Ross Gay seems like a pretty delightful guy. Just watch any video of his poetry readings or his interviews, and you’ll see. His face is disproportionately made up of smile, and despite his tall frame, he exudes a warm approachability. Then go read his work, specifically his good-things-come-in-small-packages collection of essayettes, The Book of Delights. Ross (it just feels right to me to operate on a first-name basis here, though his last name is synonymous with joy and delight) set out to spend a whole year remarking on daily delights, noticing that “it might feel nice, even useful . . . to both wonder about and share that delight.” I dare you to read all two hundred-something pages of this little worldly wonder and not feel some warm fuzzies. And if you’re a writer (or one of those odd ducks who appreciates deep dives into literary analysis just for the heck of it), I bet you’ll notice that Ross pulls off some pretty delightful maneuvers while cataloguing his delights.
See, The Book of Delights actually doubles as a book of instructions. In it, he models for his readers, we his students, how to both notice joy and write about it. And good grief, I think we can all agree that we need some lessons in noticing joy these days. Ross takes us by the elbow, with of course the gentlest of pressures, and directs us through his life-giving garden, each proverbial bloom an opportunity for seeing beauty in small, unexpected, sometimes bleak moments. At the end of our walk with Ross, when we’ve circled the calendar year and arrived again at his birthday, we’ve also moved through, in 102 essayettes, the practice of zooming in to delight, to imitating a honey bee that balances on one bud and savors nectar in one moment while collecting pollen that will then pollinate other plants in the process of honey-making. Ross teaches us, the avid beekeeper he is, that our enjoyment of small delights nourish not only our own spirits, but the spirit of our whole hive when we share our joy.
As we walk with Ross, page by page, essayette by short sweet essayette, he speaks to us in a conversational tone, a friend and confidant. This book is a balm for those of us feeling lonely and disconnected; simply in reading Ross’s words, you feel included and attended to. We feel important and trusted because Ross doesn’t filter or edit himself, he leaves in the asides, the long rambling sentences, the interjections, expletives, naughty tangential thoughts—it’s all there for us to be assured that this delightful writer with the brilliant mind and the sharp quill is also endowed with a huge heart. Not only does Ross want to share his little joys, he hopes we learn how to notice our own.
Let me just share with you an example, from essayette 19: “The Irrepressible: The Gratitudes.”
No, not everything irrepressible. (Delight: a T-shirt I saw that read, “Make it scary to be a racist again.” Though, truly, difficult as this is, I want light shone on the racist, too, and the hateful in me, too. Which is the frightened. Little more.) I’m actually talking about this amaranth plant I see growing in the thumb-thick cracks in the asphalt beneath a chain-link fence with three strands of barbed wire strung atop that. Just in case, I guess. It looks like it’s escaped from a planting of the stuff in a barrel planter behind the chain link and barbed wire. The plants are lush with green foliage—the part sometimes called callaloo—and pinkish, conical flowers. Some are perfectly erect; some bow their heads, like they’re listening, or like they’re looking back for someone, waiting on them. “Come on,” they seem to whisper when the breeze blows through them. They’re bodies against a fence. They’re candles.
They’re also visited, we can see, since we’re very close now, by honeybees, recently added to the endangered species list. So close are we that we can see that each flower, as is so often the case, is actually many flowers. A few bumblebees—is the name because they bumble? If so, it’s a misnomer, given these things crawl elegantly on the flower clusters, reminding me of Philippe Petit of Man on Wire fame, or, more sweetly, more to the point, a baby’s hand wrapping around my finger, which—right now, in my life, there is a child named Auri, whose hand wraps around my finger when I put it in her little palm and she totters across the room, which is one of the delights.
My dad was an irrepressible know-it-all, which sometimes could be a delight, sometimes not, and one of his delightful facts was that a bumblebee (misnomer—ballerina bee) was an impossibility. Too much mass. Too teeny of wings. Once he said it as one buzzed right by us.
That’s impossible, he said, smiling. If you get closer to the amaranth, you’ll notice in the lighter-colored flowers—the reddish, fiery pink sort of fading to a lavender—that the flowers are giving way to the seeds, of which, on every flower—the bees know this, the honey and ballerinas and the many I can’t see—by my estimation, there are a zillion. A zillion seeds on every flower, I’m saying. Maybe one hundred flowers. Meaning, check my math here, one hundred zillion seeds. Meaning, keep your calculators out, one hundred zillion future plants, on every one of which how many flowers, how many seeds (some of which are now in a paper bag in my pocket, thank you very much). This is what I think exponential growth actually means. This is why I study gratitude. Or what I mean when I say it. From a crack in the street.
Okay, I know you’re smiling now. How could you not be? Thinking about flowers, bees, seeds, and how all of this speaks to gratitude and its potential for exponential growth when savored and spread.
To me, this essayette answers the question I find myself asking all the time these days, “What makes all of this shit worth it?” Ross acknowledges the unforgiving concrete, the overzealous chain link and barbed wire, the endangered species list, but he also chooses to take note of the amaranth thriving from between the cracks in the pavement, the way that the fence can’t keep the plant penned in, how even the underappreciated and misnamed bees persist in their impossibility. Ross shows us how to give precedence to what is important. We must give ourselves a chance. We must pay attention. We must acknowledge strands of hope when we encounter them. Use each other’s names; play with names. Bring friends along. Believe in the unlikely and even impossible. Acknowledge multiplicity. Love unconditionally. Get close and look closely. Allow yourself to be overwhelmed, instead, by the abundance of beauty, hope, life, second chances.
