By Joan Baum
You just know who wrote up the entries on David Bouchier’s website because the prose has tell-tale signature words and phrases — witty and whimsical remarks on the eccentric and absurd Ways of the World delivered in a humorous, distinctive deadpan style that matches the unmistakable, unhurried baritone of his droll public radio persona. And so one learns online that Bouchier spent 15 years as a lecturer in sociology at the “experimental” University of Essex, after getting a “late-life Ph.D.” from the London School of Economics, and that the experience explains his “notable streak of irony.”
One learns further that a visiting professorship at SUNY yielded a “surrealistic experience” that prompted him to abandon “all hope of earning a proper living, and become a freelance writer and broadcaster.”
WSHU listeners in particular are indeed grateful for his professional turn, and for an earlier decision to take advantage of his marriage to an American citizen, “escape the British climate” and settle in Suffolk County, from which, for many years, he contributed “Out of Order” reflections to the Long Island section of The New York Times, and numerous other periodicals, and where he situates himself, still, taking quirky Op Ed aim at the various follies and incongruities of contemporary culture, and hosting the popular classical music program, “Sunday Matinee.” As Naomi Starobin, the news director of WSHU notes, David Bouchier “is one of a kind — the wry observations, the accent, the time-learned wisdom.”
Although radio syndication and books and articles ensure that Bouchier’s “curious thoughts” and “idiosyncratic” takes on the Human Comedy in America are heard far and wide, this coming Saturday, he will be on local ground when he leads an all-day workshop on essay writing at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor. He may be, arguably, one of the best heirs of the familiar essay tradition, where creative and critical writing come together by way of personal voice and conversational manner to provide lively comment on significant subjects. Years of teaching at various universities, including the famous Iowa Summer Writing Festival, have certainly given him perspective on the silly as well as the serious in American society. His essays, admirably original, and his pitches for them, consistently charming, exemplify critical intelligence, casually worn. His most recent book (of seven essay collections), Peripheral Vision: Irregular Essays from Public Radio (2011), has been hailed as “spot-on” and full of “insightful musings . . . not to be missed.” So, don’t miss them, Bouchier writes, “It’s not too late, and may never be too late to grab a copy.”
For certain, those who have already signed up for his workshop know about him, but can writing be taught? Some say no, and Bouchier allows that there is “a grain of dreadful truth” in this, but he also thinks that “the vast majority” can write something “successfully,” meaning that they can enjoy what they produce and will have learned something about writing from the experience. He’s talking about essay writing, of course, not fiction. What he hopes to accomplish with the Saturday workshop is convince participants that essays can begin from “anything at all, however minor or seemingly trivial,” and that though essay writing, unlike fiction, has no plot or characters, it should nonetheless “spin out” from the initial small observation and move in a different, “imaginative” direction — in other words, have structure and narrative drive.
He’ll be bringing examples from literary history to show what works (Hazlitt, Dr. Johnson) and what doesn’t, and if participants give permission, perhaps he’ll also engage them in critiquing their own work, the Iowa model. What may go awry with attempting to write a popular essay?
Sometimes people think that a personal essay must stay with the personal — that “I” rules; but beginning and ending with yourself, as though you were writing a memoir, is likely to “tip” self-referencing into “solipsism,” he says. The informing idea is to go “from personal to general,” to risk following an apparent irrelevancy, “not to be rigid,” to let voice lead. As for style, that comes with time and experience. He’s been writing since he was a teen, he points out. Over the years he has had many styles — for print journalism, for academic writing, for radio — bringing to each a refined sense of how style grows out of a sense of self. In Bouchier’s case, it could be said that his style reflects a self that never lets confidence overwhelm modesty, that never forgets that humor lies at the heart of man’s humanity to man.
The Master Workshop Series at Canio’s Cultural Café began last August when Mark Doty offered a “hugely successful” poetry workshop, says Maryann Calendrille, co-owner with Kathryn Szoka of Canio’s. The series seemed like a “natural extension of our authors’ reading series,” just as the café itself seemed like a good way to expand programs that drew on the area’s “long literary history.” Teachers, both of them, Maryann and Kathryn were eager to create an “intimate” setting — “no one’s competing for grades” — where a “relaxed but still substantive and intensive learning atmosphere” would take place between participants and facilitators. A small group seemed particularly important for workshops on “the writing process.” The award-winning short story writer Simon Van Booy led a winter workshop, and Marvin Bell, from the Iowa Writers Workshop offered “How to be a Poet Everyday.” Canio’s also offers workshops in other fields. In January, pastoral associate Eda Lorello held a four-week workshop on Thomas Merton, and upcoming seminars will feature Buddhism and Biblical interpretation. And more.
As for how Maryann and Kathryn connected with David Bouchier, they say they’ve been fans for years, and once, after hearing him lecture, and learning that he had worked in a bookshop in London, invited him to Canio’s.
“Somehow this evolved into his spending an afternoon as a ‘shop clerk’ one July day in 2000. The rest is history – meaning he wrote about the experience.
Of course he did — vintage Bouchier.
David Bouchier will be leading the essay writing workshop on April 13, 10 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. Reservations a must, space is limited. Call Canio’s for details at 725-4926.