The other day I was trying to write something about rest, something experiential and organic. The words weren’t flowing well, which was the first frustration. But then I opened a magazine, which as coincidence would have it, was dedicated cover to cover to the topic of rest. Page after page of self-help and how-to’s. A reader need never be unclear about the value of rest or how to attain it ever again. What else was needed? In an easy defeat I didn’t return to my own words in progress.
Several hours later my eyes fell on Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, perhaps the most helpful book ever on rest and solitude, but without a single bullet point, and I took it as a sign to keep going. When I wrote Just Think for the most part I resisted advice to include "take-home messages" in bullet points with instructions for the reader. Of course it didn’t exactly climb the charts so perhaps I should have heeded that advice, but still I err on the side of internal change, of the transforming power of words and ideas rather than their overt prescriptive power. I’m grateful for books and articles that have given me instruction and advice when I’ve needed it, and there have been many, and I've written the occasional instructive piece myself (how to…), but 10-step lists are not the only change-agents.
In the 2009 edition of Best American Essays, edited by Mary Oliver, there is a 2-page piece by Brian Doyle titled "The Greatest Nature Essay Ever." In it he describes an essay that includes not a single imperative sentence or bullet point. In place of "alpine Conclusions, some Advice, some Stern Instructions & Directions" about wasting water, conserving energy, or using one's political power wisely, "there's only the quiet murmur of the writer tiptoeing back to the story", and the reader ends up not armed with imported resolve, but changed.