The personal essay is not dead, but has it traded politics for style?
Too Much and Not the Mood
FSG Originals, $15 (paper)
Somebody with a Little Hammer
Penguin Random House, $25.95 (cloth)
Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil
University of Chicago Press, $75 (cloth), $25 (paper)
The first essay in Durga Chew-Bose’s Too Much and Not the Mood is called “Heart Museum,” and it opens with a long description of an iPhone emoji:
There's an emoji on my phone that I’ve never used, of a shell-pink tower-block building with blue windows. Smaller than an apple seed, crumb-sized—if that—it stands six stories high. Six windows going up: three square, three rectangular. I counted them and double-checked because extra-small things bring out the extra-small person in me who sometimes even triple-checks things; who still chances certainty might exist in asking, “Promise me?”
The style is proudly mannered: the twee metaphors, the gratuitous details, the repetition of these details to tiresome effect. One can see the author chasing down a shallow sort of mimesis, willing her readers to join her as she double-checks and sometimes triple-checks the emoji so that we too might experience the starts and stops and pauses of her heart. But one can see no reason why her readers might want to share in either this experience or the many other experiences of bourgeois living chronicled in “Heart Museum”: dinner parties and dates, travels to Machu Picchu and Kolkata, ritualized anxiety attacks about the relationship between writing personal essays and pointless self-indulgence—an occupational hazard, she suggests, suffered by only the most tender-hearted initiates of New York City’s creative class.
For Chew-Bose, this isn’t a problem—indeed this is her point. All rhyme and no reason, she claims a little later in the essay, is preferable to “writing that clinches,” by which I take her to mean writing that too eagerly betrays its argument for the sake of some fidgety, faceless reader. “No writer hopes for ideas to take complete shape. Approximation is the mark,” she states—the first of many prescriptions about what writing is and what it is not; what can and what cannot be accomplished by paying careful attention to form or style. Most of these statements arrive as metaphors that substitute nonsense for sense, preciousness for persuasion. Writing is “a closed pistachio shell.” Writing is a “doubled-up glove.” Writing is, “off and on, running smack into Aha! and staring down Duh.” (She has a fondness for italicized onomatopoeia—“GASP!” “Oof.” “Woah.” “Pop!”) Writing is losing yourself, finding yourself, falling in love, having your heart broken, getting drunk, having sex, thinking about some stuff then thinking about some other stuff that kind of relates to the original stuff you were thinking about but not really.
But what makes “Heart Museum” so dispiriting is not the quality of Chew-Bose’s prose. Rather, it is how the essay not only celebrates its aesthetic failings, but also insists that these failings testify to the author’s success as a sensitive ethical thinker. If the prose is clunky, if the posturing is overindulgent, if the plot is lost and never found, then, Chew-Bose would have us believe, we have no recourse as readers but to grant how the formlessness of her writing—she would call it the “breathlessness” or perhaps the “messiness” of it—forces us to reflect on timeless quandaries about life and art. Is the writer a reliable witness to the past? Can she ever truly know the human beings she writes about? Can she ever truly know herself? Chew-Bose’s answer to all these questions is “I guess? Sort of.” “Is there anything better, more truthful and sublime than what cannot be communicated?” she concludes in “Heart Museum.” “The marvelous, hard-to-spell-out convenience of what’s indefinite.” These are pretty phrases that mean nothing and teach nothing. Their only purpose is to “clinch” (to echo Chew-Bose) the author’s status as a beacon of complex selfhood. But for whose benefit?
In a sense, there is nothing unique about the pose Too Much and Not the Mood strikes—and this is the real problem. For a certain breed of personal essayist at work today, there exists a necessary and desirable trade-off between aesthetic clarity and moral complexity; a bargain premised on the depressing notion that words are always insufficient to the task at hand and so we may as well stop trying to choose the clearest or most precise ones. The adjective that best captures the conditions of this bargain is messy. Messy feelings, messy reality, messy relationships, the messy unfiltered stuff of life; the personal essayist evacuates all in one, big messy outpouring of repurposed clichés about love and life and pain and joy and men and women and whatever other themes readers of these essayists are, by now, primed to receive as universal human concerns. “Style is character,” Joan Didion proclaimed in her 1979 essay collection The White Album. However imprecise this statement of equivalence may be, one suspects that it has been thoroughly internalized by personal essayists today who elide aesthetic judgments—judgments about the formal or stylistic features of prose—with ethical and subjective ones that assess the character of the human being who would produce such prose.
The eager transposition of the aesthetic into the ethical is not new; nor is criticism of the personal essay’s manipulation of its readers (its intimate “grossness,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once sniffed). The form has always grappled with the many valences of the term “personal” and the kinds of authorial projections it allows. Taking an unapologetically snobbish tone in her 1905 essay “The Decay of Essay Writing,” Virginia Woolf lamented how the nineteenth-century democratization of literacy had flooded the literary marketplace with personal essays. A new class of writers, blinkered by the “amazing and unclothed egoism” that came from asserting one’s importance through reading and writing, thought nothing of sacrificing “their beliefs to the turn of a phrase or the glitter of paradox,” Woolf complained. Theirs was a mass demonstration of newly acquired cultural capital over and above any aesthetic or political purpose they may have had for putting pen to paper in the first place. “You need know nothing of music, art, or literature to have a certain interest in their productions, and the great burden of modern criticism is simply the expression of such individual likes and dislikes—the amiable garrulity of the tea-table—cast in the form of the essay,” Woolf wrote, scolding those middle-class writers who would dare leave their grubby prints on the windowpane of good prose. If one can set aside her disdain, there is a larger point: too many people writing have nothing interesting to say and no interesting way in which to say it.
