A Solemn Pleasure

A Solemn Pleasure

To Imagine, Witness, and Write

Book - 2015 | First edition
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In A Solemn Pleasure, Melissa Pritchard presents an undeniable case for both the power of language and the nurturing constancy of the writing life. This is nonfiction vividly engaged with the world, encompassing the author's journeys into the deeply interior imaginative life required to write fiction, a search for the lost legacy of American literature as embodied by Walt Whitman, reports from Afghanistan while embedded with a young female GI, tales of travels with Ethiopian tribes, and the heartrending story of her informally adopted son William, a former Sudanese child slave. Pritchard's passion for writing and storytelling educates, honors, and inspires.
Publisher: New York : Bellevue Literary Press, ©2015
Edition: First edition
ISBN: 9781934137963
Branch Call Number: 808.02 PRI 2015
Characteristics: 205 pages ; 19 cm


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May 27, 2015

In A Solemn Pleasure, Melissa Pritchard paraphrases a Sufi parable for one of her essays titled “Elephant in the Dark.” To me it captures one of the most compelling thematic arcs of her collection: the slipperiness of art or art’s ‘many-sidedness’:

“Some Indians kept an elephant in a dark room. Because it was impossible to see the elephant, those who wanted to know something about this exotic beast had to feel it with their hands. The first person went into the darkness and felt the elephant’s trunk and announced, This creature is like a water pipe. The next person felt the elephants’ ear an asserted, No. It’s like a giant fan. A third person felt the elephant’s leg and declared, That’s not true. This animal resembles a pillar. A fourth person felt the elephant’s back and concluded, Not at all. It’s like a throne. Different points of view produce different opinions. If someone had brought in a candle, they would have all felt like fools.”

In many ways, art can be described as this kind of groping around in the dark—a necessary attempt at guessing the higher truths. Pritchard uses this folktale to preface one of the more didactic essays in the collection that discusses fiction writing technique, but to me it also encompasses Pritchard’s larger intent: to argue and show that art is a form of transcendence, that it can bring a little light into a largely banal world, that writing can be “active prayer.” The essays in A Solemn Pleasure might be seen as mere inspirational accounts but they are done remarkably well: they elevate your sense of creative purpose and also teach something practical about that kind of creative living. Pritchard is exhorting us to think grand but stay grounded. To Pritchard, writing isn’t a job or a vocation—it’s tantamount to a kind of divine calling—but one that shouldn’t keep you above the fray or inflate your sense of importance or intensity of your ‘suffering.’ I did roll my eyes at some of the heavy-handed attempts to deify the writing experience (evoking the American Transcendatalists; think Emerson and Thoreau) but looking past these moments there were some gems that were just the right balance of the personal, philosophical rumination, and reportage that I find strikes the right flavor profile of essays I enjoy.

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