In Defense of the Ordinary

April 30, 2013 § 8 Comments

mantleA guest post from the essayist Joe Bonomo:

I write in defense of the ordinary life. Two common impulses in writing autobiographically—what happened to me is important; what happened matters because it happened to me—are problematic, since very few of us experience dramatic, statistically rare events during our lives, and yet all of us experience, well, something. When I begin an essay, or find my way into a subject autobiographically, the qualities of my experience or character don’t really matter in and of themselves. I try to recognize what in my unique experience might be, in the recollection of and in the telling, emblematic of something larger, something not exclusive, something recognizable. With each essay, I begin with something that matters to me. Then I begin to consider, How might this matter to you? By which I mean, How might it matter?

“We only store in memory images of value,” says Patricia Hampl. Some days I believe this. Here are two tableaux from my adolescence, one wide-view, one close-up. The first: when I was a kid my dad would slip me a dollar or so each Saturday and off I’d go on my allowance walk. I’d head up Amherst and cut through the apartments toward Wheaton Newsstand, where I’d happily withstand the crossfire between Topps baseball cards and Penthouse Forum, clear plastic wrapper versus brown paper, and, clutching my Cherry Smash soda, head toward Barbarian Bookstore across Georgia Avenue to peruse old paperbacks and men’s magazines in the musty aroma of oldness. After a stop at Wheaton Plaza, or Highs for a Slurpee, I’d wind back toward home, slowly, always wanting to put off my arrival, prizing, without knowing why, my aloneness.

The second: at the family dinner table one night, the usual cheerful din made by the eight of us, and in memory I jump-cut to my mom, her eyes wet, her face red, pushing away from the table and blurting out, “Maybe if I had a broken arm, you could see how much it hurt!” and dashing upstairs to her bedroom. We’d ignored her migraine headache, or made light of it, or something equally awful, until she was forced to make a highly uncharacteristic dramatic scene. Dismal silence and grief reigned at the table afterward.

Who cares? That these separate events from my childhood linger in me doesn’t make them subjects; it renders them private material, sentimentally stoked in the dark of my memory and imagination. To elevate them from common, trivial memory, I hope to discover (if I’m lucky) what about them might be representational. Wallace Stevens explored the contours of a metaphor, declaring that “An ordinary object slightly turned becomes a metaphor of that object.” What more ordinary an object is there than myself? It’s the charge of the autobiographical essayist to turn himself slightly, to alter his gaze so that it faces a direction other than inward, to merge with language and another’s self to produce something fresh, startling, and vividly human.

If, after Stevens, I turn myself slightly during my allowance walk, I’m the explorer, the wanderer, a boy crossing from childhood to adolescence (from Reggie Jackson to Marilyn Chambers) beginning an exile from innocence that’s repeated everywhere: a journey from the bright, unlimited sun of childhood to the dimmer, more complicated afternoons of adulthood. At the dinner table that night, after mom fled upstairs, what of that? I can see if I look again that the child in that moment is deepened by dimension: a solipsist, unhappy to learn that he was cruel, and at the same what it feels like to be ashamed. How intricate and surprising and complex it is to love.

Essayists like to quote this line of Vivian Gornick’s, and for good reason: “What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.” Those quoting her often overlook Gornick’s next sentence: “For that, the imagination is required.” This isn’t the imagination that we associate with a fiction writer conjuring up invented experience; this is the imagination required to see actual experiences as threads in a larger fabric, experience that until it is shaped in language and reflection remains private, the equivalent of the scrapbook or Instagram photo that means so much to me, yet so little to you.

I once wrote about an incident when I was ten and stole a cheap plastic ring from a boardwalk store in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, where my family was staying on vacation. Recently I read Gary Wills’s slim biography of St. Augustine and happened upon Wills’s account of a young Augustine stealing pears from an orchard. Both gestures—mine and the future Bishop of Hippo’s—were petty and inconsequential, boys’ malfeasances. Is it extraordinary or ordinary, the way two people separated by centuries, continents, and circumstances (not to mention less tangible characteristics) overlapped in a surprising, graphic way? Someone might accuse me of comparing myself to St. Augustine; theology will say that he becomes extraordinary, but in that moment he’s an ordinary teen. What I feel I’m doing is recognizing something emblematic in unrelated gestures of two wandering youths.

Perversely, the goal of an autobiographical essayist is both to dramatize the personal and to shed personality. I don’t mean that an essayist’s personality shouldn’t be present, far from it, but by the end of the essay the particulars of her personality—the moving parts that got the writer and the reader this far—should blur and morph into that abstract silhouette of the human, an outline into which the reader might fit, too.

Joe Bonomo’s new book is This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began, a collection of essays. His other books include AC/DC’s Highway to Hell (33 1/3 Series), Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and FoundInstallations (National Poetry Series), Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band, and Conversations With Greil Marcus (edited). He teaches at Northern Illinois University, and appears online at No Such Thing As Was (

Stalking the Essay: A Conference Report

April 12, 2013 § 4 Comments

columbia_universityA guest post from Virginia Lloyd recapping last weekend’s Stalking the Essay Conference:

Phillip Lopate, who convened the inaugural “Stalking the Essay” conference on Saturday 6th April in his capacity as the director of Columbia University’s graduate nonfiction program, described his quarry as an “enigmatic beast,” both “ubiquitous and elusive.”