If, in the early twentieth century, the “I” of the personal essay bespoke the educated man or woman, then today it inaugurates the mindful one; the subject whose apparently infinite capacity for self-reflexivity trades the precision of language and thought for “the baggy fit of feelings before they’ve found their purpose” (Chew-Bose again). Yet the shamelessness with which the bargain is brokered these days can leave a reader feeling like something cheap and tawdry is at work: a shortcut hacked through the dense thicket of form and feeling. More than the lack of conviction or the preciousness of prose, it is the peacocking of the author that chafes. What should we make of writing that serves primarily, and sometimes exclusively, to present the author as a more admirably complicated type of human subject than others? It is the literary equivalent of the ill-mannered man who, thinking himself to be very mature, declares, “I may be an asshole, but look how self-aware I am about it.”
It is precisely the gimmicky quality of authorship that Jia Tolentino registers—albeit somewhat unwittingly—in a recent New Yorker piece titled “The Personal-Essay Boom is Over.” Around 2008, Tolentino claims, the personal essay began to “harden into a form defined by identity and adversity—not in spite of how tricky it is to negotiate these matters in front of a crowd, but precisely because of that fact.” If Woolf had mass literacy to blame, then Tolentino has the Internet, which, she argues, seduced American narcissists with the same siren song of self-assertion that penmanship drills did for the British middle class. Her argument draws on a strangely truncated history of the personal essay, beginning with the collapse of LiveJournal in 2008 and ending with the 2016 presidential election—the last stand of American “identity politics,” she claims, before the emergence of a new, more thoughtful political consciousness that exiled the personal from the republic of letters, possibly for good. As Tolentino sees it, under Donald Trump’s threats to liberty and justice, even the most egoistic of writers suddenly developed an acute sense for their own irrelevance and scurried away from public exposure like mice fleeing a raucous cat. Now the most poignant thing about the state of the personal essay was its loss. “I never got tired of coming across a writerly style that seemed to exist for no good reason,” Tolentino mourns. “I loved watching people try to figure out if they had something to say.”
It’s not an especially persuasive argument—a selective history coupled with a wide-eyed faith in the writer’s desire (or ability) to stop thinking about herself. Lucky for us, the universe of the personal essay is not as young as Tolentino believes it to be, and not everyone who inhabits it hounds their readers into choosing between a total lack of purpose and an interesting prose style.
• • •
The antidote to Too Much and Not the Mood might be Mary Gaitskill’s Somebody with a Little Hammer, a collection of her reviews, essays, and short memoirs from the past two decades. Here and there we catch glimpses of Gaitskill’s life: first as a high school dropout, then as a teenage runaway, a psychiatric patient, a homeless drifter, a born-again Christian, an occasional stripper and sex worker, a journalism student, a professional writer. There is plenty of material here to mine for dramatic revelation. Yet even while invoking these experiences, the essays she writes are so circumspect in their claims to self-knowledge that a reader grown used to the personal essay’s relentless flash of exposure might wonder what kind of shy, self-effacing creature produced them.
But Gaitskill is anything but shy. Somebody with a Little Hammer offers strong aesthetic judgments about music, movies, and literature in a tone that brooks no disagreement. “Bitch, please,” Gaitskill snaps at writers from Carl Wilson to Elizabeth Wurtzel to Gillian Flynn, while commending the ordinary loveliness of Nicholson Baker’s prose and Björk’s pop music. She enjoys coming to the defense of writers whom mainstream literary critics, their sense clogged by all the “silly shit” in the ether, have savaged, mocked, or simply failed to appreciate. Of Joyce Carol Oates’s Blonde, a novel about Marilyn Monroe that Gaitskill praises as “beautiful and clear,” she writes:
One is given the impression of a soul that has been, by some impossible error, snatched from its deep place in the psyche and thrust into a maze of personality and persona, through which it must grope and blunder, trying to make sense of the earthly barrage of words, images, and ideas like ‘movie star.’ The Monroe of Blonde is like every other lost soul, except that her lost state is so brutally public; in this essential way, the character may be true to the real woman, who continues to touch our imaginations more deeply than can be explained by great beauty and brilliance alone.
In her description of Oates’s Marilyn, one can find the nerve center of Gaitskill’s aesthetic and ethical project, which is nothing as generic as observing weakness or redeeming suffering, as many of her critics have suggested. It is the graceful acceptance of psychic irretrievability—the impossibility of knowing what may or may not touch the imagination; what may or may not undo the soul. We are all lost creatures, Gaitskill suggests, and not one of us can or ought to try to claim the higher ground of knowledge; not knowledge of ourselves, not knowledge of the world, and certainly not knowledge of others. There exists an “inexorable, ridiculous order that is unknowable by us,” she writes in the collection’s opening essay “A Lot of Exploding Heads,” which recalls her aimless conversion to Christianity and her first encounter with God’s absolute, incomprehensible rage in the Bible. Despite “the soft, radiant beauty of many of its passages,” she writes, it has a “mechanical quality” that feels “brutal and violent.” Its prescriptiveness will always fall short of psychological or spiritual revelation because its style is premised on its writer’s omniscience—his “primitive attempt to give form to moral urgency.” “All I felt was that persistent sense of truncation, the intimation of something enormous and inchoate trying to squeeze through the static form of written words,” she remembers. “These realizations don’t mean I have arrived at a point of any real knowledge, but they are interesting as markers of my development.”
