Becoming the Subject: On Getting Beyond Persona into the Personal
July 8, 2020 § 2 Comments
By Lisa Levy
For the past 20 years or so I was a critic—a critic with some ambition, but no desire to reveal myself separately from my thoughts. I started reviewing books as a sideline when I was in an English PhD program and then I discovered I liked my side gig better than my main one. I got more actual readers, as opposed to what I would have publishing academic papers, where nine of your friends-rivals who are also studying Gertrude Stein would read your essay (or pretend to have read it). Plus, I had an abiding interest in criticism, and as I studied the canonical writers most of them had a bent for criticism too: Henry James, Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot. When I was a critic I was incorporeal, a creature concerned only with judging a book (it was usually a book, sometimes two, or sometimes music or a TV show) as objectively as possible. I was an aspiring 21st century secular version of Emerson’s transparent eyeball, an image I studied in grad school which has haunted me ever since: “Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.”
So—God thing aside—I reveled in being a critic, in judgment, in writing as if my thoughts were incontrovertible truths. I let some of myself slip in, like my favorite critics did—Susan Sontag, Geoff Dyer, Wayne Koestenbaum—but I guarded the part of myself that could be hurt not if someone did not like my writing but if someone disliked my writing so much that they disliked me. I’ve never asked other writers if they also suffer from this slippage between writer and work, if they feel rejected when their work is ignored or badmouthed, if they can’t help but want to know the writers they admire and to demean the ones they dislike, whether for personal or professional reasons. I was expert at the latter. I kept a list of writers in my head who had gotten assignments I coveted, or who had written something I liked so much I immediately detested the brain that birthed it. The stakes are so low in writing, the plumb assignments so rare, that to indulge in this kind of behavior is pure petulance—but a writer’s ego is a fragile thing.
My struggle with low with self-esteem curtailed my professional ambitions. I didn’t try to submit my work to the best places, and I didn’t really think about why. My insecurity was so ingrained I wondered if I’d ever make it to the next level, the one where the glossy magazines come to you, the one where editors took you to lunch and asked you if you had any ideas, or they emailed urgently to secure you to review the book everyone was buzzing about. Your piece would be on the cover of the magazine, of course, your name in twenty-four-point font.
Now I hope you are not expecting some magical advice about how to escape the most common writer’s traps: low self-esteem, impostor syndrome, extreme bitterness, and death by comparison. The way I did it was simple: I wrote more, and I wrote differently. I burst out of my critical mode, silenced the voices that told me I was too ambitious, too pretentious, and not worthy of critiquing writing because mine was subpar.
For me, the way out of the critical conundrum was to do what comes naturally: to think more about myself, and how I could be more of a presence in my writing. In transforming into the transparent eyeball my graduate school training had stolen the I from me. Seizing the first-person enabled me to make assertions not just as the voice of a publication, or of some free-floating critical entity, I gained confidence. At first I used my new voice sparingly, but as I did it more I started to listen and I liked how it sounded. I started writing personal essays, leaving other writers out of my pieces, and they turned out okay, and then better than okay. I published them, and people responded.
Don’t misunderstand me: I didn’t suddenly land a bushel of personal essay assignments just because I published a few, one of which got a fairly large audience because it was about my migraines and sick people love to read about their own illness. Yet publishing a few was exactly what I needed to feel legitimate, like I didn’t have to lean on the ideas and the voices of other writers. I had learned to redirect my critical voice so it wasn’t dismembering a book—or me—but something in the world I needed to break down, turn over, and discuss with some urgency, like my chronic migraines; my sad and comic dating history; or my love affair with vintage dresses. I worried I would come off as shallow, or pathetic, or deluded. But I didn’t. I wrote personal essays with charisma, with a bit of arrogance, with humor among moments of despair.
In short, I wrote like a human being, like someone who doubts and who believes, who loves and hates, who marches headfirst into the future and who quivers at the idea of the unknown. I wrote like a person terrified of change and eager for experience. I wasn’t just a critic anymore. I was a person, and I wrote like one.
Lisa Levy has been a freelance writer and editor for almost 20 years, focusing on essays, criticism, feminism, and self-fashioning. She has written for many publications, including The New Republic, the LARB, the Believer, the Millions, the Rumpus, TLS, Boulevard, Hazlitt, and Lit Hub, where she is a contributing editor. She is also a contributing editor and columnist at Crime Reads and is working toward a nonfiction MFA at Goucher College. A longtime New Yorker now based in Toronto, she has work forthcoming in Assay, Narratively, the Missouri Review, and Guernica.