The Point Podcast

Selected Essays | Anne Fadiman on Virginia Woolf

May 09, 2023 The Point Magazine Season 1 Episode 5
Selected Essays | Anne Fadiman on Virginia Woolf
The Point Podcast
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

On this episode of The Point podcast series “Selected Essays,” Jess Swoboda and Zach Fine talk to the writer Anne Fadiman about Virginia Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth” (1942) and Anne’s essay from the April 2023 issue of Harper’s, “Frog”—a eulogy of sorts for the family frog, Bunky, which was partially inspired by Woolf’s meditation on a moth fluttering back and forth across a window pane. 

Jess Swoboda  0:00  

Hey everyone, welcome to "Selected Essays," a podcast series from The Point magazine about essays you should read, but probably haven't. Each episode we'll be talking with writers about an essay that's influenced one of their own. My name is Jess Swoboda, and I'm here with my co host, Zach Fine. Hey Zach. 


Zach Fine 0:25  

Hey, Jess. Today we'll be talking with Anne Fadiman about Virginia Woolf's essay "The Death of the Moth." We'll also be discussing Anne's recent essay "Frog," which was published in the March issue of Harper's magazine. Anne is a writer and journalist who's written essays about everything from book collecting and ice cream to lepidoptery and the history of the postal service. She won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1998 for The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, and she teaches nonfiction writing at Yale, where she's an inspiring teacher to many students who have gone on onto become writers and editors. 


Jess Swoboda  0:55  

We hope you'll enjoy this episode and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. If you have questions, comments, or anything else, send an email to We'd love to hear from you. Your support helps us bring you material like this podcast.


Zach Fine  1:25  

Hey, Anne, thanks for joining us today. 


Anne Fadiman  1:27  

Hi, Zach. Hi, Jess. It's great to be with you. 


Jess Swoboda  1:30  

Yeah, thanks for joining us, Anne. 


Zach Fine  1:32  

Before we dive into the essay, I was wondering if you could start off by telling us what it's about. "The Death of the Moth" is only around 1200 words, a little bit less. And it accomplishes a lot in very little space. So we'd love to hear a summary of the essay. 


Anne Fadiman  1:49  

Well, it's an essay about the death of a moth, and the moth also accomplishes a lot in very little space. Most of the essay is about Virginia Woolf watching a moth fly back and forth across a window pane as she's inside. So is the moth. At first it seems to be flying vigorously, then less so, and ultimately she watches it die. 


Jess Swoboda  2:16  

Great, thank you. And what's going on in Woolf's life at this time? I know there's a complicated publication history, which might play into the factor about what you say about her life. But we're just wondering if you can give us some context as well. 


Anne Fadiman  2:31  

Sure. Nobody is 100% certain when this essay was written. Some Woolf scholars think it may have been written in the 1920s. But most, including my colleague Margaret Homans at Yale, who is a very distinguished Woolf scholar, think that it was probably written during Woolf's last fall, which would have been the fall of 1940. She died in March of 1941. And if it was indeed written in the fall of 1940—and we know it's September; the first paragraph says it's September, she's looking out the window, she's looking at the fields. And if it was, indeed, that fall, in 1940, she and her husband Leonard had had to leave London because it was being bombed in the Blitz. The flat where they had lived for about a year had its windows blown out and some of its ceilings collapsed. And then a month later, their previous flat, where they founded the Hogarth Press together and ran it from their basement, was completely destroyed. So they moved out permanently to their country house, which they dwelt in for about 20 years—Monk's House in Sussex. And because of its location near the English Channel, German bombers flew directly over it. That was in their flight path from northern-occupied France. And once she could even see the swastikas. So war would have been very, very much on her mind and death very much on her mind.


Jess Swoboda  4:23  

Great, thank you. And some things you talked about there—war, death—those are themes that we're going to be wanting to return to as we we continue. I figured, we thought that the best way to get going is for you to read a passage from this essay from the beginning—near the beginning of it. And so I'll turn that over to you.


Anne Fadiman  4:44  

Great. I'd like to read a passage from the second paragraph. So it's September morning in the country and in the first paragraph, Woolf has just described all the energy that she can see looking through her window at the field outside. There are clouds of rooks swirling around in the sky, their horses, and plough men. And then inside, she sees a small, hay colored moth fluttering back and forth across the window pane: "One could not help watching him. One, was, indeed, conscious of a queer feeling of pity for him. The possibilities of pleasure seemed that morning so enormous and so various that to have only a moth's part in life, and a day moth's at that, appeared a hard fate, and his zest in enjoying his meager opportunities to the full, pathetic. He flew vigorously to one corner of his compartment, and, after waiting there, a second, flew across to the other What remained for him but to fly to a third corner and then to a fourth? That was all he could do, in spite of the size of the downs, the width of the sky, the far off smoke of houses, and the romantic voice, now and then, of a steamer out at sea. What he could do he did. Watching him, it seemed as if a fiber, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body. As often as he crossed the pane, I could fancy that a thread of vital light became visible. He was little or nothing but life."


