Saturday, September 22, 2007

book report: art of the personal essay

The Aaaaaaht of the Puh-sonal Essaaaaay...that's the way my children repeat the title of the fat book that keeps sliding around the dash of my car, in their best mock-Brahmin voices. Here is my grown-up book report. I need twelve such reports this semester, and yes, all of the books are huge. I'm on book six, I believe.

A year ago I sat at my local coffee shop with a journal and a pen, an Orion and an Image Journal, and proceeded to write for several hours, interspersed with reading. In the overstuffed chair opposite me sat an older gentleman with a herringbone tweed hat next to his stack of books. After a break to refill coffee cups, he asked what I was writing and I said memoir. “But I don’t have much of a sense of what I’m doing. I just write like I talk, mostly.” He suggested I might like to look up The Art of the Personal Essay. We let each other write in peace, with an occasional break for a comment or two. For some reason, I thought the book would be a “how-to” rather than a “best of,” and while I wrote the title in my journal, I never managed to pick it up until now.

What a delight then to discover an anthology of great essay writing! It’s a feast! A month ago, I was despairing over those lucky fiction writers who get to read FICTION, but I feel certain these essays are some of the most honest writing on earth, and honesty is perhaps even better than a good story. (Did I really say that? Remind me I said that.)

While I love good reading, my current need is to learn terms and categories to help me understand the writing craft. Though I’m capable of a scathing and particular movie review, I’ve read purely for content, somewhat conscious of style, rarely for form. I know I love a piece or an author, but I can’t name why. Phillip Lopate offers several ways to look at essays, ordering selections first by historical era, then by topic, such as “City Life,” “Hatred and Opposition,” “Thresholds.” I will list some of these headings in my writing journal, common human themes and possible beginnings to my own stories.

Lopate’s introduction names two features of the personal essay especially helpful to me: “the hallmark of the personal essay is its intimacy” and “at the core of the personal essay is the supposition that there is a certain unity to human experience.” (p. xxiii) Whether an author conveys intimacy or convinces the reader of unity of human experience—these become means of discerning whether personal writing “works” for a reader. Lopate further delineates writing as “conversational,” honest, and notes author’s penchants for what he calls contractions and expansions of the self, irony and “cheek,” and he explores the inner workings of writers and the dance of privacy. Lopate’s interest is in “the tradition” of the personal essay, the “greats” to which other essayists pay homage, and a peek into some of the ways essayists quote earlier essayists by way of that homage.

Reading his selections for myself, I enjoyed Seneca on quiet and on slaves, Plutarch’s letter to his wife, and Sei Shonagon’s Hateful Things, then found myself skimming ahead to Chesterton, an old favorite, reading my children to sleep with the cadences of A Piece of Chalk. While the sparsity of women is frustrating, and Lopate defends his selections, I find myself gravitating toward the women writers immediately. Perhaps it is that notion of universality—I feel slightly more likely to resonate with human experience voiced by a woman.

Virginia Woolf’s Street Haunting begged to be read first to my husband and then to my children at bedtime, also, with the same effect of mesmerizing even my two quizzical children into a trance of rhythmic reading, so beautiful are the words that there is no time to slide a question in edgewise, and my great joy in reading swept them up. They chimed in weeks later, remember the story about the pencil? Does anyone care what Woolf is writing about? In comparison to the way she writes about it? If the melodic writing were not enough, the sudden stops before sinking too far into a stranger’s story are breath-taking. From shopping for a pencil, Woolf takes a plunge into the deepest of questions—am I my physical reality, or am I my imagination? And the beautiful reason behind this dilemma charms me:

…it is nature’s folly, not ours. When she set about her chief masterpiece, the making of man, she should have thought of one thing only. Instead, turning her head, looking over her shoulder, into each one of us she let creep instincts and desires which are utterly at variance with his main being, so that we are streaked, variegated, all of a mixture; the colours have run. Is the true self this… or that…? Or is the true self neither this nor that, neither here nor there, but something so varied and wandering that it is only when we give the rein to its wishes and let it take its way unimpeded that we are indeed ourselves? (261)

(This is the point during which I am jumping up and down reading, announcing she’s writing about a pencil, when she dives to question the whole enterprise of imagination, and the whole of the question is embodied in the very act of meandering in her shopping task.) I love her obvious joy describing her own irritating shopping habits, and the circle back to her home, with her pencil, reconciled.

This is my first Virginia Woolf and I can’t wait to find more.

Fascinated with one description of a hashish trip and another of political fasting, I continue headlong into Natalia Ginzberg’s Him and Sara Suleri’s Meatless Days, rich descriptions. I’ve always thought of F. Scott Fitzgerald as someone entirely “other,” and yet I find myself reading “in the dark night of the soul, it is always three a.m.,” over the phone to a friend.

While my eyes skim quickly the other essays, I’m interested in those with pull, with Lopate’s described intimacy and humanity. I’m also fascinated by how the writer gets from here to there. “Frisson,” (p xxvi) for instance, “which all lovers of the personal essay await as a reward.” I’m fascinated that there is a way to move a reader through a story, beyond simple storytelling. When Lopate names lists of “how the world comes at another person, the irritations, jubilations, aches and pains, humorous flashes, (p. xxvii),” I begin to see what to look for, what works. And with the simple phrase “the capacity for perception,” (p. xxxiv) at last I see myself, not lost but in the right place. Craft is the issue for me, but I possess the eye, and in the editor’s discussion of idleness, I see why the perceptions bubble to the surface differently in the past three years: I felt my role to be so very important when I lived in the professional world. I’ve felt utter delight in being “useless” by all societal standards, and what Lopate terms idleness has been the gift to play with what I’ve perceived.

So, half the task of the reading up to this point has been to find my way into this world of writers, to find a way to use the word “we,” and own it, about myself in this lineage. Perception, writing intimately, finding ways to build frisson, these all seem quite possible. On the other hand, Woolf makes me wonder how I can ever seriously use the word “we” about writers again. I might need to find all of her non-fiction and use it to reward myself for writing tasks completed. I’ve been married to Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay for three weeks, it seems, breakfasting with F. Scott Fitzgerald and lunching with M.F.K. Fisher, reading in the passenger seat across many states and reading while listening to a local band play. I’m surprised by the delightful writings of Seneca and Plutarch, as well as the Eastern writers completely new to me.

As of this moment, I’ve not moved to the most modern of the American essayists. The names are quite familiar and I will certainly continue, but it seems necessary to Annotate and move on today. I’m familiar with Dillard, Saunders, Berry, and I’ll be reading more of them, soon. I’m encouraged, excited, daunted. And while I’m still stretching to see craft and form as means of conveying a story, I’m exceedingly well-read—and I’m just getting started.

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