house newsletter published in the 1920s by The Western Distributing Company of Chicago, Illinois. The Western Distributing Company published health encyclopedias and its employees sold them door-to-door throughout the country. One of the features of the We-Di-Co Peptomist was a monthly column titled “My Hardest Sale,” in which various members of the sales team recounted their hardest sale.

13. Why does the essay care at all about Bernarr McFadden, a forgotten health guru from the 1920s and the We-di-Co Peptomist, an in-house publishing organ of which there are probably no extant copies remaining other than the ones to which the essay’s putative author bought in a Chicago bookstore over twenty-five years ago?

This essay has no idea why it cares or why anyone else should care (what is commonly known as the “So What?” factor) except that the We-di-Co Peptomist is charming and quaint and forgotten, a misplaced shard of existence, as is the forgotten McFadden with his “lustrous” hair and the photographs of him taken thirty years apart showing a man in skin-tight unitard, the earlier photo surprisingly daring in the asslessness of his unitard.

14. Is part of the essay’s job to dip back into the dustheap of forms and people gone by, locating survivors in the wreckage of an imploded building, as it were, grasp them by the hand, and say, “Rise up, Bernarr! Rise up, you Peptomists! Live again, if only briefly. Show us your stuff?”

You may use additional sheets of paper to answer this question.

Note: This essay will not resort to cheap tricks and it will never lie to you because this essay has signed a contract with you and has left it on your kitchen counter for you to sign and fax back. This essay would like to inform you that the contract works both ways, something that people sometimes miss. But this essay will not lie to you, and you know you can believe what this essay says because it has said it and isn’t that proof enough?

This essay does not need to impress you with a litany of dubious facts gathered via a web search and then presented to you as though it has spent weeks in the musty stacks of The University of Iowa Library, bringing book after book to its study carrel where it pores over ancient tomes to find exactly the right bit of information. The library is in fact emptying itself of books and few people seem to notice or care. If, for instance, you are on an errand to locate a copy of Xavier de Maistre’s eighteenth-century classic, Journey Around My Room, you will be on a fool’s errand, as the electronic catalogue will inform you that one copy of said text exists on the fifth floor, call number HN17655.175a. But no such text can be found on the fifth floor, which is itself a ghost library — rows upon rows of metal shelving with nary a book to be seen and the lights turned low as though in some local shop in the final throes of a going-out-of-business sale and the creditors knocking when only the fixtures remain. What we are witnessing here is a great migration of thought, an upheaval, much like the brutal aftermath of the partition of India and Pakistan, but instead of people displaced and done away with in violent fashion, forms and thoughts and ways of presenting thoughts are being tossed around.

15. How can this essay make a callous analogy to such a tragic upheaval as the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 and the borderlines of verbal expression? Someone is sure to be offended, and this essay aims never to cause discomfort or offense.

If the essay is making all this up by the way then kudos to it because it has a better imagination than most people, and so shouldn’t we give it props for that? Not that this essay feels comfortable with that word “props.” “Props” is not a word this essay would normally use, though it is curious about the word’s etymology. But it is not about to do a web search to find out the etymology of the word “props” as it is used colloquially in the twenty-first century.

It will not resort to that trick, so in vogue, of gathering up a list of factoids and presenting them as a litany as though the simple recitation of random facts abutting one another has some literary merit.

But this essay has a hunch, and if that hunch is correct than the word “props” was first used in its colloquial form in an early draft of the Moncrieff translation of Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust in which the narrator praises Eulalie for the masterful way in which she humors the hypochondriacal Aunt Leonie of the narrator, when he writes:

“My aunt might say to her twenty times in a minute for the way in which she humored Aunt: The end is come at last, my poor Eulalie!” twenty times Eulalie would retort: “Knowing your illness as you do, Mme Octave, you will live to be a hundred as Mme Sazerin said to me only yesterday. Although Eulalie persisted in referring to Mme Sazerat as Mme Sazerin, I believe that my poor aunt still gave her props for never faltering once in the role in which she was cast in the daily passion play whose repeat performances were the only theater I knew for a time, peering at this scene both in memory and as a child, as if through a pair of opera glasses turned round the wrong way.”

Note: See section 2, paragraph 3 of the contract on your kitchen counter. You don’t need to read it if you don’t have time — basically, it’s a standard indemnity clause.

This essay does not want to be thought of as pretentious and effete, although it wonders if simply making an allusion to the Thought Delivery System formerly known as a Novel by Marcel Proust will hopelessly brand it as such.

Go ahead and try to interrogate this essay. It will not crack. It will not display recidivist narrative tendencies, or patriarchal linear structures because it eschews linearity, because linearity is not artistic and is goal-oriented and this essay is not goal oriented though it is at the same time ambitious. Don’t look at this essay the wrong way. It will stick a Journalism Major up your ass. Never call this essay unambitious. It received a prestigious award for its ambition and was nominated for others.

This essay practices Hot Yoga, but it’s tired and its bent out of shape and is blending with other essays and other forms of discourse within its personal space. Please stay out of this essay’s personal space because some essays smell when they exercise and some are lecherous and that’s why this essay would prefer to work out with essays of its own kind (Read: would management please tell literary journalists to find their own workout space?). This essay does not mind a certain amount of blending, but it prefers subversion to blending. They are not the same, you know.

16. Is it just my imagination or is this essay still driving at something?

17. Is the world spinning faster?

18. Is everything simply a digression?

Robin Hemley’s most recent book is the short-story collection Reply All, published in May by the University of Indiana Press. He is Director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa and Editor of Defunct magazine.