Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Personal Hazards of a Personal Essay

I have been writing personal essays for years, but also been getting rejection letters for years, so I was thrilled to get an acceptance last week from the Morning News. I wrote this essay, "The Debt" for a 48-hour magazine competition, where they give you a topic, in this case debt, and you have 24 hours to submit something. They take the next 24 hours to compile, edit, and lay out the magazine.

I didn't get accepted to that, but I was happy with the piece I wrote from a literary perspective. It was about money I had loaned my ex boyfriend for a move across country, and because I wrote it so fast and because I had a topic for which I couldn't think of any other material, I didn't censor myself the way I usually do. It's a big debate in the nonfiction world about how much you worry about the people you write about, and what kind of privacy you owe them and whether you should let them read the piece before you publish it. "No apologies" is the first rule of writing, said a friend recently, but I usually fall heavily to the other side. Other people have a right to privacy, and I usually work hard to be sensitive to that.

In this case I wasn't. I had a couple of people read the essay, and I asked them how the "characters" of my ex boyfriend and current boyfriend came off. "Fine," my readers said. "I see that this is a complicated, nuanced situation, and everyone in the story seems reasonable."

I submitted the story to the Morning News, and let's be honest, I have been rejected so many times I didn't really think this would be any different, so I probably didn't think about the ramifications publishing a fairly personal story as much as I should have. But I got an email a couple days later saying they wanted it. Great! I spent a significant amount of time on some areas the editor wanted more information on, and sent it in. It went up yesterday.

Then there were two issues: 1) the magazine put a somewhat lurid sounding title and blurb on it, which pointed the reader toward thinking my ex boyfriend was a real jerk who was taking advantage of me and 2) I realized I had written my ex boyfriend to be a bit of a jerk who was taking advantage of me. He and I have both done less-than-generous things to each other, and it was true that he hadn't paid me back what I loaned him, but that wasn't the point of the essay at all. Some people saw what I meant them to see---that this was a painful and complicated situation. Others saw what I had (I admit) showed them---the deadbeat jerk. Or, they saw their own ex boyfriends or their own debtors, and magnified the character with that lens.

Once you have published something, it is out of your hands, and your readers will make it their own. This essay resonated with people, both in the way I wanted it to (what do you do with a serious longtime love that has ended) and in ways I very much didn't (take that guy to small claims court!). On one hand, the passionate replies I received in the comments section and personally are a great testament to a successful piece, and I'm deeply moved by them. But on the other, I feel mortifyingly exposed, and feel that have done a disservice to the people I wrote about.

Some of you will say (and have said), you're an idiot. You wrote about your personal business, so what are you whining about? I suppose it was naive, and thoughtless, or maybe I rightly sacrificed to my craft. I don't know. I thought about asking the editors to take it down, but that's hard too, since I'm a writer, and trying to make it as a creative nonfiction writer, and it's the deep personal conflict that makes this piece successful.

I don't really have a summary here, except to apologize to anyone I hurt with writing, this time or any time. And I'm very interested in thoughts on this topic.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

One of the reasons I haven't been blogging very much is that there aren't that many solid personal essays online, and its hard to discuss something with you when you haven't read it. Most of my favorite essays are in magazines that you need subscription for to read online or that aren't online at all, like many literary magazines or book collections. Blogs have become a font for mini essays, but they are by nature short, and so less meandering and ruminative and personal.

I just found this site (via called Here's the description: " posts new and classic non-fiction articles, curated from across the web, that are too long and too interesting to be read on a web browser."

Looks like they have a variety of stuff from straight nonfiction and reporting to personal essay. I'll let you know if I see anything especially good.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Malcolm Gladwell: Overdrive

You know how every month on the cover of Glamour and Marie Claire it says "25 Sex Tips!" or "Lose Weight!" and on the Oprah and Martha Stewart Magazines it says "Get Organized!" and "Be Happier!" and after a few months of falling for it and buying the magazine you realize that every single lose-weight article says to exercise and eat better, and every single get-organized article says reduce your possessions and buy a shoe rack, and now you don't have to buy the magazine, you can just guess at the contents.

