Here we are, in the thick of Mile High MFA summer season (and, here I am, in the thick of searching for a literary agent and—one is allowed to hope—a great editor and an enthusiastic publisher, all willing to take on my flawed work and help to make it stronger). Thus, writing, criticism, editing, revision and publishing are all on my mind. I came across a 2017 New Yorker article (click, or see below this post) and wondered if others might find the subject as thought-provoking as I do.
The blog post you’re reading now is an example of how easily one can hit a button and find an audience today. But, what we write about and post or publish—what we choose to spend time on and to put before readers in these extremely challenging times (and for what reasons) —seems worth considering. I’d argue it amounts to a matter of conscience. Do we just think, “If I have a feeling, I ought to share it?” Do we assume that our own emotions, encounters and adversities make experts of us in certain domains—or, do we make writing a process of inquiry, researching and reflecting upon subjects whose complexities we might not, at the outset, wholly grasp?
Or, do we respond—with curiosity and commitment, in fresh ways—to, say, questions of race and racism, crises of migration and immigration, drug cartels and other indomitable peddlers of misery? The plight of refugees, land use, injustice, poverty, democracy, women’s health and education? Do we interrogate our own entitlements, privileges, personal and social responsibilities, proposing new ways of thinking and telling (our own and others’) stories in ways that illuminate something otherwise hidden in these often tired or frustrating, yet vitally important, discourses?
Ought we investigate and profile innovative and/or courageous figures? Do we research and expose bullies and sociopaths who dominate the halls of corporate and political power? Do we help readers to better understand the nuances of a given local or national challenge, trend or issue?
Ought we raise topics for mutual consideration and open up spaces in which different opinions and values can truly exist? Create fiction that reveals the invisible, gives voice to the unspoken or the unspeakable? Make poetry that, like music, resonates in the bones and expands the soul? Write with self-awareness, humor, generosity and respect for our readers (those who bother, in spite of having their own lives and troubles, to engage with our work?) Do we seek to understand (or even to acknowledge the lived humanity of) our readers at all?
Ought we gaze into a mirror, see only ourselves, and sob, “Now, there’s someone worth writing about! Especially the sad and unfair parts! The world needs to know how I suffer!”
Ever since Holly Hughes first made me uncomfortable, blew my mind, and opened my pores back in the early ’90s (World Without End), I’ve reacted to personal narrative performances and personal essays in two ways.
First, NO: not if I’m supposed to understand the author as a special case, to applaud the self-appointed, plucky-but-tragic hero, whose condition cannot be matched by my own negligible aches and pains (of which the author knows nothing and about which he cares not at all). He hasn’t earned the right to foist confidences upon me (rapport is a two-way street) and hasn’t considered that I might also have a rich, full set of my own experiences that range from excruciating to ecstatic to terrifying.
But YES—IF (like Hughes) the writer introduces me to a story or subject both intimate and universally relevant—something she expects that I will recognize and relate to (and, through which she treats me, her voluntary audience, with plenty of respect and empathy, not as a punching bag or as a clueless naif who needs educating).
YES—IF he has worked with a savvy friend, a seasoned editor or a skilled director (to help him understand how he’s actually coming across; that is, IF he’s opened his autobiographical writing to criticism and revision before expecting me to take it in).
YES—IF they are a good (articulate, bighearted, larger-context-oriented) communicator… then, by all means, bring it on: the private, the regretful, the insightful, the comical, the heartbreaking.
Hughes, Spalding Gray, Annie Sprinkle, Julia Sweeney (among many others, all of them performers of deeply personal work) accomplished all that and more. David Sedaris, and Mike Birbiglia (among many others) have made us laugh until we wept at the sorry, awful, wonderful condition of being mortal. J.D. Vance, Jeannette Walls and Tara Westover (among many others) have written with benevolence and empathy about their lives, making the story about the people around them, and about the world, eliciting love for the complicated characters that inhabit their thoughtful autobiographies.
I’m not sure that, truly, the personal essay boom (or personal narrative explosion) is over, as the author of this 2017 New Yorker article proposes. If not, let’s hope more personal essayists follow in the footsteps of those who have made the personal not only about themselves, but about us.
The Personal-Essay Boom Is Over
There’s a certain kind of personal essay that, for a long time, everybody seemed to hate. These essays were mostly written by women. They came off as unseemly, the writer’s judgment as flawed. They were too personal: the topics seemed insignificant, or else too important to be aired for an audience of strangers.