Finding the Form with Susan Olding
In the winter of 2020, just before the pandemic hit, I was editing my most recent book, Big Reader. To keep the more creative part of myself engaged, I enrolled in Nicole Breit’s Visual Essay course. It’s an ungraded online six-week program that encourages participants to experiment with diptychs, triptychs, photo essays, graphic work, and other visual forms. (My photo essay, “Pacific Spirit,” also grew out of an invitation in that course.)
I was familiar with some of these forms and with some of the suggested reading material before I joined the class, but taking the course gave me permission to play. “Choose Your Seat Now” was my attempt at what Nicole calls a “decentred hermit crab essay” — it can be read in any direction, and the visual element does not simply illustrate the story but is in some way integral to it.
I don’t know why or how I hit on the image of the interior of a plane and a life story told through seat numbers. Maybe because I was about to travel to Ontario for research? (I went, returning to BC just as COVID restrictions came into effect).
By the time I had revised the piece and sent it to the editors at TNQ for consideration, the mere idea of plane travel evoked a powerful sense of nostalgia. The cramped seats and crowded rows we loved to complain about and the distant places we journeyed in them now seemed, like handshakes and hugs, almost unimaginable— and unimaginably precious.
If the pandemic truly initiates a shift in our reliance on air travel, the planet will thank us. Yet air travel has shaped my life. I feel suspended between the feelings of then and now. I hope essay embodies that sense of suspension.
Susan Olding is the author of Big Reader: Essays, and Pathologies: A Life in Essays. A long-time contributor to TNQ, She lives and writes in the traditional territories of the Lekwungen and W̱SÁNEĆ nations, in Victoria, British Columbia. Find her at www.susanolding.com or https://www.instagram.com/susan.olding/