(As a sidenote, this is also the problem with many articles---you polish you shoes by buying polish and using a cloth to apply it; you rent an apartment by visiting several apartments in your price range and picking your favorite, etc.)

In general, I don't want to read things where I can guess what the author will say in advance---I want to be surprised, at least a little bit. Now I talk a lot on this blog about how essays are about a mind in action, and the easiest way to see that mind work is by watching the author's opinion change or her ideas develop over the course of a piece of writing. In Malcolm Gladwell's book review of "Overhaul," a book by the guy who was appointed to oversee the federal bailout of General Motors, Gladwell has a thesis right from the beginning, which we get in classic five-paragraph-essay style at the end of the first paragraph:
The result is fascinating—although perhaps not entirely in the ways that its author intended.

But what Gladwell goes on to say about author Steven Rattner and the book and about General Motors is quite surprising, which is to say interesting. In true essayistic fashion, there is more than meets the eye; not only is this is a book review that is secretly an essay, it is an essay ostensibly about Overhaul and General Mills that is really about the private-equity model, which buys falling apart companies, patches them up, and sells them off for a profit. And maybe it wasn't even about that, but about the self-absorption and confidence that a person has to have to take on a job that has hundreds of millions of dollars at stake---a storyline that isn't surprising in itself, but is surprising because of where we found it.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Essay: Killing the Thetan

Someone just told me about a blog on religious issues called "Killing the Buddha." The first thing I read on it was an article called "Killing the Thetan," by J. C. Hallman about the recent New Yorker article on Paul Haggis and Scientology. The thing that interested me about "Killing the Thetan" is the emphasis on Hallman's process of analyzing the story, which is a nice example of a mind at work. Here's where this really hit me:

I realized there was a larger problem. When, as the writer of a piece about religion, you get too caught up in trying to color things one way or the other, when your allegiance to documented (and fact-checkable—this is The New Yorker, after all) facts takes precedence over everything else, you become blind to your own assumptions. A glaring surprise: “The Apostate” tosses around the world “cult” quite freely, and never even suggests what it might mean by the word. The piece relies on its own assumptions, and its readers’. In other words, there’s really no larger canvas that “The Apostate” seems to want to consider. It’s not going to tell us anything about cults, or religions, or, ultimately, people. It’s just a long news story.

Any time you say "I realized. . . ." there's a mind turning corners, tracking down a lead. And then there's a nice natural mystery set up (What?? What did you realize?) which creates built-in interest for the reader.

Some of the article is a bit messy and confusing, but I'd rather have a mess than a straightforward and unprobing piece.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Poem: In the Waiting Room

I love the poem In the Waiting Room, by Elizabeth Bishop, published in the 1970s. I don't really get it though. I mean I could get through an English exam with some analysis about the realization of the Other and of separation between oneself and others (notice my cultural studies-ish capitalization distinction there!) and a dash of gender/bodies/pain/social waiting, etc., but really, I just don't feel like I get it.

The reason I bring it up here, other than to bring it to your attention if you haven't come across it yet, is to talk about its essayistic quality of watching a mind process things. The narrator is a child, and has a child's blunt and and keen observations coupled with the cloudiness of mind that we all have, whether due to immaturity, or fear, or bias, or lack of information. This girl is curious, and questioning, and she doesn't come to any real answer to her questions, any more than I can answer what this poem means to me.

I also like the ending of this poem, as it goes from heady, massive, disorienting ideas back into the grounding specifics of time and place: Worcester, Feb. 5, 1918. Although, of course, there is a war on, and what can be more a source of questioning and disorientation than that.

