essay-personal

My essay in Assay

September 1, 2016 | 8 Comments

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Publishing essays

April 21, 2015 | 8 Comments

I sent this email last week to my “Writing Life Stories” students, who meet in person with me once a week and otherwise online.

Class,

I’m reading your new memoirs with enjoyment, appreciation, and a feeling of accomplishment as a teacher for what you’ve done. This semester, you’ve all made art from your experience. We’ve pondered and tried many aspects of writing—but we haven’t touched on publishing. I have some advice on that if you are interested in pursuing it. But first a caveat.

Last summer, attending an intensive writing workshop taught by a respected writer, I was struck by how stringently she separated writing from publishing. And by how sparingly she praised what we wrote. She was a nice person; it was just that we were there to make new work. The point was to keep making pieces, not to jump the gun and think about publishing them, not yet. I don’t think she thought in terms of whether she “liked” or “loved” an essay, but, rather, focused on whether it had some spark, some alive quality.

Most pieces, written in response to prompts, we filed for the future, to be struggled with or cannibalized back home. But everyone churned out one piece that she suggested we might read to the assembled workshops at the end of the week. Those we slaved on, late into the night in our dorm rooms. Then she tried to help each of us further realize its potential. By that time, the extra insight she could provide was powerful. The more frustrated a writer is with his own piece—meaning he has struggled hard with it on all levels and has turned it into an external object, a misshapen piece of clay he’s almost angry at—usually the more help an editor or teacher can provide.

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