Jess Swoboda  6:38  

You talked a little bit at the beginning before you read that about how there's this energy to it, there's a fluttering back and forth. And I'm wondering why start here as a way to enter into this essay? Why not start instead with the first paragraph of it? Why here?


Anne Fadiman  6:54  

Well, she introduces the moth in the first few lines, but most of the first paragraph is not about the moth. She chooses to show this sort of broad canvas that she's looking outside her window with all of this movement and life and vigor. These birds flying around, all kinds of stuff is happening. And then she zooms in on the moth. And so of course I wanted to read a passage in which the moth was the hero.  

But maybe an even more interesting question is why did she not just stick with a moth from the beginning? Why does she want to have nearly a page that describes what's happening in the fields outside? And it seems to me it's this contrast between the largeness and energy of what's happening in the fields and then this tiny tragedy inside that's the whole point. And I know both of you read the essay in preparation for this conversation. But there's a marvelous moment later on when she realizes that the moth is not okay. The moth is failing, the moth is becoming stiff, the moth is becoming awkward. And then she realizes the moth is dying when she looks out of the window again, and she says: presumably it was midday and work in the fields had stopped, stillness and quiet had replaced the previous animation. And it's as if the entire universe comes to a halt and hushes while the moth dies, so she couldn't have that later moment unless she planted the seed earlier about all the noise and energy going on outside her window.


Zach Fine  8:53  

Woolf wrote a lot about moths and butterflies and even I think as early as maybe 1916 wrote something in the Times about her interest in them and collecting them. I was wondering before we go into the essay a little deeper whether you could tell us a bit about your own relationship  with butterflies in particular, which you've written about elsewhere?


Anne Fadiman  9:14  

Sure. And then I'd love to talk a little bit about Woolf's because of her a lot of parallels. Maybe I'll start with her. When she was a child, every summer until her mother died when she was thirteen, her family would go to a beloved country house in Cornwall called Talland House. And when her mother died, they gave up the long term lease. It was a beautiful house, they could see a lighthouse from it, it was on the coast. It was the lighthouse that essentially she wrote about in her novel To the Lighthouse. And she and her siblings formed a little family club that they call the “Entomological Society.” She was appointed the official name finder—that is, when they found a bug, she was the one who's supposed to look it up in a book and be able to identify it. 

So, of course, unlike the moth who is the hero of this essay, most moths are night moths, and Woolf would, and her siblings would, soak a flannel rag in treacle and rum and then they'd go outside carrying a lamp and they would pin the rag to a tree, and they'd have butterfly nets and the lamp would attract moths, which of course were broken by the light. And they would drink the treacle, which was also sticky, and they sort of get stuck in it and they'd get drunk on the rum, which made them very easy to catch. And if it was a good species, they would be caught and popped into the poison pot and brought home for the family collection. And every time I read this essay, mourning the death of one little moth, I remember that as a child, Woolf had killed hundreds of moths, and I've always wondered if she regretted it. And whether she wrote this in part as a form of atonement. Though, of course, you have to be very sure to remember that when you have an idea like that, it can be only a guess, because we can't read her mind. 

But in any case, she and I have a plenty of parallels there. Because when my brother and I were small children, we caught butterflies, we had a collection, but we had what we call the killing jar. It was our own poison pot. It had some carbon tetrachloride in it. And we would sweep around our garden in Connecticut with butterfly nets. And you know, we would catch Tiger Swallowtails and Mourning Cloaks and Zebra Swallowtails and put them in the poison pot, and then display them in our little museum and these sort of flattened cases called Riker Mounts. Later on, we had a name for our museum. We called it the Serendipity Museum of Nature. And many decades after that, I wrote an essay called “Collecting Nature” that was about our museum. And it began with a description of killing all the butterflies that were fluttering around so happily and beautifully in the garden until my brother and I assassinated them. But it ended with a butterfly that we had raised from a little kit that our daughter as a small child had released in a nearby garden and let go. That essay was my form of atonement. 

