Selected Essays

The Polynesian rat ( Rattus exulans )

The Polynesian rat (Rattus exulans)

Down the research rat hole

FOR THE PAST week or so, I’ve been clearing out my office, re-shelving dozens of books, filing hundreds of articles, working my way through reams of paper covered in scribbled outlines, arguments, diagrams, clarifications, lists. Here, a triangle meant to depict a synthesis of conflicting ideas, there, a timeline covering two thousand years of human history; all of it—the whole mess—the residue of some seven or eight years’ work on a book about the Polynesian migrations.

My bookshelf

My bookshelf


WHEN I TEACH nonfiction writing, I tell my students that an essay needs to have something that it’s about; that it’s better if takes the form of a story; and that a good first question to ask oneself is: what makes me a good teller of this tale? A lot of what I believe as an editor comes out in these classes, and a couple of years ago a student of mine, an experienced journalist and a wonderful writer who had taken the class in order to experiment with form, did me a tremendous service. He made notes of all my observations—my exhortations, my admonishments—and at the end of the class he printed them all out and gave them back to me.

Winslow Homer, “Rowing Home”

Winslow Homer, “Rowing Home”

Lay your sleeping head, my love

Three years before my mother’s final illness she had a major stroke. It was not a typical stroke—more cascade than cataclysm—but when it was over it had laid her low as effectively as a bolt of lightning.

At first, we didn’t know if she would live or die. She couldn’t move any part of her body, couldn’t speak, couldn’t swallow. This last was particularly distressing—swallowing is such a primitive function, but the stroke, it seemed, had struck a primitive part of her brain.