June 18, 2018 § 11 Comments
By Maddie Lock
Three years ago I fell in love with Rebecca Solnit. It was at the start of my re-decision to become a writer. A bibliophile with a BA in English and high hopes to make my mark as a writer, I had allowed myself, many years ago, to be distracted by the business world. As I reached a definitive age and had acquired all the things that society says you need in life— a career, family, home, things to fill the home, a second home, vacations, and so on—I woke up one morning and said “enough.” Actually, it was “ENOUGH!”
Let me tell you, it shook life up; my marriage, my business, my circle of friends all had to come second for now. I sat down to write, allowing the strained and shaken pieces of my life to settle in.
I began with a children’s book about a dog who wants love and understanding. I self-published and won a small award. Encouraged, I wrote a few fiction stories which didn’t excite me or anyone else. Then, a friend gave me a book, a memoir, that in my brain begat fireworks. Now dog-eared, filled with yellow highlights and notations, spine struggling to hang on to worn-out pages, I keep it close to me as a talisman when I write.
The Faraway Nearby was a revelation to me. It fired receptors of desire and weepiness no other book had ever done. I wanted to write like this! When I finished the book, I immediately read it again. And again. And began my first essay.
It was about a trip I had taken recently, a solitary two weeks, off-season, on Monhegan Island, isolated from people but enfolded by nature. Into the essay I poured the story of my life changes and conflicts that had sent me away, of my husband’s confusion at the changes in me, the pulling away from the business I had worked so hard to build, the practice of meditation and study of Buddhism, and, mostly, my desire to be alone. It was a masterpiece in the Solnit style: meandering, contemplative, exploring the intricacies of life, revealing bruises and broken parts, threads reaching out and over and beyond, only to meet up again for a new revelation. I couldn’t wait to send it out for publication.
I googled the top nonfiction journals and, since I knew it would be snatched up immediately, I chose just one to submit to. I received a form rejection via email—about two weeks later. Shocked, I tried another top publication; another quick rejection.
I was devastated. I stuck my 5,500-word masterpiece into My Documents and simmered. I began my second children’s book. Every few weeks I picked up The Faraway Nearby, opened it randomly to read a few pages before my eyesight became bleary from tears and I tucked it away again.
I signed up for an online writing class: Writing the Personal Essay. Once again, convinced of accolades, I submitted “Sojourn in Solitude” as my first project. Like Ralphie in A Christmas Story, I envisioned a stunned and ecstatic review from my teacher. With a flushed face I opened up the highly-anticipated critique, and…cried. Honestly, I did. Although carefully worded, the message was clear: boy, do you have a long way to go. It also told me there was potential.
As with any skill, to be good requires hours and hours—10,000, it is said by many—to become a master at anything. So I began writing. And writing. And I’m still writing, because, according to the statistics, I’m looking at seven years at four hours a day before I can clearly see what my skills are.
I have this fluttery feeling I’ll still not be writing like Solnit; her meandering and my meandering share a big difference: her brilliant mind knows where the maze is taking her and can illuminate the path, whereas my only-adequate mind stumbles around, relying on hope and determination to find snatches of brilliance. An online teacher gently suggested a sizable gap between my writing skills and my reading tastes.
In the worn-out copy of Solnit’s beautiful book is a torn-out inside flap from a paperback copy of Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist. I use it as a bookmark. At the top is a quote: “To realize one’s destiny is a person’s only obligation.” I use this as encouragement.
And I’ll keep on writing, tallying my hours. I’ll call it practice.
German born and American bred, Maddie Lock fell in love with words as she learned the English language. Now a semi-retired business partner, she is putting her BA in English to good use. Lock has published an award-winning children’s book, has essays published in Gravel and Narrative Map, lamented about her writing obsession on Brevity Blog, and is working ardently on a memoir about her scattered roots.
June 12, 2017 § 20 Comments
By Zoë Bossiere
A couple of weeks ago, a piece by Jia Tolentino came out in The New Yorker called “The Personal-Essay Boom is Over.” The title alone was enough to deluge social media feeds with writers stepping forward to defend the vitality of the personal essay in spite of the article’s assertions, or otherwise agreeing with Tolentino that the personal essay is, in fact, “dead.” The only problem is, the article isn’t actually about what we writers know as the personal essay at all, but rather a separate subgenre of nonfiction called the “confessional essay.” If we want to get even more specific, Tolentino’s article is talking specifically of the confessional essays typically printed in online “women’s” publications such as xoJane, Jezebel, Salon, and others. To compare the personal and the confessional is a common false equivalence, and a great underestimation of all that first-person nonfiction writing encompasses.
I can recall one of my first nonfiction professors drawing a line on the board, labeling its two ends “Self” and “World.” From there, we students worked to fill in the line with subgenres of nonfiction such as memoir, journalism, personal essay, critical essay, and so on. Every subgenre has a place on this spectrum, and the personal essay, I learned, falls squarely in the middle. Contrary to what many might believe, the personal essay is not a self-absorbed, naval-gazing reflection pool. Rather, the signature of the genre is its use of the self to comment on something larger than. The personal essay cannot, by nature, be strictly personal, as that would delve into “confessional” territory.