I greatly regretted having killed all of those butterflies. But later on, when I read that Virginia Woolf had done essentially exactly the same thing and was the taxonomist of the group and I loved butterfly taxonomy—we felt we didn't really own the butterflies until we knew what species they were the names the words were so important—I felt, well, of course, there are so many things, this is really grandiose to say you have anything in common with Virginia Woolf, but we had at least that small thing of our the childhoods as butterfly and moth assassins.


Jess Swoboda  13:43  

I kind of like I like how you've said, "Oh, maybe this is an atonement for Woolf, this essay." Because as I was reading, it was so hard to not read it through the lens of her suicide. And so now as you're talking, I'm like, okay, how do I, how might I rethink this? How might I reread this? And one of the lines in the passage that you read that I'm really struck by, I think it's actually two of them, and it's "What he could do he did," and "He was little or nothing but life." And I like those two because they convey the certainty that the other lines don't. They're short, and they get me thinking about okay, what is she trying to convey here? How does this moth represent life?


Anne Fadiman  14:28  

Yes, when she says, "As if the enormous energy of the world have been thrust into his frail and diminutive body," I don't feel that she is saying he's powerless here. I think she's saying as she does again in the next paragraph, it was a summon that taken a tiny bead of pure life. It was of all the life of the world all of a sudden is condensed into this tiny being that he represents all of life. I mean, it's just an amazing example of using a microcosm. She wrote in her essay "Modern Fiction," "Let us not take for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small." I mean, that's the moth. Life existed fully in this moth until it didn't. 

Then one other thing I'd like to point out in the passage that I just read. In the first paragraph, which I didn't read, the word "I" does not appear at all. We know that Virginia Woolf is present. In that first paragraph, she says, "It was difficult to keep the eyes strictly turned upon the book." You know, why doesn't she say "my eyes" and "my book." It's as if she doesn't want to take ownership until the very end of the passage that I read. So in the sentences that you've just read, she finally uses the word "I": "as often as he crossed the pain, I could fancy that a thread of vital life became visible." In the rest of the paragraph, weirdly, she is "one": "One could not help watching him. One was indeed conscious," and so on. And then, finally, she segues into "I." 

One of the really interesting things about this essay is that it's one of the few pieces of hers that isn't revised. And we know this because after she died, the very next year, in 1942, Leonard Woolf published a posthumous collection called The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. He knew this was the great one, he made it the title essay, he put it first in the book, and he said that the first four essays in the book had not been previously published in the newspapers and so on and that they hadn't been revised. And he draws a very explicit comparison between those essays and Woolf's other writing. He talks about an article of hers where he had come across eight separate revisions. So she revised and revised and revised and revised, but she hadn't revised this. That's one of the reasons why most scholars think that she wrote it very near the end of her life. If she'd written it decades early here, it's unlikely that she would have failed to share it with her husband, Leonard. They were so close, especially as literary partners. And he would have said, "Virginia, this is great, you got to publish it." But of course that didn't happen. And so this one was not revised. So we don't know whether that segueway from "one" to "I" was absolutely intentional or whether it was sort of unconscious and natural, as she over the course of the essay starts to identify more and more and more with that moth's struggles.


Zach Fine  18:35  

One thing that Jess and I wanted to ask you was, because you have a lot of experience as an editor—you were at the American Scholar for a number of years, and you teach writing and editing at Yale—we were really curious if you were given the opportunity to take a first pass at this essay, where you would intervene, if at all? I know that sounds absurd, in some ways, because of Woolf's stature. But thinking about in particular, for instance, the "I"—how, you know, it's suspended until the end of the second paragraph. If you saw that in a student's essay, for instance, would you double down and try to figure out what was up there or no?


Anne Fadiman  19:11  

I'd asked the student. I'd find out whether it was intentional or not it, but if I were, you know, editing Virginia Woolf and she weren't around to ask, I wouldn't change a word. Changes like that you really can't make without discussing them with the author. And I actually feel that the segue from "one" to "I" is one of the things that makes this essay so powerful. 

So you mentioned Woolf's suicide, Jess. And I actually do think that it may be a very useful way to look at this essay, again if we assume that it was written in the fall of 1940, which many scholars believe. But as my colleague Margaret Holman says they're very sure about it, no one knows for sure. But assuming it was, things were getting very, very difficult for Woolf at that point. She had attempted suicide at least once before. And things were becoming worse and worse, she felt that, she now, it's generally felt that she was probably bipolar. But that more than one point in her life, she also heard voices. And before she died, she started to hear voices again. And she wrote a famous suicide note to Leonard, in which she said, "I have fought against it, but I can't any longer." And the "it," of course, was suicidal ideation, because she felt she was going mad again, and wasn't going to recover. Actually, that was from a suicide note to her sister, Vanessa Bell, and she said almost exactly the same thing. 