I can’t imagine that it was accidental, how perfectly timed a course on joy happened to be. In the last weeks of February, winter-weary students were buoyed by little other than the promise of VCFA’s approaching and highly anticipated spring break, so when Jericho Parms’s craft module on Forms of Joy in Creative Nonfiction arrived on the calendar, it was an opportunity to sow joy. The timing of the course feels even more serendipitous, looking back from this current context of the global pandemic which made its mark on campus in mid-March. As I tidy up the threads of this essay-interview and reflect, I am endlessly grateful to be reaping the joy sown months ago when I could not have guessed at my hunger for it now.
On the first day of our class on joy, Jericho prompted us through an in-class writing exercise to reflect on why we were in the class and what we hoped to get out of it. In my chunky, unlined, brown-paper notebook, I riffed on thoughts about how buzzwords like trauma and vulnerability seem more prevalent in the writing world than those like joy and delight. Who doesn’t want more joy in their writing, in any and every aspect of their life? I want joy. Want to think about it, cultivate it, share it, magnify it! But . . . what exactly is joy? I figured that spending three weeks reading, writing, and studying just those questions would be a great use of my time, because I believe that what I focus on in my life tends to feel more abundant. Jericho’s mantra throughout the course—that we owe it to ourselves and to each other to look for joy—guided us students over the following three weeks as we began to answer for ourselves why and then how we might incorporate joy into our writing practices.
Jericho is a faculty member of the Writing & Publishing program as well as VCFA’s Director of Alumnx Affairs & Diversity Initiatives, and she authored Lost Wax, a collection of essays exploring form and inspired by art and memory. To get some context for both the timing and the motivation behind this course and its main text, The Book of Delights, I asked Jericho about her personal interest in the subject of joy.
Sara Stancliffe: What did you find so compelling about Ross’s book and/or about the subject of joy for a craft module that you planned a three-week course around it? Did current affairs factor into the timing of this course?
Jericho Parms: Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights speaks to me on multiple levels. It’s a book that offers invaluable lessons in both content and craft—not only what we choose to write about but how we endeavor to write that content. In Gay’s work material and form share an intimate space, one that achieves lyricism and balance, while issuing a call to action—or rather, attention, reflection, and new perspective. Because the book is written as a series of “essayettes,” many of which showcase the way brevity and compression of the form can buttress and further meaning in the work, it seemed fitting for a short module class where our intake of course material was itself compressed and carried its own intensity. It would make sense to say that current affairs factored into the timing of this course, and an awareness of just how broken and uncertain the world feels right now was certainly palpable in our class discussion. However, the course was one I’ve been thinking about and developing for a long time as a response to ongoing questions I faced as a writer concerned with understanding the duality and dimension of experience. How does honoring beauty and joy both inform and help us understand pain, loss, and adversity? How can we write joy with depth, avoiding sentimentality or irony?
SS: The course was specifically focused on writing Creative Nonfiction, and we honed our skills of describing, reflecting, and narrating. How do you see this exploration of joy and the writing of it as translatable for writers of poetry, fiction, and other forms outside of CNF?
JP: In creative nonfiction, in particular, we are often encouraged to write toward or from our deepest, darkest places. There is, of course, incredible value in writing from places of pain, loss, and trauma. Yet I also believe that happiness, beauty—and yes, delight—are largely un-tapped resources, often overlooked for their potential to elicit meaning and compelling reflection. My love of creative nonfiction—the essay, in particular—is in many ways rooted in its affinity and kinship with other genres. In my opinion, the best essays are acutely aware of descriptive language and lyricism often modeled in poetry as much as they have an eye toward narrative, characterization, point of view and perspective, all of which provide a strong framework for fiction. Whether we write with an explicit or implicit “I” on the page, craft characters or personas, draft in prose or verse or something in between, if we are willing to see the same bravery and vulnerability in our joy as we do in our pain, and if we value that material enough to shape it with the tools of craft, it can similarly reveal the depth and complexity of human experience.
SS: Within the course, we studied joy as it informs identity, connection/community, discovery, and resistance. What else can noticing joy do for our lives and our work as writers in this current climate?
JP: Joy, and the practice of honoring and acknowledging it, is for me an exercise in slowing down and giving over attention. It is an invitation to look closer and, in the process of looking closer, discovering new details, new language, new vantage points. This can be interpreted in a personal sense or a creative sense. Or, if you see the two as wedded, it can be fruitful in a general sense in that joy offers hope and induces gratitude for small moments even—or perhaps, especially—during challenging times. And it is, indeed, a difficult time to be alive in the world as we grapple with distancing and shutdowns, grief and loss, and increasing uncertainty. Above all, what I’ve found the most compelling about the practice of writing joy is just how often joy surprises me, reveals the unexpected, and leads me into new territory of thought, ideas, and imaginings. To think differently. To see things differently. To trust in the intricacies of joy. Perhaps these are small ways we may begin to heal when we finally step out in the world together again.
Sara Stancliffe is an emerging Vermont writer. Her work blends elements of poetry, creative nonfiction, literary collage, & memoir. She gets most excited about the community spaces that hold warmth & energy for living literature
Jericho Parms is the author of LOST WAX (University of Georgia Press). Her essays have appeared in Fourth Genre, The Normal School, Hotel Amerika, American Literary Review, Brevity, and elsewhere. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, noted in Best American Essays, and anthologized in Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction, and Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays By Women.
by Sara Stancliffe