For any serious reader of essays the line-up of this conference was a dream. Gathered under the ornate roof of the Italian Academy on Amsterdam Avenue were the likes of Vivian Gornick, Michael Greenberg, Margo Jefferson, Patricia Hampl, Daniel Mendelsohn, Katha Pollitt, David Shields, Ned Stuckey-French and Colm Toibin. Even more miraculously, it was free.

After typing and scribbling from 10.00 am to 5.30 pm I drew these twin themes from the day’s discussions.

 The necessity of doubt

Montaigne said, “If my mind could gain a firm footing I would not write essays, I would make decisions.” Thankfully for us he was the indecisive sort. His idea of the essay as the proper form for the doubting mind echoed through every panel session.

Phillip Lopate called the structure and strategies of the essay “mysterious,” remaining “receptive to doubt and self-doubt.” English professor Branca Arsić described Emerson’s essaying as “the writing of selfless undecidedness.” During the discussion “The Column as Essay,” law professor and columnist for The Nation, Patricia J Williams characterized her family tradition as being split between W. B. Dubois on one side and Emerson on the other. She contended that this twin intellectual path led her to think of the essay as “a way of giving voice to the experience of double vision.” Margo Jefferson, during the session “Criticism and the Essay,” invoked Marianne Moore’s idea of “accessibility to experience” to suggest the validity of “the kind of authority you can get at through ambivalence, uncertainty, a kind of vulnerability.”

Vivian Gornick, the author of eight books including the memoir-writing classic The Situation and the Story, spoke of having to learn to trust her own feelings in order to establish a reliable point of view, which she maintains is the key to writing essays. “I found that the point of view so necessary to a work should be breathing through the subject,” she said. How did she accomplish this? “I set myself the task of trying to understand how I felt in relation to the subject at hand, in order to bring some depth and authority to what I had to trust were legitimate feelings. I had to see what I was feeling in relation to the world.”

The essay as a self-dramatizing form

Colm Toibin described his initial reluctance to review the books about homosexuality that The London Review of Books began sending him. Once he began writing the reviews, he was surprised to discover that it gave him a way of “writing about himself without writing about himself.”

Daniel Mendelsohn observed that most of the conference panelists felt the need to begin autobiographically when talking about criticism, tracing the paths by which each found his or her footing in the essay form. He felt this reflected a kind of anxiety around the contemporary essayist’s authority. He traced this to technology, which has passed criticism into the hands of readers, and to pervasive commercialism, in which judgments about works of art have become reductive – yes or no, thumbs up or down.

“The essay is important because it is long,” Mendelsohn said. “I am in favor of length because it is a way of combating the reductiveness of so many forms of judgment circulating in culture. But also discursiveness is good. The critical essay ends with a judgment, but the drama of the form is how you arrive at your judgment, the argument of it. The form fights against its own conclusiveness. The expansiveness of the essay allows you to be both abstract and judgmental, but it is deeply subjective because it’s your judgment. The way that you arrive at your judgment, the way by which you form your conclusions – that is how you become yourself on the page. What is interesting is what I can do only in a long essay, which is to understand why I think the way that I do about the thing I am writing about.”


The essay, which enacts the drama of the divided self in its very form, seems particularly well suited to our age of anxiety, in which none of us claims or wishes to claim total confidence or authority in the subjects we write about. Phillip Lopate confessed during the conference that it was his dream to establish a Center for the Essay at Columbia. If the popularity of “Stalking the Essay” is anything to go by, he may well get his wish.

Virginia Lloyd is an author, essayist and literary agent with a blog at


March 21, 2013 § 6 Comments

April 6th, 2013, 10 AM to 6 PM
The graduate Writing Program at Columbia University School of the Arts is pleased to announce the inaugural Stalking the Essay Conference, to be held Saturday, April 6, from 10 AM to 6 PM. The conference, organized by Nonfiction Concentration Director Phillip Lopate, is free and open to the public. With this symposium, the Writing Program aims to encircle the practices, theories and possibilities of the essay form by bringing together those who love it.
This conference is intended to be the first of an annual event, as part of a larger effort to establish Columbia University as a magnet for studying the essay’s history and current practice, and nurturing and propagating its future. What makes this location so apt is Columbia’s especially rich essayistic tradition that includes Lionel Trilling, Jacques Barzun, John Dewey, Mark van Doren, F. W. Dupee, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Randolph Bourne, Zora Neale Hurston, Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, Daniel Bell, Susan Sontag, Meyer Schapiro, Eric Bentley and Edward Said.
The goal of the conference is to help build a legacy for the essay as an enduring, various, mutating, endearing, essential literary expression. For this must be said in its favor: the Essay is the classic, reliable tool for human consciousness to track itself, and at the same time to overcome isolation—making it possible for writers to establish with readers a bond of friendship.It is a response to the present historical moment, and a fertile meeting-ground for truth and imagination, the personal and the impersonal.

