Lit Thursday: "The Fourth State of Matter"

Lenny recommends magazine articles of yore.

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We're trying something new for Lit Thursday: Instead of recommending books every week, we're going to be recommending some memorable magazine articles by and about women. This week, Lenny's editor, Jessica Grose, writes about Joanne Beard's 1996 New Yorker essay, "The Fourth State of Matter."

The first time I read JoAnn Beard's profoundly perfect essay, "The Fourth State of Matter," I was sitting in the warm spring grass. I remember it vividly: I was riveted to the ground, ignoring the other college students milling around and the ants climbing on my sneakers, following Beard's deeply humane story, which at first, seems like it's about a divorce and a dog's death, and then becomes so much more.

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At the time, I was still an acolyte in the church of Didion, like all the other female proto-journalists I knew. Didion's cool style was admirable, but I knew somewhere deep down that her controlled prose wasn't me. Reading Beard gave me another view of what "creative nonfiction" could be: vulnerable and revealing, while still being thrillingly structured.

I don't want to say much more about the contents of the essay, because if you haven't read it yet, I don't want to spoil its painful – but beautiful -- wallop. But it's worth noting that the professor who assigned this essay to me is the only college teacher I had who saw potential in me and my writing. You had to apply to be accepted in many of the most coveted writing classes, and I never, not once, got into any of them. This particular writing class took all comers.

I didn't know this until later, but nobody plucked JoAnn Beard out of a pile of thirsty applicants and told her she could be a writer. She didn't even start writing until her early 30s. When she was asked what her family and friends thought about her decision to pursue writing as a career, she said, "Nobody thought anything, because pursue wasn't really the right word. There was nothing for other people to notice: I went to work every morning and after work I did other things. Writing just became one of the other things; it was like building model ships. I wrote stories and set them on my mental mantel."

Since writing "The Fourth State of Matter," Beard has gotten a boatload of accolades for her work (A Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writers' Award), so it's not like she's toiling away in writerly obscurity. Still – she wasn't a Didionish wunderkind; not the next big thing at 25 and posing, skinny and chic, in a convertible near her Malibu respite. Beard was toiling as (in her words) a "secretary and glorified secretary." She added, "For a while in my early forties I had a job stapling." And she was making beautiful work in the margins.

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