This resignation is not the same as messiness or moral ambiguity. It is, in fact, its opposite. Ambiguity wants desperately to know, and not just to know but to know in spades. A writer like Chew-Bose pursues multiple interpretations for why people do what they do and what it means about who they are, leaving in her wake a trail of confused feelings, theories, and metaphors; evidence that she has circled the truth like a dog has stalked its dinner—from all angles. Gaitskill never even makes the attempt. For her, there exists no obvious relationship between the complexity of human experience and the profusion of prose; no need for qualification or subordination, the pile-up of pretty phrases to approximate an awful truth that will only recede before us. For Gaitskill, part of growing up as a writer has been learning to accept “my own stringent limitations when it comes to giving form to impossible complexity.” For her reader, it feels refreshing to finally have a grownup in the room, laying down the law but not really caring whether you follow it or not.
Part of growing up, too, is learning what objects in the world are worthy of our sustained attention. People are less original than they would like to think, and living is both less transcendent and less abject than most acts of narration would lead us to believe. Many of us move through life according to a relatively predictable set of rules and social codes that shape not only human behavior but also the kinds of art human beings produce to reflect their moral universe—the Bible, for instance, but also nineteenth-century novels, romantic comedies, and memoirs. This is a phenomenon that Gaitskill describes time and again as “mechanicalness,” and it grinds all manner of human interactions down into dirty shards of reality: rigid debates about sexual propriety and dating; the preoccupation with being cool; the idle chirping of social media. Since all this further alienates us from anything like a knowable or authentic self, the essayist’s ethical prerogative is to pay close and direct attention to this mechanicalness—to note its predictability, its self-absorption, its avoidance of painful reality: how it “cannot tolerate anything that is not happy and winning,” Gaitskill observes.
Her preferred metaphor—her only one in fact—for describing the mechanical quality of the world is the mask. Here she is, for instance, on Carl Wilson’s book about hating Celine Dion, Let’s Talk About Love:
What Wilson is describing, in this section and throughout the book, is a world of illusory shared experience, ready-made identities, manipulation, and masks so dense and omnipresent that in this world, an actual human face is ludicrous or “crazy.”
And on Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel Gone Girl:
What makes Gone Girl scary rather than kooky is its cast of characters—what motivates them, and how they view each other. Amy and Nick do not resemble actual people so much as grotesquely smiling masks driven by forces of malevolent artifice, and its exactly that masked, artificial quality that’s frightening to the point of sickening. Most frightening of all is that the artifice is so normal.
And on Lars von Trier’s old-fashioned musical Dancer in the Dark:
The musical sequences are not just charming, weird delusions; they are there to show that under the ‘story’ of these lives there is a broader reality in which people who are deadly enemies or dear friends are merely playing roles for the sake of the soul’s exercise. Further, these roles are in fact flimsy and can be stepped out of for transcendent moments that expose human personality as a mask and human action, whether compassionate or cruel, as a kind of ridiculous theater.
The procession of masks in Somebody with a Little Hammer is at once terrifying and strangely anodyne. Everyone wears them all the time, which doesn’t make them any less garish; it only means you need someone to remind you repeatedly that they’re always in the wings, leering.
For Gaitskill, the best art illuminates the cracks in our inexhaustible social performances, lighting our way through “the maze of personality and persona” so that we may, if only for a brief and fragile moment, forget who or what we are playing at. Often, the best art is not serious or dignified. It is silly and irrelevant, irrational and ecstatic. It is the frantic, funky murmur of the Talking Heads on their album Remain in Light. It is the closing number in Dancer in the Dark, when Selma, a factory worker on the verge of going blind, shoots a police officer who has betrayed her, and he, instead of bleeding to death at her feet or shooting back, rises from the floor so that the two may sing a rapturous duet called “I’ve Seen It All.” It is Humbert Humbert’s feverish confession of his love for seventeen-year-old Dolores Haze, now “pale and polluted and big with another’s child, but still gray-eyed, still sooty-lashed, still auburn and almond, still Carmencita, still mine” in the final pages of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. None of these works of art aspires to truth in any revelatory sense of the word. Most are elaborate jokes, toying with our romantic sensibilities. Yet each admits a sliver of light into the theater of tragic automata and lets it dance, briefly, with abandon.
To Gaitskill’s list, we might add “The Bridge: A Memoir of Saint Petersburg”—one of only a small handful of memoirs in Somebody with a Little Hammer. Gaitskill recalls how on a trip to Russia for a writers’ conference she and her husband were floating down the Neva when she was hit in the head by a bridge. Bleeding, blind, and barely conscious, she gropes through her memory and stumbles upon the face of one of the strippers she used to work with.
She didn’t dance; she posed in an almost trancelike way. Thought she did have a powerful look in her eyes sometimes, and her eyes were deep. She did this complicated ‘stocking act,’ where she would hook the stocking on the end of her toe and change position, stretching it this way and that, so that she was looking at it over her shoulder, et cetera. She’d make it this precise, balletic thing, like a narcissistic ritual, her alone in her room—and then she’d look up and give the men these hot, deep eyes, and let them in the room with her. Let them inside her, but for just a second; then she was back with the stockings. That was the striptease really; this placid beauty who suddenly showed herself. Or seemed to. It’s the cheapest trick, but she didn’t realize that, which is why it worked.