In the Waiting Room

In Worcester, Massachusetts,
I went with Aunt Consuelo
to keep her dentist's appointment
and sat and waited for her
in the dentist's waiting room.
It was winter. It got dark
early. The waiting room
was full of grown-up people,
arctics and overcoats,
lamps and magazines.
My aunt was inside
what seemed like a long time
and while I waited and read
the National Geographic
(I could read) and carefully
studied the photographs:
the inside of a volcano,
black, and full of ashes;
then it was spilling over
in rivulets of fire.
Osa and Martin Johnson
dressed in riding breeches,
laced boots, and pith helmets.
A dead man slung on a pole
"Long Pig," the caption said.
Babies with pointed heads
wound round and round with string;
black, naked women with necks
wound round and round with wire
like the necks of light bulbs.
Their breasts were horrifying.
I read it right straight through.
I was too shy to stop.
And then I looked at the cover:
the yellow margins, the date.
Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain
--Aunt Consuelo's voice--
not very loud or long.
I wasn't at all surprised;
even then I knew she was
a foolish, timid woman.
I might have been embarrassed,
but wasn't. What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt,
I--we--were falling, falling,
our eyes glued to the cover
of the National Geographic,
February, 1918.

I said to myself: three days
and you'll be seven years old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world.
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
I gave a sidelong glance
--I couldn't look any higher--
at shadowy gray knees,
trousers and skirts and boots
and different pairs of hands
lying under the lamps.
I knew that nothing stranger
had ever happened, that nothing
stranger could ever happen.

Why should I be my aunt,
or me, or anyone?
What similarities
boots, hands, the family voice
I felt in my throat, or even
the National Geographic
and those awful hanging breasts
held us all together
or made us all just one?
How I didn't know any
word for it how "unlikely". . .
How had I come to be here,
like them, and overhear
a cry of pain that could have
got loud and worse but hadn't?

The waiting room was bright
and too hot. It was sliding
beneath a big black wave,
another, and another.

Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth
of February, 1918.

An Essay on the Essay

This 2002 Poets&Writers essay on the essay form by a Lousiana journalist named Michael Depp isn't particularly exciting, but it's a solid analysis of what the essay is with quotes by some major current essayists.

Here's an excerpt that pretty much nails it:

So what occasions the essay? If a writer has no surefire argument to make, no point to sway the reader toward, why flaunt personal vacillations in print? Why not leave the questions and doubts to the rough draft rather than give them life?

For Richard Rodriguez, the attraction is the essay's public rehearsal of ideas. . . . "For me, the drama of the essay is the way the public life intersects with my personal and private life."

Monday, February 21, 2011

Let's Edit!

Hi Everyone,

A lot of writers or would-be writers are interested in how people edit. Some writers edit as they go, and some, like me, write a huge gush of junk and then go and do heavy cleanup. But no matter your method of arriving at a good first draft, you will pretty much always need a further edit.

Having a good external editor is an incredible and rare luxury, so in most cases you're own your own. In this case you really need to set the piece aside for as long as you can and take it back up with a fresh eye. If you have a deadline, you might only get an hour or two away from it, but in this case I want to look at something I wrote in grad school about 4 years ago. I like it, but it needs a serious edit. There's a chunk near the end that feels exotic, in the geological sense; there are some rhythmic clunks; and it feels a little bit shallower than it should given the underlying situation.

Below is the draft. The next post will have the edit.

The Draft:

It so happens that Elkhart, Indiana is about halfway between my parent’s home (Virginia) and school (Minnesota). It also happens that my paternal grandfather lives in an assisted living home in Elkhart, and that I can find absolutely no reason not to visit him on my drive from to the other. I stay overnight at my aunt’s house and together she and I drive over to Eastlake Terrace to meet my grandfather for breakfast.

“I sure wish you were staying for a couple of days,” says Grandpa. “You could help me buy a new CD player.” Half blind and deeply nostalgic, my grandfather has racks of Benny Goodman, Guy Lombardo, and Tony Bennett spilled out over his bureau, but his CD player has begun to shut off without warning, leaving him in a world both dark and silent.

“Well, we could go right now,” I say, really half joking.

“I’m ready,” he says.

We turn to my aunt. “Linda?”