In the more famous suicide note to Leonard, it lay at the core of how she viewed her suicide. And that sure sounds like what the moth might have said. This is not a moth that gives up. It really wants to be alive. Life is so strong. It tries and tries and tries and tries. And in the second and third paragraphs of this essay, the word "life" appears six times. And then in the last paragraph, when the moth is dying, life is still trying, it's still trying, it appears three times, but the word "death" appears six times. Death wins. And in the very last line, the moth had sort of turned upside down earlier, and then the very end, the moth, "having righted himself, now lay most decently and uncomplainingly composed. Oh, yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am." And so this is the first time that the "I" has been the moth's "I." And in my view, I think she sort of merged with the moth at this point, and was saying, this is how I feel death is stronger than I am.  

And those famous suicide notes, and they're beautiful, I've read them many times,  but if she really did write this essay in the fall of 1940, this is also a suicide note in which essentially, she is saying, I didn't want to die. I tried so hard, just like this moth. Life was really, really, really strong and energetic and vital and beautiful. But death was stronger. It's as if she's saying, "Nobody, nobody should ever think that I just give up."


Jess Swoboda  23:21  

Right. And and as you're reading the suicide notes and speaking, I was reminded again of the second passage you wanted to read because the movement of the pencil feels so much like the giving up.


Anne Fadiman  23:33  

Well, in the fourth paragraph, she's been watching the moth try to fly across, and it can no longer fly across its windowpane. And she writes, "After perhaps a seventh attempt, he slipped from the wooden ledge and fell fluttering his wings onto his back on the windowsill. The helplessness of his attitude roused me. It flashed upon me that he was in difficulties. He could no longer raise himself. His legs struggled vainly. But as I stretched out a pencil, meaning to help him right himself, it came over me that the failure and awkwardness were the approach of death. I laid the pencil down again." So she tries to save him with a pencil, and it doesn't work. But the pencil reappears one more time in the very last paragraph, and she says, "I lifted the pencil again, useless as I knew it to be." And so the pencil couldn't save them off, but it could write the essay and the moth died, and Virginia Woolf died. But this became the most famous moth in history. She made the more the moth immortal with her pencil, just the way she and her work are immortal. And she knew that her work was going to last after she died.


Zach Fine  25:24  

I was curious what you think about the choice of the pencil as opposed to the pen. You've written about your preference for pens in the past?


Anne Fadiman  25:34  

Well, she also wrote with a pen. I do love pens. And one of my early essays was about a fountain pen that I particularly love that had been given to me by my fifth grade boyfriend and then many years later lost. And I still miss that pen. But Woolf also really like pencils. She has a beautiful essay called "Street Haunting." It's about walking through London, and she wrote it in the Twenties. So this is before the war and it begins, "No one perhaps has ever felt passionately towards a lead pencil, but there are circumstances in which it can become supremely desirable to possess one." And she goes for long walk through London in order to buy that pencil. So of course, we don't know whether she wrote the essay with that very pencil at that very moment. She may have written the essay with a pen the next week. It's hard to say it, but the pencil as a writing instrument I'm sure she was thinking of, and the the, the moth died, but what was achieved by the pencil or its analog didn't.


Jess Swoboda  26:52  

Right. And I don't think I had thought of that. I don't know, I was reading this passage so bleakly. For me, it was extremely gut wrenching to read and in light of the suicide notes, it feels even more so. So I was, I kept seeing the handing down of the pencil as this giving up on life in some way, but you're revising my understanding of it. And I'm wondering then, if there's this tension in this passage going on between what's outside of you versus what's inside of you, or in some ways captures the instability and an uncertainty of life, yet there's thing that can help give us stability, like you're saying the writing, in some ways does for Woolf—that she is still etching herself and this moth in eternity through the act of writing.