This is not a passage so much as a pose, which, like the pose it describes, seduces its reader with the promise of psychological revelation while never touching that hot, deep place in the soul. It is a respectful pose, a refusal to trespass on interiority that transforms the stripper’s cheap trick into a magisterial act of self-preservation. It is, above all, a deflection of Gaitskill’s own pain—remember her head wound?—onto the “precise, balletic thing” we would call her style.
• • •
To position Somebody with a Little Hammer as the high point of the personal essay is to gaze down a longer path for the form than the one Chew-Bose and Tolentino ask us to tread. We can begin to separate the notion of the “personal” from the adjectives that have clung to and muddied its coattails—not only “messy,” but also “warm,” “caring,” “confessional,” “emotional,” “empathetic,” and “sentimental.” What if personal writing were not a manifestation of intimacy or interiority? What if art were a dish best served cold?
Often described by her critics as a “distinctly” or “utterly unsentimental” writer (and human being), Gaitskill would have kept good company with the women Deborah Nelson assembles in her magnificent book Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil. Nelson’s study of the ethics and aesthetics of unsentimentality celebrates those icy, unsparing, and acid-tongued female artists who were committed to “looking at painful reality with directness and clarity and without consolation or compensation.” Many of these women depicted their own lives in uncomfortable detail: Mary McCarthy’s religious education, Susan Sontag’s breast cancer, Joan Didion’s loss of her husband and daughter. Others, like Simone Weil and Hannah Arendt, documented the horrors of industrial modernity: the miseries of factory work, the devastations of the Holocaust and the atomic bomb. Yet none believed that the representation of human experience, no matter how complex or agonizing or imponderable, demanded emotional expressivity. Indeed, for them, compassion for the human condition required the opposite: the evacuation of emotion from art.
Their unsentimentality was not a personal failing, Nelson claims, but a carefully constructed aesthetic and ethical strategy; a “lifelong project” that perceived, with great and terrible urgency, the limits of empathy after World War II. For the women of Tough Enough, dwelling on the emotional effects of an experience often occluded painful reality, shrouding one’s objects of criticism behind the cheap veil of sentiment and self-regard. Bringing an audience to tears was a parlor trick that preyed on people’s perverse attraction to suffering—their ability to take any awful situation, no matter how remote, and make it about their uniquely hurt feelings. Yet pain and suffering were as ordinary as living and dying, and absent-minded feelings of woundedness and pity and even love were the most illusory ethical grounds on which to build a shared world. “Generally speaking, the role of the ‘heart’ in politics seems to me altogether questionable,” wrote Hannah Arendt to Gershom Scholem after he chided her for the “heartless” tone she took toward the Jews in Eichmann in Jerusalem. “You know as well as I how often those who merely report certain unpleasant facts are accused of lack of soul, lack of heart. . . . We both know, in other words, how often these emotions are used in order to conceal factual truth.”
Stoicism in the face of suffering is an attitude much admired in a man. But a woman like Arendt was often the “wrong protagonist,” Nelson observes, for the conscientious management of feeling. Warmth, emotion, sentiment—all these adjectives have a long and irksome history of latching onto models of female comportment; the angel in the house, the good listener, the shoulder to cry on. But unsentimentality was a choice that came with risks: uncertainty, helplessness, alienation, a state of unhappiness from which there could be no relief, neither consolation nor commiseration. “In cases of profound and permanent unhappiness, a strongly developed sense of shame arrests all lamentation,” wrote Weil. “Every unhappy condition among men creates the silent zone alluded to, in which each is isolated as though on an island. Those who do escape from the island will not look back.”
Unsentimentality had its rewards too. Time and again, I found myself moved by Nelson’s simple, yet powerful, insistence that we disentangle ethics from empathy so that we might see anew the obligations we have to each other and to the world we share. We see it in Weil’s “painful clarity”: her simple, yet brutal, prose style that stressed concrete detail over abstraction in her descriptions of factory work, and thus extended neither sympathy nor empathy to laborers but a far greater form of compassion: attention and intellectual honesty. We see it in Arendt’s “realism”: her insistence that building a shared world after Auschwitz requires steering clear of both boundless sympathy and the “mania for introspection”—a solipsism that denies the plurality of human experience by appointing the self the primary arbiter of what is worthy of attention. We see it in McCarthy’s “factuality”: a journalistic practice of perception that attempts to isolate the truth and, in the process, often alienates the writer from her political community. We see it in the cold gaze of Arbus’s camera when she turns it on her beloved “freaks”; a willed concession of artistic control that shows us how the experience of physical and intellectual limitations is the most normal thing of all. We see it in Sontag’s strict management of desire and Didion’s moral toughness in the face of death.
To this chorus of cool female voices, we might add Gaitskill’s confrontation with the mechanicalness of life and art. Here she is writing about how Americans, who seem to love claiming the mantle of victimhood, secretly hate confronting pain:
I think this is the reason every boob with a hangnail has been clogging the courts and haunting talk shows across the land for the last twenty years, telling his/her “story” and trying to get redress. Whatever the suffering is, it’s not to be endured, for God’s sake, not felt and never, ever accepted. It’s to be triumphed over. And because some things cannot be triumphed over unless they are first accepted and endured, because, indeed, some things cannot be triumphed over at all, the “story” must be told again and again in endless pursuit of a happy ending. To be human is finally to be a loser, for we are all fated to lose our carefully constructed sense of self, our physical strength, our health, our precious dignity, and finally our lives. A refusal to tolerate this reality is a refusal to tolerate life.