A confessional essay focuses exclusively on the self, usually in the form of an anecdote—“This one thing that happened to me this one time.” One convention of the genre is to explore taboo subjects (incest, rape, the female body) to grab reader attention, which some have likened to the writing equivalent of internet “clickbait.” I appreciate how Tolentino addresses the practice of publishing such sensitive material as potentially exploitative, writing that “so many women wrote about the most difficult things that had ever happened to them and received not much in return” except harassment from strangers. This is undoubtedly one of the hazards of the confessional genre, and one that editors who publish such stories should be aware of. I disagree, however, that this kind of essay holds no currency in a world where even the most innocuous statements on Facebook and Twitter can and are interpreted as in some way political.
While Tolentino remains critically neutral in her article, relying on quotes from those she interviewed to do most of the hard-hitting for her, it’s clear the current trend is to lambaste the confessional essay (again, under the false moniker “personal essay”) as narcissistic or “too personal.” But I’m here to remind you there’s really nothing wrong with writing like that. After all, writers like David Sedaris have built a career on essays that might be labeled “confessional” if he were a woman. And we love David Sedaris. So what’s the problem?
According to Tolentino: “Put simply, the personal is no longer political in the same way it was” before the election. Before Donald Trump. Historically, though, there’s always been a reason why the public thinks women should not be writing, and least of all about their own experiences, which as young girls we learn are somewhat trivial to the rest of the world. Movies centered around the lives of female protagonists are routinely dismissed as “chick flicks” and stories showcasing the ways women can be strong are dubbed exclusively “for girls” as though they have nothing to offer any other audience. Tolentino says herself that the writers of the confessional essay are almost exclusively female, so to say that the personal is no longer political seems like just a new way of telling women to shut up about themselves because there are more important things in the world to talk about.
If the nonfiction spectrum has taught me anything, it is this: The world is large. The self contains multitudes. Of course there is enough room on the internet for the personal and the political to be happening simultaneously. And during a time when women and immigrants and people of color can see the effects of the current administration in their day to day lives, to say otherwise is absurd.
But frustratingly, implicit in articles like Tolentino’s is the sense that men who write about their experiences are writers, while women who do the same are simply selfish. This is an idea women have been rallying against for a long time, as Claire Vaye Watkins wrote in “On Pandering” and Rebecca Solnit in “Men Explain Things To Me.” These essays remind us that for some, it will never be a good time for women to freely write and publish about their own lives without offending the current political or social climate. But I have a sneaking suspicion that the people who say that no one wants to hear about your lost tampon when there’s a crazy man in the oval office are the same people who wouldn’t want to hear about it anyway.
And though Tolentino claims to be among those who like the genre but “aren’t generally mourning its sudden disappearance,” she does admit to missing the prevalence of the confessional essay on the internet, writing that, personally, “I never got tired of coming across a writerly style that seemed to exist for no good reason.” Of everything I’d read in Tolentino’s article, this gave me most pause. To make a value judgement about the existence of the confessional is to categorically dismiss all of the writing, and therefore all the writers, within the genre. In truth, the fact that women are driven to write essays like these is good reason enough.
Zoë Bossiere is an incoming Ph.D candidate at Ohio University where she will study creative nonfiction. Works and significant life events can be viewed at zoebossiere.com.
May 19, 2014 § 1 Comment
Steven Church discusses the whys and wherefores of his brilliant essay “Overpass into Fog,” found in the most recent issue of Brevity:
When I wrote “Overpass Into Fog” most of it came out in one mad rush. I was trying to warp and stretch time on the page perhaps because I was interested in how a moment can seem to expand and swell until it is distended with meaning. I don’t mean some kind of epiphany where the movement is linear, from darkness to light. It’s not that easy. Instead I’m thinking about those moments where the laws of physics seem to bend to the meaning-making part of your brain and time actually slows down or speeds up, or leaps forward and backward, where the movement is wild, circular, digressive, and recursive, but still pinned to a specific time and space, and to a unique consciousness. I’m thinking about those moments where a second takes a minute to complete its spin around the clock, and a minute can stretch on for hours, where time stops or slows and bends; those moments where colors seem to make noise and everything shimmers and quakes with resonance. It’s a kind of suspended animation, where movement is arrested, paused, stretched and manipulated. That moment on the 1-80 overpass, lost in the fog, felt that way; and I like to believe I’m not the only one who experiences such ecstatic fugue states of thought and emotion.
We talk about how “time flies” when we’re absorbed in a great book, even if what we experience is really more of a timelessness, a suspension of our awareness of clock-time. We feel lost in another world, “transported” to other realities, even if we are seated in a chair. It’s a kind of out-of-body experience created by words on the page, a seductive mix of emotion and intellect; and I guess I wanted to create a similar kind of time-travel in an essay, but in a smaller space, in just seven hundred and fifty words. My daughter, who is still learning how to read time on a clock, tells time by how it feels and, for her, a thirty-minute wait for ice cream feels like it lasts a day. Because it feels that way it is that way, and there is a truth beyond physics to this emotional understanding of time. The moment in my car on the 1-80 overpass felt like it lasted forever. And it did. It’s still happening.
The essay was also probably in many ways inspired by the craft of writers like Ben Miller, who creates impossibly long and ornate scenes that unfold from a single moment like those intricate pop-up books where an entire world blooms from the page; and Rebecca Solnit who crafts sentences that begin often in an image or idea and then expand exponentially, seemingly chaotically, like fractal patterns before collapsing back down in a satisfying exhale of breath and symmetry. It was probably also inspired by the exquisitely detailed meditations of Lia Purpura on a pin, a color, a word, or a walk. I suppose I was also trying to do what so many essays in Brevity are able to do — go big places in small spaces. And finally, the essay was inspired by love, or at least by the possibility of love in the wake of loss.