essay-personal

Pain’s parallel kingdom

April 12, 2017 | 6 Comments

My essay in Assay

September 1, 2016 | 8 Comments

The fall 2016 issue of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, online today, includes my essay “Classics lite: Teaching the Shorter, Magazine Versions of James Baldwin’s ‘Notes of a Native Son’ and Jonathan Lethem’s ‘The Beards.’ ” These are beloved essays. And as my title indicates, they exist in longer and shorter versions—in fact, the periodical versions are technically the “originals,” since they were excerpted to advance the writers’ subsequently published collections.

But since the book versions are canonical, condensations may seem heretical. Especially since the famous book version of “Notes of a Native Son” also deals with America’s great topic, race, and tampering with it, in particular, seems at first blush a sacrilege.

In a seminar in graduate school, I studied these two classic American essays—their longer, book versions—together. Both concern the loss of a parent, but they take very different approaches. Hence they’re a nice pair for writers to study and for teachers to teach.

Baldwin’s, about the demise of his preacher father when Baldwin was 19, unrolls in a warm, formally structured, and syntactically orotund procession. Lethem’s essay employs a modernistically fractured and conversational approach to portraying his devastation in the wake of his mother’s death, when he was 14.

Lethem’s essay shows his loss structurally: “The Beards” is organized according to his mother’s state of health or length of time dead—but the segments aren’t in chronological order. This implicitly helps show Lethem’s grief as transforming and ongoing. He steadily but subtly plants this notion until he shatters the cool, elliptical façade of “The Beards” with a few heartfelt statements.

[Read More]

My dog tale published

July 6, 2016 | 26 Comments

At last I’ve documented our family dog’s epic weirdness—and, well, mine. My essay “Why I Hate My Dog” explains on Longreads. Bottom line and fair warning to the rescue-minded: every adult pound dog I’ve known or heard about has suffered from scorching separation anxiety. Belle’s is far from the worst—at least she doesn’t tear apart the house—but plenty bad. Her suffering, plus some truly odd behavior, affects her humans.

Briefly this essay has made me more tolerant of others’ bad dogs. This morning, Kathy and I passed a man on our walk being dragged along by a snarling dog. We sometimes see him, and I dread it. Though I hold that dog against him, Kathy greeted him. His response was slow and a tad sullen—we’d disturbed his peace, too, even though his dog was the one wanting to kill Belle and maybe us. Then we ran into him again on our loop. He was friendlier, saying by way of possibly ironic apology for his dog, “He loves everybody.”

“I guess he’s trying to be funny,” I said when he was out of earshot.

“I don’t think so.”

“Maybe that dog was his kid’s, who died,” I offered.

“Maybe it’s a rescue he got to keep himself company in his old age,” Kathy said.

By definition, almost everyone is doing his best, right? Sometimes that’s pretty pathetic. But it goes for me and my dog, too.

[Read More]

What has gone missing?

May 25, 2016 | 14 Comments

Serendipity occasionally tosses books together on a reader’s platter, thus multiplying the impact they might have had if encountered separately. If you like to chew on ideas, consuming books in combo can become an art as subtle as the pairing of food and wine.

Two titles from the year past are polar opposites in many ways, yet explore the same underlying idea: What have we jettisoned in our transition to the electronic era? One publication is a collection by an established older essayist on the East Coast and the other is a debut novel by a young emerging writer in the Rockies. Both authors edit literary journals. Each book in its own way addresses the digital conversion of our lives and the consequences of that progress. In their explorations of the Internet Age, both authors establish what has disappeared and then illuminate the ramifications.

Sven Birkerts, editor of AGNI, turns a searchlight on technology’s threat to creativity in his collection of seventeen essays (all previously published individually in a variety of journals). The titles in Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age are intriguing. A sample: “You Are What You Click,” “The Hive Life,” “The Room and the Elephant,” “Notebook: Reading in a Digital Age,” “Idleness,” “Bolaño Summer: A Reading Journal,” and “The Still Point.”

Birkerts examines what has occurred in the twenty-two years since he wrote The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age.