Memoir: It’s All in the Art

February 2, 2012 § 9 Comments

Shanna Mahin at the Pen Center blog makes an impassioned defense of the too-often-maligned memoir genre.  Like Shanna, we wonder why these same attacks and questions come up time and again.  To our critics: try writing a strong literary memoir.  There isnothing easy or therapeutic about it:

Here’s the thing: good memoir adheres to the same guidelines as good fiction. It needs plot, story, well-developed characters, a solid through-line, all of it. And a memoirist has to do it with one hand tied behind her back. She can’t conflate a time period (although, allegedly, Vivian Gornick might argue that point) or create a dramatic scenario to illustrate the angst of the human condition (ditto, James Frey, et. al.) She has to do it with the raw materials at hand. It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living. I didn’t say that, V.S. Naipaul said it … I’m talking about all the amazing books that have earned their place on the shelves of literature, work by writers like Nick Flynn, Tobias Wolff, Mark Doty, Lauren Slater, Abigail Thomas, Dani Shapiro, Mary Gordon, Patricia Hampl, Kathryn Harrison, Stephen Elliott, Cheryl Strayed, and … Samantha Dunn. I defy you to read any of their books and then tell me that fiction is somehow more relevant as art, or that any of these writers should learn the lost art of shutting up.

… If you’re an aspiring memoirist and you’re participating in a workshop or a conference or a class somewhere, PLEASE let go of the idea that this is some sort of therapy for you. You’re not helping the cause. I’m not insensitive to the notion that you might need some therapy. I think we can all use some therapy. I’m a big fan. But the classroom is not the place for that. Your first clue is that there’s no couch.

… Which is not to say that the writing process isn’t therapeutic or that you won’t have realizations on the page, but if you’re telling a story that sounds like a soap opera, with angels and demons and someone who bears more than a passing resemblance to Snidley Whiplash, well, you’re probably doing it wrong.

Shanna Mahin’s full three-part rant can be found here.

This must be valuable because it lingered: On Writing “Into the Fable”

September 20, 2011 § 3 Comments

Joe Bonomo meditates on memory, experience, and the uncertain impulse behind his Brevity 37 essay “Into the Fable.”

“We store in memory only images of value,” Patricia Hampl writes in I Could Tell You Stories.  “The value may be lost over the passage of time…but that’s the implacable judgment of feeling: This, we say somewhere within us, is something I’m hanging on to.”

Like many smart observations about the nature of autobiography, Hampl’s has as much to do with what it means to be a human as with what it means to be a writer. Like all provocations, it invites argument and skepticism.  I’ve been silently quarreling with Hampl for years; I want to believe that she’s correct, that when I scroll the mental files and land on that one image repeatedly, it’s meaningful beyond me, that it’s personal, not merely private.  But I can’t be sure.  Even images that have lived in me for decades — a sibling’s facial expression, a friend’s walk, a girl’s eyes, that tree stump, those buildings in a row — may be, from the writer’s perspective, meaningless.

But part of me needs to believe Hampl’s assertion.  Writing “Into The Fable,” I trusted an instinct very close to hers: this must be valuable because it lingered.  Is John D.’s image saying something to me, in a language that I don’t know, or have lost?  And is that something valuable, or inessential? I like to believe that when an image tattoos us, the ink stain is a kind of Rorschach test: its mystery may at first be untranslatable, but with time and curiosity, and plenty of side-glances away, it’s articulated, saying something that, if I’m lucky, broaches epiphany. Have I successfully translated John D. in “Into The Fable”?  An image sometimes struggles with MSL issues: Memory as a Second Language.  I think I get the gist of him.  But Walter Benjamin writes, “Any translation which intends to perform a transmitting function cannot transmit anything but information — hence, something inessential.”  When you’re converting a memory-image — that soundless .gif file — you’re working at an even greater disadvantage, paraphrasing music, interpreting moving but noiseless mouths, the transmitted information received as intuition, or as guesses.  You stake your belief on the value of the image when it may be memory’s equivalent of a found photo: intriguing, mysterious, ghostly-narrative, vaguely urgent, but ultimately pointless.

Annie Dillard says, “Fiction makes sense of imagined experience; nonfiction makes sense of actual experience.”  But of course actual experience is reimagined every second, even, arguably, as it’s happening.  Why distinguish between imagined and actual experience?  (Charles Lamb’s “Dream Children: A Reverie” is maybe ninety-eight percent fiction — that is, imagined — and all the more wrenching because of that.)  Plagued by a recurring image of a school friend, I’m tempted to fill in the blanks, to imagine, as a fiction writer might, the surrounding narrative details and context, the back story that brought John D. to that trivial spot in time.  Instead I write about what isn’t there, trusting in actual experience, however limited and partially-known.  The image says, if I’m hearing it right through the static, this is all you need.

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