Kirsty Gunn: A potent and important literary form you should get into

A full week and more has passed but my husband is still riding the clouds and re-playing highlights and the full start-to-finish glory that was the rugby game at Murrayfield.

Skipper John Barclay raises the Calcutta Cup aloft after Scotland defeated England 25-13. Picture: SNS Group/SRU Bill Murray
Skipper John Barclay raises the Calcutta Cup aloft after Scotland defeated England 25-13. Picture: SNS Group/SRU Bill Murray

“You’ll not even need to say what game you’re referring to when you write about it,” he advised me. “Everyone will know. And you can be sure I’ll not be the only Scotsman reader watching those re-runs.” Scotland played … beautifully, he tells

me. Not only did they win, but they won in gorgeous, hand-banging, shout-it-from-the-rooftops style.

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Though what would I know? Absolutely nothing. I was born and brought up in New Zealand so you might think I would have some clue about rugby but sport’s not my go-to activity and I’ve never understood the mass emotion around any kind of game. All the prep and anxiety. The shouting at the television. The need for stiff whiskies and teeming pubs. Crowds bunched up in a great mass on march to the field. The whole thing makes me feel like going off into a quiet corner to read poetry. My husband takes our younger daughter to Murrayfield and they love it, both shouting their heads off in the cold, making friends with strangers and coming back with husky voices and all sorts of first-person-plural talk. Oh, “we” did this and “we” did that. We played well in the first half, and so on. We let the ball go, or we dominated it, or we lost it … As though they themselves were down on the field, churning up the grass and oomphing their way through the scrum. And all I can think, from my vantage place of sonnets and vilanelles, is how exhausting rugby looks, and hard work and bruising and hefty, somehow. I thought it when I was a child, growing up in the land of the All Blacks. And I think it now.

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Of course I’m delighted about Scotland winning, though. I’ve seen various team members talking on television – and they all seem so pleasant: polite and self-effacing and generous. It’s lovely to witness that aspect of national pride – even though any kind of “national pride” makes me feel a bit wary – sparkling away in good manners and a sense of fair play. If only all activities that celebrate countries’ individuality and stamp were expressed with such decency and valour. Unfortunately, though, to my mind, the marking of differentiation, one tribe from another, generally has less pleasant ends. And on top of that, certainties, like winning or losing, being “the best”, are for me certainties I could generally do without.

In fact, more and more I feel myself drifting towards uncertainty as the most interesting and productive state of mind. Uncertainty allows further questioning, more discussion. Uncertainty is not to say “I’m right” but it’s to say, “Tell me more. What’s that? I’m interested.” It’s one of the many reasons I’ve been becoming more and more engaged by the essay as a potent and important literary form. Because the essay, by its very definition, is a kind of writing that that keeps ideas live, makes all kinds of conversations possible. It’s thinking on the page in the most creative, open-ended kind of way.

I’ve written some essays before, have published them, but now am becoming more and more involved in the teaching of them, too. This is because of the work being done on the subject of essay writing and reading by Dr Gail Low at the University of Dundee. Through her, essays as an academic subject are showing themselves to be imaginative, thoughtful, enquiring. They are developing into pieces of work that are full of questions instead of pat answers. They give the students room to experiment with and learn about their intelligence, instead of just encouraging them to re-phrase the known ”truths” of established critics and points of view.

The essays Gail has students write are very opposite of those set tablets of text Humanities students normally feel they have to produce in order to get A grades and progression. Her classes buzz with uncertainties … and it’s wonderful. Everybody is awake and at it – asking whether what they’re asking might be interesting? Asking if what we are told is interesting is interesting at all?

These are vital questions for our young people. For us lot, too. For don’t we, too, need to be educated in the business of being thoroughly alert in the world; not accepting for one moment any old status quo, or article of “truth” or “fact” that is put about as being “right”.

For this reason, of the essay’s importance and all-round relevance in our constricted PR-dominated age, Gail and I will be hosting an International Essay Conference at the amazing Hospitalfield in Arbroath this summer. All readers are invited!

Two days of doing nothing but thinking about trying to write differently, and so learning to try and and think differently; letting the trying – the essaying – in itself, be the thing. More details to follow; watch this space! But the international essay superstar Philip Lopate will be talking with us, and a whole host of creative and literary luminaries who love nothing more than to keep on trying. There’s something going on here that relates back to my rugby talk at the beginning of all this … But isn’t it true? That tries are great?