He pitches questions and then marshals quotes from well-known writers to augment his answers, sometimes agreeing with their points of view and sometimes not. As Birkerts converses with their ideas, he presents his own stance while at the same time enlisting the reader’s attention to consider the situation along with him.

[Read More]

Living with racism

March 31, 2016 | 4 Comments

How well I remember asking my friend Mike a stupid question. We were young reporters together. But there our similarity ended, for Mike’s skin was brown. He was the only person of color who worked at that newspaper. In fact, the entire town lacked racial diversity. One day I got marveling at Mike’s situation, imaging myself surrounded by and working only with members of another race.

“That’s got to be so weird,” I said. “Does it feel strange, Mike?”

I expected props for seeing his plight, but Mike gave me the most withering look I’d ever received. I was surprised, too, because at parties he mocked racial stereotypes by bringing fried chicken or lugging in watermelons. I was trying to be sensitive and insightful, but I put him on the spot with my cluelessness.

I thought of Mike reading Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine’s short book, a long segmented essay-poem, on her experience as a person of color making her way in realms still mostly white. Citizen, Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry, proves that great literature doesn’t have to be hard reading. Except, in this case, emotionally. Rankine challenges white readers as she conveys the cognitive dissonance she lives with as an African American.

For example, when her white friends slip and reveal their unconscious prejudice toward her or another member of her race. Or when she witnesses the barriers faced by tennis star Serena Williams. Or when she hears of a black person harmed by cops. Consider, when even people with white skin feel wary in dealings with police, what a cruiser’s appearance must feel like to black people.

[Read More]

Memoir or personal essay?

July 1, 2015 | 10 Comments

When I first started teaching essay writing I was a reflexive splitter or at least a classifier. In practice this means one who strains to distinguish between a personal essay and a memoir essay. Of course, the memoir is a personal essay. But for students, I felt compelled to distinguish between them in the way Sue Silverman does in “The Meandering River: An Overview of the Subgenres of Creative Nonfiction.”

As Silverman says, “Instead of the memoirist’s thorough examination of self, soul, or psyche, the personal essayist usually explores one facet of the self within a larger social context.” Drawing such distinctions in the varied nonfiction genre can be important for teachers, depending on the class, and especially for college freshmen. Teachers had better be clear about what they want. As an editor, too, I sometimes find that pinning down an essay’s lineage can be helpful. For instance, the personal essayist does employ a persona—and who is telling the story and why is important—but she or he isn’t the main point. Whereas in memoir, s/he is.

But drawing such distinctions can also be crazy-making.

[Read More]

Memoir pro & con

June 5, 2015 | 16 Comments

Positive energy is the best energy, certainly the most sustainable. But we must admit the opposite is also true. There’s an odd power in negativity. A roomful of happy folks can be cast into quiet doubt by one vehement naysayer. And yet, when negativity goes too far, as Jonathan Yardley appears to do in his review for The Washington Post of Will Boast’s Epilogue: A Memoir, it kindles defiance in turn. Going beyond what he views as Boast’s inadequacy, Yardley unloads on memoir, youth, and the MFA.

He makes me want to read the book. It’s about how Boast, at age 24, is left alone in the world after his father succumbs to alcoholism—his mother and brother having already died—and he discovers that his father had sequestered a wife and two sons, Boast’s half brothers, in England. The memoir comes highly praised for its artistry, and that’s a clue to Yardley’s choler.

At first I assumed his pique was about amateurs, non-literary types getting their messy life stories into print. Then I realized it wasn’t that, not not entirely. Yardley’s broadside in large part reflects the difference between the world of New York trade books and the world of literary academic books. The camps are permeable—as Boast himself shows, winning a New York imprint (Liveright, his publisher, is a division of Norton)—but they’re very different. And Boast has the gall to straddle them: a trade publisher and artsy content.

A year after Yardley’s broadside, it appears to be the proximate cause of two interesting recent columns, “Should There be a Minimum Age for Writing Memoir” in the New York Review of Books’ series Bookends, where two writers opine on opposite sides of some divide.

[Read More]