I’m going to spend my day writing, writing an essay, and thinking that perhaps a good way to write well is to start a day by reading good writing, I’ve started on The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present. The introduction shows how much personal essays have in common with blogging, or the kind of blogging I enjoy.

If some readers are repelled by a writer’s behavioral contradictions, this is quite all right, because the personal essayist is not necessarily out to win the audience’s unqualified love but to present the complex portrait of a human being.

This spectacle is offered up in sections, which makes autobiographies and personal essays, for all their overlapping aspects, fundamentally different. A memoirist is entitled to move in a linear direction, accruing extra points of psychological or social shading from initial set-ups, like a novelist, the deeper he or she moves in the narrative. There is no need to keep explaining who the narrator or the narrator’s father or mother are at the beginning of each chapter. The personal essayist, though, cannot assume that the reader will ever have read anything by him or her before, and so must reestablish a persona each time and embed it in a context by providing sufficient autobiographical background. This usually means having to repeat basic circumstances of his life materials over and over–a wildly wasteful procedure, from the standpoint of narrative economy. Far better, you would think, for the essayist to get it over with once and for all and simply write his life story in a linear fashion. But for one thing, he may, in a fit of modesty, feel that his life story is not worth telling in toto, even if a portion of it seems to be. And for another, the essay form allows the writer to circle around one particualr autobiographical piece, squeezing all possible meaning out of it, while leaving the greater part of his life story available for later milking. It may even be that the personal essayist is more temperamentally suited to this circling procedure, diving into the volcano of self and extracting a single hot coal to consider and shape, either because of laziness or because of an aesthetic imulse to control a smaller frame. (page xxix)

There is more, too. I might add more citations as I go, for future reference.

8 thoughts on “sections

  1. Lois

    Susanna Bunkers has some nice words on this issue as well. If you haven’t run across her work check out the following:

    Bunkers, Suzanne L. (2001). Diaries of Girls and Women: A Midwestern American Sampler. Madison WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

    Bunkers, Suzanne L. (2003). Whose Diary Is It, Anyway? Issues of Agency, Authority, Ownership. A/B: Auto/Biography Studies, 17(1), 11-27.

  2. bicyclemark

    Yeah. I find my life 50% interesting enough to write about, the other 50% is made of blatent lies or exagerations. OH.. and mispellings too.

  3. Jill

    Yeah, I hate it when I misspell life 🙂

    I posted this without remembering to add where I found the citation, so I just now added the little intro and the attribution. I might add more bits from the book later.

    Thanks for the Bunker references, Lois, I wasn’t aware of her work.

  4. J. Nathan Matias

    I met Phillip Lopate once, at a conference. Thomas Kinsella was detained at the Canadian border, and the conference organizers invited Phillip at the last minute.

    Lopate read some of his essays that described how annoying he is. I agreed. The next day, he talked about what it’s like to not bother trying to write great essays but rather be a second-rate writer. I was confused, but I put up with his talk. It was my first conference experience, after all.

    A year later, I ran across an essay of his in an anthology of Creative Nonfiction. I hadn’t realized his renown in writing. The essay was another work on how annoying he is. It’s his style.

    The second time through, I learned much more from Phillip Lopate.

  5. Toril

    The book looks wonderful, do you recommend it? And is it safe to leave the visacard number with Amazon? I guess it is since half the world shops there…

  6. bicyclemark

    Ive had my visa on there since 1998… and I can say its perfectly secure. Oh but umm.. dont tell anyone.

  7. Jill

    Amazon’s reliable. Really, most online shops are absolutely fine, and at least as safe as leaving your visa card behind the bar as many of my friends do when going out for a drink. Or six.

    Do be careful when using public terminals though: it’s important that the web browser isn’t set to remember information you type into web forms.

  8. Toril

    Thanks for the information!

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