The origin story of Shame and Wonder
, as brief as I can make it:
I was sitting at my desk, four years ago, when my phone rang. It was the writer John Jeremiah Sullivan calling. “This is going to sound weird,” he said, “but I did a reading in Texas last night, and I met a guy there. He handed me a copy of an essay he’d written. I think it might be good. Can I send it to you?” This happens a lot, when you’re an editor, people sending you “good” things to read, and the track record isn’t great. But the essay John sent me that day – five typewritten, hand-corrected pages from a guy in Dallas named David Searcy, who’d only started writing nonfiction in his late sixties – was unlike anything I’d read before.
An hour later, I was on the phone with David Searcy.
A month later, we had a book deal.
Four years later, we have Shame and Wonder
But my love for this book goes beyond its unusual beginnings. I love it for the beauty and strangeness of David’s sentences: “I can remember being a child and being blank. Without opinion. Walking around like that. Complete like that. All fear and desire with not much in between. I think of it now as an experimental setup. Like a cloud chamber – where you’ve got this otherwise empty vessel filled with a sort of mist through which events, the passage of subatomic particles, leave evanescent trails.” I love it because of the feelings of deep longing he is able to conjure in, say, a pair of initials (“little heart-shaped memories of love”) carved into the trunk of an old tree or, even, the prizes at the bottom of cereal boxes. I love it, too, because it is funny.
But maybe most special of all, in the end, was being a witness to David’s process, which is not exactly typical, and to be honest, probably not advisable. Below, how a David Searcy essay – this one, titled “How to Color the Grass” — comes to be:
David writes on yellow legal pads, in long hand, with a ball point pen. Here’s what his first draft looks like. (Two ways to look at this, as an editor: Fascinating or stressful.)
Here’s what his second or third draft looks like, i.e. when clarity begins to assert itself:
And here’s what happens when he puts his pen down and commits to a final draft, which he commemorates via a Swiss-made Hermes 3000 typewriter, circa l959, with standard serif pica font. As David says, “It’s like typing on a Steinway – just the right mechanical resistance to make you mean what you say.”
Finally, David also takes photos of the things he writes about, and several of these photos appear in the book. Think W.G. Sebald… if W.G. Sebald lived in Dallas… and drove a truck… and said things like “holy crap”… and spent a lot of time thinking about the venality of Scrooge McDuck. Though I love the title, the overall effect is: no shame, all wonder.
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