What is it?
Personal essays about personal essays.
(Reflection from June 2022: I think my description of the book as being personal essays about personal essays is a mischaracterisation on my part; it’s what I would have liked the book to be. These are essays primarily on craft, more pedagogical in their method, with a lot of rhetoric. I don’t think these are essays in which the writer is genuinely working towards understandings that he does not yet possess. They have the form of personal essays somewhat, but they are not that. I just wished they were.)
How I felt about it?
A kind of useful book to read – no, a useful book to read – I’m just reluctant to admit it. The tone is bordering on fuddy-duddy. The book is not as interesting as the author presumably thinks it is, and not as confessional, or as intriguingly contrarian, as he holds up as being valuable in writing.
I did learn things though. It’s given me a sharper appreciation of the distinction between personal essay and memoir. I write both, but I think the manuscript is going to be more memoir than personal essay. The writer has a particular view of the personal essay though, which is very much the interior voice in argument style. He pushes against the memoir vignette – fine – but I like and privilege the vignette myself. He definitely favours the distinctive essayist voice. I think both things are possible in a single piece myself.
It’s a useful book as a provocation, and probably good to read again and again. The question is how much to trust the advice of the writer, and I think the lesson there is: trust what feels right. If I were to take him on face value and as gospel, then I’d turn away from memoir-style writing to something much more structured by the internal argument. And perhaps that’d be right.
Question: what is my insomnia manuscript about?
Isn’t it about the failure of some kind of argument? The failure of the belief that I could do it myself, that I could take care of myself, that I was the sovereign at least of my own body? There was a retrenchment that went on. There was an inability to control. Why am I interested in writing about this? Is it because it seems interestingly counter to stories that I grew up on? Hero myth stories …
Isn’t my difficulty in writing my manuscript tied up with my lack of a question that I’m burrowing towards myself in the writing? I’m having trouble writing because I feel that I already know what the manuscript is about, and I’m bored with the project on that level. Note: this is consistent with other projects that I’ve stalled on. Too much planning and forethought, and then trouble putting anything down. When the work does hit the paper, it feels dead on the page.
Further reflection on the specific essay ‘Reflection and Retrospection: A Pedagogic Mystery Story’, after this essay was part of a fellow student’s reading packet:
I am interested in the deeply emotional reaction that I had to this essay when I re-read it for class. I hated this essay. And, in my hate, I misread it. Which is a powerful argument for getting form and content right if I want to communicate a message. But what I most want to do here is interrogate my emotional reaction and misreading.
First off, I’m averse to anyone who says good writing has to be a particular way. That totally turned me off. And his smug tone further contributed to my dislike. Looking deeper at the essay, I felt he used strawman arguments and over-simplifications to make his point. For instance, the writer voices a fear from students that suspense might be ruined by putting their insights up front. Seems like a reasonably valid fear to me, but the writer dismisses this fear as students loving to justify vagueness. He then tries to position the choice as being one between a worldly, forcefully eloquent voice and a naïf. Is there no in-between here? I think the writer is avoiding nuance, and instead employing over-the-top rhetorical effects eg, contrasting a ‘worldly forcefully eloquent’ voice with a ‘naïf’, in order to win his argument.
The writer also suggests (pejoratively, I think) that a resistance to retrospective analysis comes out of ‘victim culture’ or arising from a ‘culture where making judgmental pronouncements is frowned upon as antisocial’. These are interesting ideas to explore but they are not, to my mind, done sympathetically or in the spirit of the genuine endeavour of understanding that is the mark of the personal essay. The writer also tries to pass off an attachment to younger perspectives as narcissistic. Fragile and guileless. It can be. But it clearly doesn’t have to be. There were counter-example pieces by both John Burnside and Mark Doty in Graeme’s reading packet that I felt presented the difficulties of childhood, and showed the interest in the world by the child too. It is interesting to me that children don’t understand the world properly. It is a human experience that is helpful to relate, and it is part of the formation of our adult selves.
The writer also seems to have a bias against experimentation in form, for instance arguing against the possibility of an unreliable narrator in creative non-fiction. I am interested in the possibilities of an unreliable narrator. The writer argues that an unreliable narrator necessarily makes the non-fiction work fiction, and I fail to follow his reasoning here, and I don’t think he sufficiently explains this leap on his part.
This essay made me consider the distinct traditions of the personal essay and of memoir, which I think have become more intertwined over the last 50 years or so. I only know so much, but I’d define the personal essay as traditionally having taken an approach of the inquiring narrator, very clearly setting up the questions/topic of inquiry at the front, and then taking the reader through the topic at hand with reference to personal experience and reflection (Montaigne, Hazlitt). The memoir/autobiography is a different tradition of talking about issues of interest in the real life of the subject. It deals with a string of incidents rather than ones solely selected for the purpose of the pre-chosen theme. The trick in this tradition is how to make it interesting. Techniques can include recurring ideas or themes, deep immersion in incident, a sense of dishing the dirt and the direct self-reflection that the writer is referring to. All or none of these. But to be successful, it probably should employ at least one of them.
