“I want to trace the shift of the season, gather evidence of every leaf that gives way until the branches stretch bare.”
This is how it starts. With something you can’t get out of your head, so you start obsessing, driven to follow it to its end. Like a new love, you are spinning and everything seems like light through the trees. And so you start documenting. The way the speaker grabs her camera, documents the light, the leaves, the changes. Exactly as writers sit down to record the shifts in the mind.
As writers, we are preoccupied. And those preoccupations drive us on the page. Jill Talbot follows her particular preoccupations — October, the leaves, the man — in meandering wonder in her essay “On October” in Pithead Chapel. Each section relates to every other section precisely because she obsesses. Reading “On October” is like watching a mind walk a well-worn path, but seeing small details that would be missed if one were hacking their way through an overgrown and rarely used trail.
Longing leads the way through this essay, stepping tenderly through landscape and memory and fact that crunch underfoot like fallen leaves.
“I do not want to write here that Kerouac died in October, but he did.”
I don’t want to write this here could be a refrain for most writers when they are wrestling with their work. There comes a moment when we wrestle with our obsession, don’t want it to be so. Want to be rid of it. We want to chuck it all, start over with something new.
The new love has worn off, the light dims, and you start to question everything. You sit down to write and everything feels murkier. You want the facts to be different. But every time you start writing, there they are again.
But we worry, even in our disillusionment with the object of our obsession, that it will end. “I worry that October will end before the leaves tell me it’s so. I worry October will end.” So, like the speaker, we go on collecting. Still, she heads out with her envelope to “collect some of what’s fallen.” We can’t shake our obsessions, we can only embrace them, follow them, give them space.
“I will stop writing this man. Now, all these years later, it seems less like a promise. More like a wish.”
And in that wishing, always a return.
A writer’s essays are more than the sum of their obsessions, but they are there, like leaves tucked into book pages you find years later when you pick it up to re-read or flip through looking for a quote. Talbot writes, “According to scientists, leaves don’t fall, the trees throw them off.” But in spite of that throwing off, the leaves return. In a new season. In a new color, a new tenderness. The tree grows and changes, new trees grow from its fallen seeds, but the cycle continues. The leaves return, looking for light.
“Leaves bring back a lost season, and I keep writing, building a map so that I can spread out the pages and point to a phone call, a room, or even a breeze, and say, here.” Isn’t that what drives us to keep turning to the page like cartographers? We chart new discoveries in old lands, follow trails to new places, record it all as a way of saying, I was here and here and here.
Important as our obsessions are as writers, they are important for readers as well. Over time, a writer’s obsessions teach us how to read their work. We start to feel like part of an intimate conversation. We see the writer’s mind across many works, learn the terrain, make connections of our own. It is a joy to follow Jill’s work as it walks through familiar landscapes pointing out the minute details we would otherwise miss: the way the light look at night just before the sun sets, the train whistle that sounds almost like a bird, the dusty road that stretches out into the hills we hadn’t noticed before.
Always in words,
PS – This essay is read best with First Aid Kit or Julien Baker playing in the background.
PPS — Want to make more connections with Jill’s work? Here’s a poem on October at Split Lip Magazine.