Anne Fadiman  27:41  

I think I agree with that. And I also don't think that you're wrong to think that this passage has its bleak side. Although remember, it's not as if she was going to commit suicide the next day. She committed suicide in March of 1941. She saw the moth perhaps in September of 1940. When she committed suicide, she did it right near the house, the Monk's House in Sussex where they were living, and what she probably wrote this this essay. It's within walking distance of the River Ouse, and she weighted her coat pockets with rocks and walked into the river and drowned. And so it's not as if she had yet decided, but she was clearly struggling with suicidal ideation. And certainly, writing for her was a form of stability. And she and Leonard had very regular writing patterns. And when she was living with him at at Monk's House where they had frequently gone over the last two decades, but had been living permanently since they'd had to leave London because of the Blitz, every morning, she would go out to her writing shed, which was a little one room shed with a desk, and she would write. They wrote seven days a week—Leonard has has written about this—most weeks of the year. And this was an absolute pleasure for them. They didn't write all day long, but they wrote every single day. And that sense of the regularity of writing was so important to her. 

And of course, she was also a great reader. And that's one of the reasons that she and Leonard founded Hogarth Press, which they ran from a basement in their home in London. They published, among other things, the first British edition of T. S. Eliot's the Wasteland, and it published Leonard's work, and it published Virginia's work. And it's very poignant to remember that it was Hogarth Press that published The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. So it was in a Hogarth Press edition that people first read The Death of the Moth. So this these regularities of reading and writing, that stability's so important to Woolf, absolutely, and mere depression and mere worry about the war would not have made her commit suicide. Leonard was very clear about this in what he wrote. It was entirely because she felt she was going to go mad, or rather already was going mad again, and this time was not going to recover. That was the reason.


Zach Fine  31:02  

I'm also wondering about somebody who encounters without knowing anything about Woolf, and what is left of the essay? And what we would get out of it, if we knew nothing of her her life?


Anne Fadiman  31:14  

If you were to read it and you've never heard of Virginia Woolf, and you had no idea who she was, I like to think that you might still recognize it as a great essay because so many of those elements, the microcosm that oh, she's saying so much whoever this author is in this small space, and also the difference between the plot and the theme—that is, the plot is I saw him off flutter around and then it died. But the theme is, life is strong, but death is even stronger. And you don't have to know anything about Woolf to recognize that, I think.


Zach Fine  32:00  

In the March issue of Harper's, you have a an essay out called "Frog" that's about your immortal frog Bunkie. And when we first started corresponding about this essay, you mentioned that the two great essays  on the death of animals were Virginia Woolf's "The Death of the Moth" and E. B. White's "The Death of a Pig." And I'm wondering if you can introduce us to the essay "Frog," but also tell us how you were thinking about those essays in relationship to your own?


Anne Fadiman  32:32  

I had wanted to write this essay about our near immortal, but in fact, ultimately mortal when he was sixteen or seventeen, frog and it's called "Frog: What happens to the pets that happen to you." So it's about how we loved our dog, and we loved our guinea pigs and our hamster. But the pet lasted the longest was one that had kind of accidentally joined the family—an African clawed frog named "Bunky" who lived for either sixteen or seventeen years. And the fact that we don't exactly remember when we got the tadpole shows that we didn't really care as much about Bunky as we did about the other pets. The essay is much longer than "The Death of Moth." And it's about shame and guilt and regret and parenting, and all kinds of other things. And it does include a death scene and a burial scene. And before I wrote about the burial of Bunky, this deceased frog, I reread both Virginia Woolf's "The Death of the Moth" and E.B. White's "Death of a Pig," which is about the death of a pig and his farm and name. I wanted to remind myself how dignified those deaths were, even though it was just a moth and just a pig. So, for example, when Virginia Woolf talks about how the moth manages to right itself, that is to turn itself right side up, to compose itself to be dignified at the end, I wanted this frog, who at various points in the essay has been a kind of a comic or overlooked figure, to have a dignified burial.


Jess Swoboda  34:36  

One of my favorite moments in "Frog" is when you describe how he swims and what he looks like laying on the bottom. And for me, that's something we might overlook in daily life, but you're really valuing what's common and overlooked in a way that I think Woolf really does as well.


Anne Fadiman  34:56  

And Bunky our frog was an aquatic frog—that is, he didn't hop around on land, he stayed in the water all the time. And I write, "He compensated for his terrestrial shortcomings with his grace in the water. Sometimes he lays splayed on the bottom like a rug. Sometimes he floated unmoving at a 45 degree angle. But when he took off, he was so efficient, as seen positively urtextual, he could swim up, down, forward, backwards, and sideways."


Zach Fine  35:32  

I think we also just have to add quickly that you describe him as looking as if he's been put into a panini press.


