Writers often attest that one of the most complex struggles in their careers is writing about themselves in a memoir or personal essay. Nonfiction writer William Zinsser explained, “Of all subjects available to you as a writer, the one you know best is yourself. Yet it’s probably the subject you try hardest to avoid.”
Essayist and Harvard professor Elisabeth Sharp McKetta reveals her innermost thoughts and is at her best storytelling with the “I” voice in eleven essays in her latest book, Awake with Asashoryu. Readers catch priceless snippets of her life’s experiences and deeply personal beliefs. She has achieved life’s rewards through hard work and education, motherhood and daughterhood, and in her own words, she derives her writing from “a fairy tale or myth–or some old story.”
Don’t let the book’s title throw you off, for readers will rejoice after reading McKetta’s stories, including one that exposes the poignant point a father can be one of the most influential persons in a daughter’s life. Other stories in the book prove writers can survive the finality of a mentor’s death, toss away lifelong obsessions, and successfully navigate the complex mother-daughter relationship many of us have lived through in the past and present.
In the first essay, with the same title as the book, McKetta exposes her father’s secret late-night obsession with Japanese sumo wrestling. Asashoryu, the highest-ranked sumo wrestler, has qualities her father admires, such as discipline. Still, he applauds “his reputation as sumo’s bad boy,” a personality trait that is not part of her father’s character, nor one he would display in front of his family.
McKetta explains who fathers are in fairy tales: “the kings who protect their daughters from having any sort of fun or one who gives up his life for his daughter, like the father in Beauty and the Beast.” Her father is neither, and McKetta is fortunate to observe him and make no judgments. McKetta’s prose will make many cherish their unique relationship with their father.
“My father worries about failure to do his duty, and I worry about sleepwalking through life and missing things. My father listens and always says the correct things. I ask the sort of questions that poke holes and look for things to unravel.”
“My father taught me about achievement and commitment and love, but I grew up interested only in love. Love and writing. Writing is really only a way to love the world full-time.”
The essence of the story suggests McKetta and her father are the same, yet different. But what McKetta learned about life from her father, more important than anything else, is that it is better to be awake in life than asleep. It’s a simple lesson about navigating adulthood, but it often takes years for people to realize it. McKetta’s story pays respect to her dad and celebrates her “awakeness.”
In the story entitled Toil, McKetta, then age twenty-four, faced the death of her beloved writing mentor, communist and feminist Hope Hale Davis, whose words of wisdom have stuck in her mind.
“Toil, toil, and if you ever stop toiling, the world and I will eat you up,” Davis told her.
McKetta, who lived in LA then, visited her dying mentor on the East coast but had nowhere to stay. She ended up staying with her friend Hattie and Hattie’s mentor, Porcia, both of whom lived in Vermont’s solitude. Woods are the setting for fairy tales, a magical place where nature is all around us, giving us a feeling of homeliness. But, without a doubt, woods are where life flourishes and dies, and lessons are learned.
The two women imparted their insight and dug deep into McKetta’s psyche, providing food, alcohol, and love while she mourned the death of Davis and the break-up with her boyfriend. McKetta’s minimal time with these fairy godmothers, just hours amongst the trees and moss, offered her the chance to be introspective and contemplate that anything could happen in the warmth of seclusion and even afterward. Davis died. McKetta left her boyfriend.
“Back then, I never would’ve imagined my capacity for solitude, though my life today is marked by it,” McKetta wrote. “Like Portia. Like Hope.”
Toil is a tale of how people can change their views of life with just a short-lived experience, like McKetta’s with Hattie and Porcia.
“Girl goes into the woods and likes the woods. She becomes one of the creatures who live there: stirring, cackling, toiling, and troubling.” Just like in a fairy tale ending, McKetta lived happily ever after.
In the short humorous essay Moist, McKetta delves into her compulsion with chapstick. Like any other preoccupation with nonessentials we should carry as baggage, she writes, “I realized how many belongings I had in my life that I didn’t need.” She details her eleven-year addiction to chapstick until she discovers how free life can be when we just let go of obsessions.
McKetta doesn’t deny that once she gave up chapstick, which she applied more than a hundred times a day, she found herself capable of unburdening her clutter. Gone was the boyfriend, the unused belongings, and even some friends who were simply placeholders. Instead, McKetta celebrated the fact she had become focused on herself and her valuable time.
Moist is a story of encouragement, of things McKetta learned in her life and shared with her daughter. Although some readers may think the story is simplistic, the lesson, “how important it is to need people, not things,” never gets old.
The second to the last essay in the book is a story entitled Madewell. While Awake with Asashoryu undoubtedly praises McKetta’s father, readers will find this story filled with a more profound homage to her mother. McKetta’s mom is a wife, lawyer, and collector of things, a woman ” well-made by the forces that shaped her life.” This story doesn’t make the essay about her father any less; on the one hand, McKetta claims she’s different from her father, and she’s different from her mother. Yet, she has traits from both forged by various interactions that exist between a father and daughter and a mother and daughter.
Madewell has several backstories; McKetta writes about her childhood and her mother’s generosity with gifts, but mainly about the dynamics between herself and her mom. For example, McKetta’s mother wants her to own a blazer from a predominant clothing store in Austin, Texas, although the Madewell coat doesn’t fit her style. Yet, she lets her mother take control of the clothing purchase, even though she’s in her forties. Daughters who have experienced the same situation will agree that a mother knows best, and giving in to their lifelong control is not really giving in at all.
Irony kicks in when McKetta moves to England, where the summer weather is not as hot as in Texas, and she wears the jacket daily. She is, she states, the exact composition of the coat.
“It is solid, warm, weighty, essential. It is made well, as the company promises. I suppose, in the end, so are we, my mother and I.”
Awake with Asashoryu is available at Amazon.