For Gaitskill, telling the story of one’s suffering is not an occasion for insight—it is a cause for suspicion, a crude attempt to transform endurance into resolution. Most people cannot live in the senseless and unhappy tangle of life; they need their experiences to reaffirm their sense of self, their dignity, their purpose for living. Yet every triumphal act of narration denies the painful condition of existence shared by all human beings, which is that we will all, eventually, die. Our victories over suffering are temporary at best, a trick to forestall our inevitable confrontation with meaninglessness. To pretend otherwise is a profound act of self-deception.
Under what conditions should we care about the stories of other peoples’ lives? Why, especially, should we care about them as works of art? I think there is a lesson to be learned in recalling the barest definition of “care”: “To feel concern (great or little), trouble oneself, feel interest.” Nowhere does it specify what the character of care must be; how hot or how cold it must run to do some good in the world. One can, as Nelson has, build a very persuasive case for compassion that is based on thoughtfulness, particularity, intellectual honesty—a more persuasive case, even, than compassion based on the boundlessness of feeling.
What is true for human relationships is true for art and politics. If I care about building a world, real or imaginary, with you or for you, then I should think about that world in the most accurate and realistic terms possible. I should hold you to the same standards of precision that I hold myself; even—and especially—if we disagree; even—and especially—if that disagreement is uncomfortable and alienating. “Something happens and we retell it as a story, preparing it for communication or for reviewing it later with oneself,” Nelson writes. “Thoughtlessness begins with a deliberate choice not to represent actions in language, not to create memory.” The refusal to represent, or the insistence on representing messily, is a refusal to share the world with others; a turn away from reality that is comforting because it is so deeply self-absorbed.
This brings us back to the personal essay. More than a fad and more than a form, we might think of the personal essay as a contract between reader and writer. The contract is not necessarily an emotional or intimate one, but, like all contracts, it is mutually constructed and it demands clarity. Just as the writer commits her imperceptible acts of cognition to language, asking the reader to accept this language as a poor proxy for her inner life, so too does the reader acknowledge and participate in this fantasy of self-construction. Together, reader and writer act as co-creators of a new fictional persona, the knowing self. This task is impossible, or at least impossible to derive pleasure from, without particularity and concreteness—a sense of reciprocity and respect.
Under the terms of this contract, the best part of Chew-Bose’s Too Much and Not the Mood is the beginning of her essay “D As In,” in which the author considers her reluctance to correct people who mispronounce her name. She argues that her behavior complies with an “imaginary code,” a rule which those of us with “unusual” or “non-traditional”—that is, non-white—names navigate every day: “that establishing room for everyone else is the quickest route to assimilation.” Her practice of self-erasure is presented as a matter-of-fact, the price one pays for ordering a coffee, making a dinner reservation, or meeting someone new. The thoughtlessness here emerges in the racial politesse of others; the expectation that you “remedy their curiosity” about your name or the color of your skin by telling them a story. “Where are you from?” they ask; a diplomatic way of demanding, How did someone like you infiltrate my neighborhood, my school, my country?
There is the promise of a point here; something to elicit our care. Alas, it never arrives, detained by more rhetorical questions about the complexity of the self: “How can an ‘I’ contain all of my many fragments and contradictions and all of me that is undiscovered?” Despite her claims to racial and cultural otherness, reiterated to the point of self-fetishization, Chew-Bose’s style ensures that the vision of the world she offers her readers is totally apolitical, bereft of any common political or ethical position. As is the case for so many personal essayists, all paths lead back to the “I.” “Is this ‘I’ actually mine to own?” Chew-Bose asks. The answer is, quite simply, no—not for her and not for anyone else, at least not according to the terms set by the personal essay’s readers and writers.
Just as easily as promises are made, promises are broken. What we see in many personal essays today is not the shattering of language but the shattering of a pact. All we can hope for now is its speedy restoration.
If representing and exploring the real by writing in the genre of creative non-fiction is your goal, we hope these tips about what creative non-fiction is, as well as some pointers on a few genres that are considered creative non-fiction (memoir and the personal essay) can help you. We have also included some tips about Writing Negatively About People in Your Life as well as links to some well-known examples of creative non-fiction to give you a sense of what is out there.
An Introduction to Creative Non-Fiction
What is creative non-fiction?
- Creative nonfiction merges the boundaries between literary art (fiction, poetry) and research nonfiction (statistical, fact-filled, run of the mill journalism). It is writing composed of the real, or of facts, that employs the same literary devices as fiction such as setting, voice/tone, character development, etc. This makes if different (more creative) than standard nonfiction writing.
- Sometimes called literary journalism or the literature of fact, creative nonfiction merges the boundaries between literary art (fiction, poetry) and research nonfiction (statistical, fact-filled, run of the mill journalism). It is writing composed of the real, or of facts, that employs the same literary devices as fiction, such as setting, voice/tone, character development, etc.
- Creative nonfiction should (1) include accurate and well-researched information, (2) hold the interest of the reader, and (3) potentially blur the realms of fact and fiction in a pleasing, literary style (while remaining grounded in fact).