Anne Fadiman  35:39  

He was a very flat frog, a very strange, pale, flat frog. So he doesn't look like all the plump green frogs in every illustration in a children's book. That microcosm, um, you know, I can't say exactly learned it from Woolf, but she was certainly one of my teachers—that is, really look carefully. You know, it's, it's, life exists and what's commonly thought small, not just what's commonly thought big, as Woolf wrote. And I feel really sad that I had never gotten our frog a larger aquarium. And that's one of the central plot points as a spoiler in this essay, "Frog." And I didn't honor him as much as he deserved, really, while he was alive, while just spending just thousands of hours on our dog whom I completely adored. And of course, it doesn't do the frog any good to be honored after it's dead. But nonetheless, I wanted to and so I wanted to notice that frog and remember that frog just as much as I possibly could. And that's what Woolf does, she really sees. And I still feel sad about our frog. And I feel lucky that I had the chance to write about him. It's a kind of eulogy.


Zach Fine  37:26  

But even though the sadness in the essay, there's so much humor, and, and they're kind of twinned together throughout. So you describe Bunky in his tank calling for a mate that he never meets. And then you talked about Bunky smelling bad and how he's not fun to hang out with or touch. And then he sits in the freezer for six years after he dies. And it's pretty devastating. But I'm wondering how you thought about humor in the essay because Woolf's essay, by contrast, is not funny. And I don't know if there's a single line in it that I would consider funny, but I'm curious how you brought humor into yours. 


Anne Fadiman  37:59  

Well, yeah, "The Death of the Moth" isn't funny at all, I don't think. I agree. Not one line, not one word. I mean, when you have a dead frog, when you have a frog that you've had for sixteen years, just that very fact is funny. You know people will see a frog or you have a frog, you know how many you all I know we've had it for sixteen years you've got what it is particular species lives a really long time. But when we got the tadpole of course, we didn't know that, so we didn't know exactly what we were signing on for. And then, you know, in a macabre way, you know, how can you be too serious about the fact that because you're kind of waiting for the perfect time when both of the adult children are home to bury the frog is that the frog kind of languishes in a in a ziplock bag in the freezer on a shelf right above the ice maker. I mean, just the fact that I mean, how can you write about that without comedy, although I think it's a sort of, even though it's about such a tiny subject and a ridiculous subject a dead frog, I think of it as sort of tragicomic. 

The British early nineteenth-century essayist William Hazlitt once said of his friend Charles Lamb, who'd had a very difficult life and who was a comic writer, but always with an edge, he said, "His jests scald like tears." "His jests scald like tears" is such a beautiful sentence. These four monosyllables of all these consonants. And so I think it's possible to be sad and funny at the same time or, or right next door, and my feelings about our family's dead frog, I think they're some aspects of his life and afterlife, that really were comic in a kind of a macabre way.


Jess Swoboda  40:04  

But you've given, you've given him the attention and affection through writing this essay, it seems. You've made him interesting via this essay.


Anne Fadiman  40:11  

I'm glad you found him interesting. And I only wish that I had given him this degree of attention while he was still alive.


Zach Fine  40:21  

And throughout your career you've written about, or you've written familiar and common essays, which if we think of sub genres of the essay, or essays that often feel neglected or not kind of in vogue today, and I'm curious how your relationship to the familiar or common essay has changed over the course of your career? Because I think even as early as the Nineties, when you wrote an introduction for Best American Essays, you wrote about the the common or the familiar essay at some point. And Ex Libris, one of your books, after the colon—is "the common reader"?


Anne Fadiman  40:58  

"Common reader" is actually, of course, a phrase that I took from Virginia Woolf. Yeah, I did write about familiar essays in Best  American Essays in I think 2003. But I also wrote about them in an introduction to a collection called At Large and At Small, about the familiar essay as a genre kind of invented by early nineteenth-century Brits. And the idea was that it would be a better familiar subject, and you would have a kind of colloquial voice as if you were talking to a friend and they weren't formal. And they were framed by the author's own experience, but they were also about a subject, you know, about annoying relatives or about going to the theater. Charles Lamb wrote one on ears and, and I like writing personal essays, but feel too self-indulgent if they're only about me. And so the idea of writing about myself, but also writing about a topic, is very appealing. And although Woolf wasn't doing that exactly in "The Death of the Moth," it's very interesting that it was a personal essay, in which she was not the main character. 