I think it is ultimately the way that this essay seems so opposed in practice and method to the spirit of the personal essay (as I see it) that drove much of my hatred for it. I think the personal essay is interested in the gaps. It is inquiring, embracing of humanity, even in its difficulties. The personal essay is a humanist endeavour, to my mind. The writer is pretending, I think, to be inquiring and understanding, while really trying to pitch the traditional personal essay as the best way of doing things.
This essay prompted me to think more deeply about my favourite personal essays: ‘The White Album’ by Joan Didion and ‘Total Eclipse’ by Annie Dillard. ‘The White Album’ employs many of the effects that the writer is calling for, but Didion’s use of the narrator is quite different. Her narrator is wise and experienced but still does not understand. The spirit of the 1960s remains mysterious, unknowable. Her narrator feels lost by the end of the essay, perhaps more lost than at the start, and the essay is unsettling, suggesting that even the deeply considered can remain out of reach. There is a sense in which the narrator’s wisdom is shown to be more limited than we may have first thought, which is approaching the use of an unreliable narrator, in my mind. Dillard’s ‘Total Eclipse’ is deeply immersed in the experience, letting the experience tell much of the story. Both pieces maintain a sense of mystery and wonder in the face of personal experience. Genuine inquiry into the deeply felt and difficult to explain.
Ultimately, I am quite interested in creative non-fiction because it says, ‘Life. Huh. This is what it was like for me. Can you relate? Is life a little bit like that for you too?’ Contemporary reflection can help with this. I like it. But it can be done in different ways and there is a continuum here to land on.
But I have been unfair to this essay and the writer. In my hatred of it, I misread the piece as the writer saying that non-fiction had to necessarily employ the style of the inquiring narrator, very clearly setting up the questions/topic of inquiry at the front. In fact, he doesn’t do this. He does state that’s his preference, he is arguing for it, but he’s not actually saying that’s the only way to do it. He is arguing for the necessity for contemporary reflection, a double perspective that includes insights at time of writing, but the writer is clear that this can be done in different ways. However, I couldn’t read these nuances, because, I think, of my overwhelmingly negative emotions towards the essay. Strong emotion interfered with my critical faculties.
It’s because I’m much more on the other side of the fence from the writer that I felt so threatened by this essay. I like using the voice of my younger self. I have also shied away from using contemporary reflection. I do use contemporary reflection, it’s not that I haven’t, but my preference has been generally to play matters within the scene of the childhood experience and perspective as much as possible and allow the reader to read between the lines. I like this approach. I see it as more subtle. I am indeed a student of the show not tell variety and it is interesting to me in this regard that I have come out of fiction, and in particular screenplay writing, where the intention is to create subtext as much as possible. Contemporary reflection seems to be an opposite of subtext to me – it is text that needs to work and resonate on its own truths.
I felt attacked by the writer’s viewpoint. And my strong emotion came up in our class discussion on this essay. I could barely control my angry tone; I slipped into anger twice, the second time despite my stated intentions to talk about the essay in a more measured manner. I’m not used to getting so angry in a discussion about writing. It was a space where the passion and criticality of my reading self (as expressed in this reading journal) conflicted with the more amiable way I prefer to conduct myself socially.
I was threatened because I prefer to use the experience and perspective of an earlier self rather than my current thoughts. And more deeply, I realise that this reflects an unwillingness to be more truly vulnerable on the page. Despite much of my memoir-style work over the past four years being vulnerable, and probably as vulnerable as I could be at the time, my avoidance of reflective contemporary voice is partly out of a fear of being judged. I’m protecting myself. If I position a text from the viewpoint and experience of a previous version of myself, then I can always maintain some level of distance from the previous me. The previous me is the one who got it wrong, who acted foolishly in some manner. Or even just acted in a complicated, human, way. I keep my current self at some remove from judgement by the reader, while accepting praise for the writing. It adds up to a complex dance. Both a revealing and a concealing; a concealing while in the pretence of a full reveal.
So, it comes down to ego. My ego was threatened. This writer’s essay was opposing the very way that I prefer to write in order to protect it.
Looking forward, I want to write more contemporary reflection. I feel my folio needs it, and my growth as a writer also requires it. So, I will.
Beyond all the issues I have with the style of this essay, the writer makes numerous valid points on form and content that I agree with, including that contemporary perspective is useful to provide sufficient context/exposition, and that the reader cannot wait 200 pages for an ‘intelligent narrator to arrive’. Once I understood that I had mistaken his argument that contemporary/double perspective needs to be present, rather than an overtly inquiring narrator needs to be present, I agreed with him on every substantive point.