- In the end, creative nonfiction can be as experimental as fictionit just needs to be based in the real.
Content of creative nonfiction:
- It's important to clarify that the content of creative nonfiction does not necessarily have to come from the life or the experience of the writer. Say, for instance, the writer is using techniques from literary journalism to create a portrait of a person interviewed. The writer may choose to write a portrait of the interviewee through an omniscient perspective, meaning the writer wouldn't be in the piece at all.
- On the other hand, nonfiction writers often choose to write about topics or people close to them (including themselves). As long as the piece deals with something real, or something based on the real, the writer is allowed to take the piece in any direction he or she wishes.
- In creative nonfiction, writers attempt to observe, record, and thus shape a moment(s) from real life. Writers thus extract meaning through factual details—they combine the fact of detail with the literary extrapolation necessary in rendering meaning from an observed scene.
- At the same time, successful creative nonfiction attempts to overlay fact with traditional conceptions of dramatic structure. While rendering meaning from an observed scene, a piece should suggest a beginning, middle and end that clearly conveys the conflict and the characters, and pushes the action toward some sort of closure.
- In effect, creative nonfiction attempts to project a dramatic, literary framework upon everyday existence, rendering it enjoyable, enlightening and potentially meaningful.
- While writing creative nonfiction, writers should dwell on sensory details and "show show show."
- A piece should never just tell the reader something or summarize—this is what research non-fiction does.
Different types of creative non-fiction writing:
- Due to the fact that creative nonfiction is an ever-evolving genre of writing, it is difficult to define set types:
- The Personal Essay:
A piece of writing, usually in the first person, that focuses on a topic through the lens of the personal experience of the narrator. It can be narrative or non-narrative-it can tell a story in a traditional way or improvise a new way for doing so. Ultimately, it should always be based on true, personal experience.
- The Memoir:
A memoir is a longer piece of creative nonfiction that delves deep into a writer's personal experience. It typically uses multiple scenes/stories as a way of examining a writer's life (or an important moment in a writer's life). It is usually, but not necessarily, narrative.
- The Short Short: A short/short is a (typically) narrative work that is concise and to the point. It uses imagery and details to relay the meaning, or the main idea of the piece. Typically it's only one or two scenes, and is like a flash of a moment that tells a whole story.
- Literary Journalism:
Literary journalism uses the techniques of journalism (such as interviews and reviews) in order to look outside of the straight forward, objective world that journalism creates. It uses literary practices to capture the scene/setting of the assignment or the persona of the person being interviewed. It can often be narrative or heavily imagistic. Another important aspect of literary journalism is that it often stretches the idea of "objective facts" in order to better reflect real life and real people. In other words, while journalism is about being completely objective, literary journalism says that people can't be objective because they already have their own subjective views about the world. Therefore, by taking the "objectiveness" out of the journalistic process, the writer is being more truthful.
- The Lyric Essay:
The lyric essay is similar to the personal essay in that it also deals with a topic that affects the reader. However, the lyric essay relies heavily on descriptions and imagery. Lyrical suggests something poetic, musical, or flowing (in a sense). This type of piece uses a heavily descriptive, flowing tone in order to tell a story.
- The Personal Essay:
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Memoir: Tips for Writing about Your Life
Memoirs are an often overlooked subdivision of creative writing, and more specifically, creative non-fiction. They have the potential to be incredibly interesting, richly developed, beautifully moving pieces that can sometimes be confused with autobiography. Generally, autobiographies are the life story or history of a person's life written by that person. Though memoirs share some similarities with autobiographies, such as first person narration, they are more than a recounting of one's life events in chronological order. Instead, they can be descriptions of one single event or moment in one's life, rather than that life in its entirety, and tend to be written in a less structured or formal manner. Memoirs have the capacity to be funny, profound, moving, cynical, etc., and may even have resemblances to fiction in their creativity. Memoirs can focus on one specific event, place, person, etc. or they can be expanded to encompass a broader range of events, snapshots, or memories in the author's experience. Here are some basic things you should know about writing a memoir:
Here are some basic things you should know about writing a memoir:
- A memoir can be about nearly anything in your personal experience/life that is significant enough for you to want to retell it, or it can simply be a snapshot of a moment or a description of a person, place, or thing in your life.
- Choose a topic that you care about, for this will make your piece more descriptive, emotional, and creative. Even though it is about YOUR life, if you care about your topic then so will the reader.
- Seek a deeper or underlying theme within the simple description of an event etc. that the reader can connect to. Use a lot of description and imagery, if you can, to make the reader feel like they know the topic intimately.
- There is no specific form or style that it is necessary for a memoir to have USE YOUR OWN UNIQUE VOICE!
- Do not confuse memoirs with autobiography, they are NOT the same thing (as noted above). You may want to find some memoirs in the library or online in order to get a feel for the variety out there and some of the ways you might want to go about writing yours. A few examples we are familiar with are:
- My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
- Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir by Lauren Slater
- Angela's Ashes, 'Tis, and Teacher Man by Frank McCourt
- The Dog Who Wouldnt Be by Farley Mowat
- A memoir, though based on and rooted in truth and fact, does not have to be 100% straight laced non-fiction. Take a new perspective, get creative, find a way to make your piece more interesting, fresh, thought-provoking etc. In other words, just because this is non-fiction, that DOES NOT have to make it boring, dry, straight-forward, and humorless.