Linda wavers.

To Linda, like much of my family, action is a great heaviness, and action that may result in spending money---no matter whose---carries a yacht anchor of lethargy.

“Let’s go.” I say. “Let’s do it.”

Linda suggests that buying a CD player will slow me down on my trip, which it will, but I am caught here between my turbulent past with my grandpa and my conscience; my wish to make Maryland before nightfall and my guilt for doing little to nothing for an old man in assisted living.

“No, it’s ok,” I say. “Let’s do it.”

We collect grandpa’s walker and wallet, turn out the lights, and he goes to turn off the CD which is miraculously still playing New York, New York. “Leave it,” I say. “Maybe it will be there for us when we get back.”

Going anywhere with the elderly is hard, I have learned. Linda pulls up to the curb at K Mart and deposits me and Grandpa, I collect the walker from the trunk and fold it open, Grandpa grasps it in fingers that shoot out every which way from the knuckles, and we head step by inching step to the electronics section at the back of the store. Grandpa is slightly awed by the size of K Mart. This is a new place to him. I know very little about electronics, but there are only a few CD player choices, one reason I’d rather come to a place like this than a more specialized one like Circuit City, even if there were one in Elkhart.

On the way here, in Linda’s tan Honda, Grandpa had said, “I guess I could buy any player I wanted, but I’d like to stay under $150. Do you think we could do that?” Despite, or perhaps because of, his monthly rent of over $2000, this is a major purchase for him. In fact the one we choose, which plays 5 CDs, a fantastic number in Grandpa’s eyes, is on sale for $80. We don’t have a cart, and this thing is heavy, so Grandpa insists I heave it onto the seat of his walker, which he pushes steadily to the checkout.

The few other K Mart shoppers flipping through racks and pushing carts of toilet paper and lawn care look at us. I wonder what they think---Making that old man carry your electronic equipment? Buying it for his granddaughter maybe? They could at least get a cart. We try to cram Grandpa and his walker through the check out aisle, and we finally succeed by folding and unfolding the walker, two clerks gaping at our gymnastics.

My grandfather’s other hobbies, apart from listening to his CDs and romancing the ladies ( he dumped the last one after she broke her hip and entered a nursing home) is bridge. He is a Life Master, but because of his blindness, his fellow players read out their cards play by play and he must keep it all up in his head; consequently his game has suffered. He has played at a major bridge tournament in every state except for Delaware and New Hampshire. Delaware and New Hampshire do not boast bridge communities large enough to very often move beyond the local chapter competitions. If Grandpa makes Delaware, he’ll work on New Hampshire to realize a dream. I imagine him dying right there in the Concord community center, slapping down his last trump card for a grand slam and declaring victory with his last breath. The New Hampshire paper reads: Man fulfills dream, uses heart to take trick.

But when he is not playing bridge (or romancing the healthier ladies) he is inviting anyone he can to come hear Glen Miller, Tony Martin, the lone tolerated woman, Ella Fitzgerald do their stuff, and they gladly accept, especially if there is gin or bourbon offered from the wet bar/ pharmacy----a liquor stash, sink, and repository for arthritis, cholesterol, and vitamin pills. My grandmother had once told me that in her youth, dancing was de rigueur, that live music wasn’t so expensive, wasn’t even a luxury. It was radios that were luxuries, and victrolas an absolute splurge.

Those guests will be happy to see us reenter East Lake Terrace, check ourselves in, pass a woman asleep in her chair, snoring, under a pastel painting of geraniums and cats. They will be happy to know that in Grandpa’s tiny apartment I have set up and hooked up his new machine, and transferred the old signs I had taped on the play and stop buttons to help Grandpa’s dimming eyes. I am about to put in the CDs, which I worry will be hard for Grandpa’s stiff hands to manage, but he shoos me off, reminding me that I’ve got a road to take, and it leads away from here.

* Note: my aunt's name has been changed for privacy, which I can be fanatical about when it comes to writing about others. We can discuss writing about people you know in another post.