 We think of personal essays, anything that uses the word "I" as being about the author, and she was not the central character, the moth was. I still like to write familiar essays. That frog one you could say is one. I wrote an essay a couple of years ago, also for Harper's, called "All My Pronouns," and it was about how I learned to live with a singular "they." And it had a lot of research on the whole history of pronouns, especially the second person pronoun "you," and I just love doing that research, but it was framed by my own experiences, especially with my students. I think that kind of essay is really fun to write, and I hope it's fun to read. We learn a little bit. So I think it's possible to make the old-fashioned familiar essay up to date,


Zach Fine  43:26  

In terms of writing about pronouns, for instance, but also, throughout your career, you've written about being a compulsive proofreader, coming from a family of compulsive proofreaders, raising children who are compulsive proofreaders, and I came across something from an older essay of yours where you talk about—I think you were 23 years old—and you write a letter to Nabokov pointing out fifteen misprints in the Pyramid paperback edition of Speak Memory. And Vera writes back to you, which is just an amazing, amazing detail, but I'm curious how your relationship to to proofreading has changed in recent years and whether your standards have only gotten more firm or have they become more lax over the years.


Anne Fadiman  44:11  

I think it's it's just genetic. My parents were demon proofreaders and my daughter, who named our dog Typo, is a demon proofreader. Although she always said to her friends, it's not as if anything about Typo was a mistake, but she had read that dogs respond best to two syllable names ending with a long vowel.


Jess Swoboda  44:35  

I do love that moment in your essay, when you call her a compulsive proofreader and go into the history of the naming of Typo. 


Anne Fadiman  44:42  

Well, thank you. I think it's just genetic. It's not that I plan to find stuff or that I intend to find stuff. My husband has kind of caught the bug from me. I'm married to a writer, and we'll mark little mistakes—either typos or, you know, he'll mark dangling modifiers—just as a little present for me so I'll notice it in the local paper. When I come down to breakfast, I will see it. So, you know, I think it's in some ways a very annoying trade. But maybe, as with most people, their good and bad characteristics are kind of an extra inextricably combined. And in this case, maybe my interest in small things and noticing comes from the same part of my brain that notices a typo or grammatical error. My second essay collection was called At Large and At Small and the idea was I'm interested, I'm at large in the world, I'm interested in a whole bunch of things, but my focus is myopic, usually. And it was myopic in "Frog." And the nice thing about "The Death of the Moth is that nobody can say, oh, gosh, he wrote about a dead frog with a trivial subject. And I can say, well, Virginia Woolf wrote about a dead moth that's even smaller than a dead frog. And if she could get away with it, so can I.


Jess Swoboda  46:16  

And it didn't even live as long as the frog either.


Anne Fadiman  46:19  

And not nearly as long. Not nearly as long. It's kind of the superhuman frog and the fact that he lived, what, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen years I know in the essay, you don't pin anything to a year for fear of making an error, but either sixteen or seventeen. We know that we'd already had Bunky for a while when we moved from New York to Western Massachusetts in 2000. And so the question was, and we know what year he died, and so it's just a question how long have we had him before we moved from New York. But boy that move from New York, he was in little plastic aquarium in those days, and I had in between my feet in our mini van.


Jess Swoboda  47:04  

I can't believe he made it just between your feet on a bumpy ride from New York to Massachusetts. 


Anne Fadiman  47:10  

Yes, in that little aquarium. I mean, I think it must have been so horrible for him. Just a traumatic experience. I mean, this is about a four or five hour drive, and the water was sloshing back and forth. But he somehow did survive. So, anyway, Bunky was alive then. But so he died at either sixteen or seventeen. 


Zach Fine  47:36  

Before we let you go, Anne, I just wanted to ask you—about five or six years ago, I was I was talking to a former student of yours, and they said that you have this division between different kinds of writers. And I don't know if I heard this correctly, but it's always stuck with me that supposedly you divide writers into diamond polishers and swamp drivers. Is this a division? Is that the actual division or am I misremembering?


Anne Fadiman  47:59  

You are not misremembering it. And of course, I don't think that this typology is perfect, and it doesn't cover everybody. But I do think that most writers, and this is just about the writing process: are they the sort who would become paralyzed or blocked, couldn't go on to the second sentence, unless they had already made the first one pretty much perfect, or are they the sort who need to zoom along really fast because they would be blocked if their momentum was halted. And so the swamp drivers need to, I mean, they'd sink into the swamp if they didn't go fast, as my older brother and I once actually did sink into a swamp when we were driving, sort of through in a kind of primitive four wheel drive car in the summer of 1970. And we sort of stopped to admire some nice birds and all of a sudden, we sink. So that's the origin of swamp driver. So, you know, one is slower, one is faster, one needs a lot of momentum, one needs perfection, each can become easily blocked. And one needs more drafts than the other. But I think ultimately, in the final draft, the prose can be equally perfect. I'm married to a swamp driver, and his first drafts are hardly written in English. I mean, the sentences are not complete sentences. He just, you know, every other word is on these gonna fill in later. But boy, by the time he gets to his tenth draft is absolutely gorgeous. So, my main message to my students is that you pretty much have to embrace who you are, you know, you shouldn't let anybody say that you should be the other type. The tenth-grade English teachers are always telling the diamond polishers, oh, you know, you're just too much of a perfectionist. Just sit down and free write and the diamond polishes can't do do that. But of course, if either one does get blocked, maybe borrowing a few techniques from the other side of the fence can be helpful. So Jess and Zach might I ask you whether you see yourself in either of these two categories?