- Though there is some controversy over what can and cannot be called memoir, Lauren Slater's book Lying is a good example of how creative you can get with this genre. Hers is specifically labeled a metaphorical memoir in order to avoid this controversy (though it has followed her anyway), and so perhaps saying something to that effect is a way of avoiding complaints of false advertising and fraud. Though you should not claim something to be true that is not, you can choose what you want to leave out of or include in your memoir. You can make it read like fiction, and you can make conscious decisions to surround your work with ambiguity that questions the nature of truth vs. fact (as Slater does). It may sound complicated, but really is quite basic: don't make claims your piece is something it's not, don't outright lie and then say it's fact, but choose your material carefully and you can do many more things with memoirs than you might at first think (see the limits of the real in creative non-fiction).
- Finally, have fun with it! Enjoy it! Memoirs can be very emotionality releasing, fun to play around with, and can reward not only the reader but also you, the writer. Test your limits and try different ways of writingits all about self-exploration and discovery.
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The Personal Essay: A Few Pointers
The personal essay is one of the most popular forms of creative non-fiction writing found in English classes, especially in high school but also, to a certain degree and in a more complex way, college. This kind of writing allows you to explore a topic through the lens of your own, personal experiences, reflections, ideas, and reactions. It can be one of the most powerful kinds of writing you get to do, both in its direct connection to you, the writer, allowing you to engage with material in class at a very personal, complex, and meaningful level, and also in the amount of latitude that you as a writer are afforded in terms of style, technique, and form. The following are some tips and strategies to help you think as you write and revise a personal essay, or prepare to write this kind of assignment for the first time (the topic of the essay will always varywe are focused on the genre as a whole here).
- Focus. In some ways, the personal essay is similar to memoir and many of the same techniques can be used effectively. It differs in that an essay is focused on one specific topic (and here, it will be explored through your own experiences) whereas the memoir has the capability to trace or illuminate several themes, topics, and ideas via the authors life (or part(s) of that life) that he/she describes (and how he/she describes it).
- Organization. Not to be confused with form (see below). Your essay, like other essays, should have some kind of coherent organization to it. This is not to say that you must use thesis style (in fact, we are confident that powerful personal essays follow that organization scheme less than 5% of the time). No matter how you choose to organize (and what form you use), be sure that your paragraphs and ideas flow from one to the next, connected by a common theme (trying to tackle the topic on which you are writing). It can be scattered or fragmented (if that is a stylistic/form choice you make), but the entire paper should have a relationship, even if it only becomes clear at the end. This allows the reader to follow your experience.
- Form. One of the best parts of this kind of writing is the power given to you as the writer. There is no form, no formula, no tried and true method that you must use to be effective. In fact, to copy something that somebody else has done is not only rather boring, but also defeats the purpose of this being a personal essay. Choose a form and style that suits you and is fitting for the experience that you are describing. Try to think of the form as a part of the writing itself, not just a framework for it: the form should actually enhance and make more poignant what it is you are taking about. Push the boundaries, but dont go too faryou are still writing an essay (and be sure that you follow any specific requirements outlined by your professor).
- Diction/Language. Like form, in the personal essay (and creative writing generally, perhaps even, to some extent, writing in general) the way in which you say something can mean just as much as the form into which you place what it is you are saying. Use language to enhance what you are writing about and not just as a means to say it. Here is where you can get really creative and appropriately use linguistic play to explore your topic and your own relation to it in new and complex ways.
Choosing at Topic and Approach
When beginning a personal essay, you should choose a significant event in your life. This can be almost anything, but something about it should matter to you. Many personal essays hinge around a sad experience, but joy is just as strong an emotion, if not more so. As always in creative writing, you should consider why you are writing this piece: what can writing about this experience teach others? What can you learn from revisiting the memory? In a personal essay, the importance of the word “personal” is not to be undervalued. Whatever you choose to write about must be important to you, hinge around your experience, and have some impact on you.
When writing a personal essay, it is important to remember that the main character is you. This is challenging for a lot of people who are used to expressing themselves through a character or through poetry. Personal essays demand more vulnerability than either of these forms. In a personal essay, the writer should never be afraid of the word “I” in fact, it should be used as often as possible. In most situations where you find yourself straying into the first person plural (“we”) or even the third person, using such vague language as "one could" or “one would,” you will almost always find the writing becomes stronger if you replace the subject with “I.” Most of the time, drifting into vague language is a sign that you are trying to convey a message you find “too” personal and are afraid of expressing. However, it is this vulnerability that fuels the personal essay. You cannot learn from the experience unless you are honest with yourself, and readers will not be able to understand why this experience is significant if you hide yourself from view. Your character in the story can only develop if you claim the story as your own.
While one of the most common kinds of creative non-fiction writing (at least in an academic setting), the personal essay is probably one of the harder assignments to revise. After all, how do you fix a paper that is composed of very personal ideas? A personal essay is not like a formal analytical essay-- it doesn't need an explicit thesis-driven format. Therefore, revising a personal essay can be complicated, especially when you feel as though you don't want to tamper with personal thoughts. However, a personal essay often needs someone to tamper with it in order to make it a complete piece. Below we have listed several steps that may be useful when revising or giving feedback on a personal essay (either your own or someone elses).
