We are trained from earliest age to be linear thinkers.  The world, we are taught, has a beginning, a middle and a conclusion.

My toddler son ran to me, excited: “Mama, I made a story!”


“One upon a time. There was. The end.”

We read narrative obedient to the “upside-down checkmark” (tension, climax and resolution). The truth of it is so transparent that we need not evaluate, much less notice, it.

Despite that transparency, some of us are incapable of linearity. For us, linearity is a sin against the erotic chaos, the proliferating patterns of the world. Patterns. Pattern thinkers. Even to suggest it is to lapse into sentence fragments for us who see constellations instead of lines.

Of course, linear narrative is a pattern, too. Yet narrative is merely one among an unlimited number of patterns. These patterns realign our attentions, create greater plasticity in our art-making, and drench us in unknowing. To read the world in alternative configurations opens possibility because pattern is fundamentally a question. It keeps asking itself ad infinitum.

Here follows a pattern sampler, a gesture toward methodologies.

#1: Schizophrenic Obsession

He pours a cup of coffee from the urn into his mug, then lifts the lid of the urn, pouring coffee back in. He pours a cup of coffee from the urn into his mug, then lifts the lid of the urn and pours coffee back in.

Told not to do this, he runs water from the faucet into his mug, lifting the lid of the urn, pouring water in. Told not to do this, he runs water from the faucet into his mug, lifting the lid of the urn, pouring water in.

Told not to do this, he becomes frustrated. Told not to do this, he becomes angry.

The next day, he pours a cup of coffee into his mug and then takes a rose he has stolen from the garden, places it in steaming coffee. The day after, he steals flowers from her desk, places them in a mug of steaming coffee. Told not to do this, he makes an eloquent gesture toward coffee and flowers, says, “To extract the elixir.”

In this way, the essay is a repetition that recurs until it thwarts itself, finds its boundary, surprises itself by shifting into a new articulation. This approach extracts the elixir.

#2 Weeds

Weeds invade cultivated spaces. They are opportunistic. We try to kill them; they persist. A stalk shoots up and seduces us with its yellow crown, then transforms again, becomes its own halo, wears a wig of silky filaments.

To touch it is to disseminate it. To attempt to capture it is to watch it elude grasp.  There is no core, only effusion. Seeds loft, reproducing themselves, mapping geography with weedy omnipresence.

The essay as dandelion. It eschews commitment to a central core, preferring Ezra Pound’s “points that define a periphery.” Its purpose is not to coalesce into conclusion but to begin: to invade the universe with beginnings.

#3 Baby Talk

Mama says to baby, “Do you want a cookie?”

Baby: “Yes.”

The next day, the child approaches Mama and says, “You want a cookie.”

Mama: “No, I don’t want a cookie.”

The child looks frustrated.  “You want a cookie,” he insists.

(Repeat cycle.)

Eventually Mama realizes that there is pronoun confusion here. If our language acquisition has given us an incomplete grammar (Hasn’t it? Always?), we begin to understand that the child has grasped “you” as a proper noun. The child, who identifies as “You,” explains that “You” wants a cookie. He doesn’t know to transpose “you” to “I” as he begins to access the grammar in which he speaks.

As grammar becomes more stable, vocabulary itself will lapse for lack of the desired word. The child searches for the toy lawnmower: “I want the cut-the-grass! Where is the cut-the-grass?”

Modes of language acquisition inform the possibility of the essay. We exert pressure on the stability of grammar to see what misuse will yield. Language, burdened by misapprehension, breaks open to productive exploitation. Where lack asserts itself before necessity, invention occurs. Language creates itself when there is something that we must say with it.

#4 The Flood

We had been taught to expect that when the flood came, it would come as a consolidated mass. It would carve itself (albeit deeper and wider) into a pre-existing channel. Danger and destruction, yes, but no particular surprises. Engineers mapped the catastrophe: we knew what to expect.

And then the flood came. The creek rose. The dams upstream held. No wall of water surged down the canyon.

It surprised us that the flood was local and omnipresent. The rain clouds moved to the foothills and bounced back, like a ball against a wall. Quiet residential streets filled and turned impassable. Emergency speakers blared that we should seek higher ground, but the ground above, saturated with water, caved in and rolled over itself. Small waterfalls and streams formed in unexpected places. The flood had no central locus or current. The water simply, continually replenished itself and meandered.

The essay as saturation: overflow that creates indirection. The essay has no central thesis; it is Taoist in its liquid flexibility, assuming any shape. It changes the landscape as it traverses the landscape.

#5 The Body

The rumor is that you cannot sneeze with your eyes open. You cannot put your elbow in your mouth. Blood, before it is oxygenated by air, isn’t red. If you fart beside a lit match, it will create a blue flame. Such patterns abjure etiquette. The body tests each hypothesis until that day it stands before the mirror, sneezing with its eyes wide open.


What if the bodily essay were made not of the body itself, but of its products: saliva, snot, feces, dander exhalations? What if its subjectivity comprised a remaindered subject, made of gray hair and scabs?

Shall we bury this detritus and let it decompose? An essay makes a hypothesis that cannot be proven and, in fact, proves false. But all is not lost. The essay functions by way of how it breaks down. The corpse ferments. Birds steal hair clippings for their nests. Scavengers descend. The essay moves from body to compost, regenerative.

In Sum, But Not Summative

The essay is the exemplar of patterning, and the virtue of any pattern is its suppleness. Non-narrative patterns allow us to surprise ourselves against the rigid linearities whose trajectories teach us that the end is near and is inevitable.

The essayistic event challenges us to treat boundary as a dare we cannot resist: thwarted, we rediscover the agility of imagination.

If preoccupations invade and seed our writing, we can treat language as communication, not conclusion. Any idea is a garden of proliferation. In its meandering grammar, the essay upends the nature of what can be thought. The flood does away with the myth of the unifying topic sentence. Other sources burble up to offer refreshment. The essay is a body that moves in space and time, sometimes bruising itself. Its only fidelity is to the essay’s alternate definition: effort or attempt. Failure is its prerogative, for erosion and decay may be just as potent, and as pungent.


Elizabeth Robinson is the author of multiple volumes of poetry, most recently Rumor (Parlor Press/Free Verse Editions). Her mixed-genre book, On Ghosts was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award in poetry. Robinson’s nonfiction has recently appeared in Conjunctions. She lives in Boulder, Colo., and works as the homeless navigator for Boulder Municipal Court.