Jess Swoboda  50:18  

I do. I think I would be the swamp driver, perhaps.


Anne Fadiman  50:27  

Oh, sorry, go on.


Jess Swoboda  50:28  

Yeah, no, I was just saying, I'm the type of person who will, just my writing starts with me just jotting down free thoughts in an outline like form, but a very not an organized outline, just like here are the things I'm thinking, the main moves I want to make. And then I'll add some more details. And then add more details and then add more details. And so my first draft is feels like a lot like you're describing your husband's first draft. And then so it takes me a lot longer to get to the polished version, I mean, a lot more drafts to get to the polished version. But definitely think the way you've described it, I identify more as the swamp driver than the diamond polisher. Zach, I don't know about you.


Anne Fadiman  51:06  

Classic Swamp driver.


Zach Fine  51:09  

I'm a swamp driver with with a pen or a pencil and a piece of paper. But the moment that I see something in a word processor, I am frozen by the clarity of it. And I cannot move to another sentence before it looks right in Word or in Google Docs, or whatever it is. So for me, it seems like it's split across the the media for some reason.


Anne Fadiman  51:30  

And which do you prefer? Are you like Virginia Woolf? Who would always write a first draft with pen or pencil and then type it? Or do you sometimes write by hand and sometimes write on your computer?


Zach Fine  51:46  

I've always tried to start by hand and then move to the computer, but I'm always open to revising that method. So if you have any suggestions, maybe I'll change it up.


Anne Fadiman  51:55  

Yeah, well, that's exactly what Virginia Woolf did, except it was a typewriter instead of a computer. And look how great her stuff was. So it seems to me that you have the best possible model.


Jess Swoboda  52:07  

Yeah, no, Zach, if it's any consolation, I write all of my first drafts and sometimes my second by hand and then I turn to the computer, because then I already have words to put on the blank Word document, and I revise them as I go. And Anne, how about you? Sounds like a diamond polishers is how you might be.


Anne Fadiman  52:26  

Yeah, I am a diamond polisher, though, I think I've become a little bit more swamp drivery as I've aged, because finding the right word isn't quite as easy as it used to be. And so I sometimes think, oh, I'll just kind of barge through it. But at my core, I think a diamond polisher. And I used to write my first drafts by hand and then move to the screen. But I just got impatient. I mean, writing by hand has the advantage of slowing you down. And so you have to think, but I just, if I had a good phrase in mind, I just had to get it down fast. And writing by hand was just too slow. Also, my handwriting has just gotten worse and worse and worse over the years. So now I can't imagine writing my first draft, except on the screen. And all subsequent drafts as well. Although I do always print out every draft, I'd read it aloud. I mark it up by hand. And then I go back and put those changes in on the screen.


Zach Fine  53:43  

Well, Anne, thank you so much for joining us today. We really, really appreciate it. It was great talking to you.


Anne Fadiman  53:48  

This has been a complete pleasure. Thank you, Jess. Thank you, Zach. I've enjoyed every minute.


Jess Swoboda  53:56  

Thanks, everyone, for joining us for this episode of "Selected Essays." We'd like to thank Joe Coleman for editing the podcast and Meg Duffy have hand tablets for contributing the original music. We hope you'll tune in to our next episode, where we'll be talking with Adam Shatz about James Baldwin's essay, "Alas, Poor Richard." As always, please subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And if you have any questions, comments, or anything else, send an email to We'd love to hear from you. See you later listeners.

What is “The Death of the Moth” about?
The moth as a symbol for life
Woolf’s life at the time of writing
Anne reads a passage from “The Death of the Moth”
The moth as hero
Anne the editor
Woolf’s suicide
Pencil or pen?
Writing as a form of stability
Woolf’s microcosm
Anne’s essay, “Frog”
Honoring Bunky the aquatic frog
Balancing humor and sadness
The common or familiar essay
A family of compulsive proofreaders
Swamp driver or diamond polisher?