- Voice/Tone: The voice and tone are important in the personal essay because they reflect the attitude the writer is trying to get across. Is the mood happy? Sad? Is it serious? Are we placed inside the writer's head? These are all important questions to ask in order to realize the effect/the emotion the writer wants the piece to convey. Ask yourself (or the writer): Is the writer's voice consistent throughout the piece? Does it reflect the tone of the piece? Does the piece incorporate some experimental ideas? It is not necessary to have a personal essay be experimental, but it does need to be unique to the writer (hence the name). Some experimental ideas include: playing with the sentence structure by juxtaposing short sentences with longer, complicated sentences ... playing with word usage by including repetition or alliteration ... or playing with form by including other voices, dialogue, and points of views.
- Showing v. Telling: Details and imagery can only help a personal essay; they help to develop a story by making it more real to the reader. A personal essay doesn't necessarily need scenes, but it does need a well formed focus or point and imagery can help to establish that.
- Character Development: If the personal essay has characters, make sure they're developed clearly and that the relationships between the characters are developed. Dialogue between characters not only helps the reader to understand the relationships, it helps the reader to understand the individual characters and their actions. Imagery also helps with this and ties back into showing v. telling; by describing a character through details (of their actions or their appearance), we better understand a character.
- Original Language: Everything in a piece of creative writing is subject to scrutiny, including word choice. Therefore it's helpful to look closely at language. Is the writing fresh? Are there any obvious clichés that detract from the piece?
- Form: How a piece of creative non-fiction writing is put together is extremely important. The form not only needs to be organized well, it also speaks to the piece as a whole. Good questions to ask: Why is it organized in this way? How does this reflect your (or the writers) experience? It's also helpful to discuss different form techniques such as flashbacks, stream of consciousness, or different scenes that piece together a writer's main idea.
- Fiction/Poetry Techniques: Since creative non-fiction writing is such a hybrid and multi-faceted genre, it's often helpful to use/borrow techniques from fiction or poetry. Scenes, dialogue, narrative structure, setting, and an emphasis on language are all important aspects of creative nonfiction as well.
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Writing Negatively About People in your Life
When it comes to writing creative nonfiction, the vast majority of the material is going to be from experience. Writers will write about things they have gone through, monumental events in their lives, and the people they have encountered. While the closest people in your life often leave a positive impact, what happens when you want to write negatively about them? It can be hard to feel like it is your place to expose personal parts of others without their permission for the sake of your piece. However, it is ultimately your decision what you would like to write about and what you feel is necessary to include. It is also important not to embellish or include elements of fiction in your creative non-fiction. So if that means describing an explosive fight between you and your parents or outing your sibling for a crime they committed, you as the author have the authority to do so. But if this is something that causes you anxiety or makes you feel like youre abusing your power, here are a few things to consider.
- One, who is your audience? If your piece is not likely to make it very far out of your classroom environment, it may not be necessary to warn the people in your life that they have become characters in your piece. However, if your piece is going to be published in some sort of way or might have the opportunity of circulating, odds are high that you will want to inform the people in your life before they find out on their own.
- Two, what is absolutely necessary? Trashing loved ones in your life could be a necessity to the point you are trying to make in your creative non-fiction piece. However, you could also become carried away and swept up by emotion and decide to include things out of spite rather than out of need. Always reread your pieces for intention and make sure that sensitive, personal aspects of your piece are crucial to the understanding for the audience and not just fluff. When youre playing with emotions, it is even more important to write with intention.
- Three, do they need to know? If you still feel like you want to make your piece transparent with the people you have turned into characters, do so in a professional way and be prepared for backlash. It is important to warn them that you do delve into personal matters but that you do not wish for the audience to hold that against them and that you would not include it if you did not find it absolutely necessary.
- Lastly, be aware that they are free to react in any way that they want to, and if that is negatively, remember to keep your integrity. Just because they have disliked their portrayal in your piece does not mean you need to filter or sensor it in any way. Be respectful of their feelings but stick to your guns as a writer.
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- Excerpt from Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris A collection of memoir-essays by David Sedaris, this particular except is from the essay entitled SantaLand Diaries, where Sedaris recounts his experience working as a holiday elf for Macys. It is a great example of memoir. As you read, think about the debate going on about the memoir (see handout on memoirs)where do you see embellishment or possible stretching of the truth for artistic purposes? How is this different from a straight autobiography? What kinds of stylistic devices is Sedaris using that would make this a piece of creative non-fiction?
- Excerpt from Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
This piece is a classic example of Literary Journalism (also called New Journalism). In it, Wolfe is reporting on both the sixties in general as well as Ken Kesey, the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, from the period spanning the late fifties to 1965. Considered to be an essential period piece of that decade, this novel is also one of the first examples of Literary Journalism. What about this piece separates it from more traditional journalism? How is it closer to what we would otherwise consider (mistake for??) a novel? From this excerpt, can you see how this kind of journalism is considered a kind of creative non-fiction? What does this type of journalism have to offer us as readers that more traditional journalism doesnt/cant? This piece also demonstrates nicely the concept of the limits of the real in creative non-fictionhow so? (see our note on this concept under Creative Non-Fiction)?
Note: To access excerpt, follow the link, click where it says “click to look inside” and then use the arrows to flip the pages.
- Excerpt from Lars Eighner's Travels with Lizbeth: Three Years on the Road and on the Streets
A great example of memoir. What do you see as the point or message of this piece to be? How does the author accomplish this? What features make this an example of creative non-fiction? Of memoir?