“There’s nothing dramatic about self-inflicted crisis.” I’ve been thinking a lot about this statement, written by PhD student and blogger Joseph Kugelmass, and how it relates to the genre of creative nonfiction, which I’ve been exploring lately. Some contemporary personal essays and memoirs that I’ve been reading possess a quality that annoys me deeply, but I’ve been having trouble articulating that quality and would like to try to explore it here.
Kugelmass was writing in response to Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, which I had been reading but couldn’t continue reading because, despite my best hopes, it possessed the quality that I’m going to try to articulate. I also had the same reaction to a personal essay titled “Odd Blood: Serodiscordancy, or, Life With an HIV-Positive Partner“, recently published by The Atlantic. And just to show you that I don’t simply hate the genre of creative nonfiction, I would like to demonstrate how essays like Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That” and Mark Doty’s “The Unwriteable” can tackle extremely personal subject matter without annoying the reader.
I first became a fan of Strayed’s work while she was writing under the pseudonym of “Sugar” in an advice column for The Rumpus. I was so excited to finally learn her real identity, which she revealed earlier this year, and even more excited to learn that her memoir, which describes many experiences alluded to in her column, was being published.
I purchased Wild despite reading the New York Times review, which was positive but not convincing. The reviewer himself admits, “There were very frightening moments, but nothing particularly extraordinary happened to her.” I decided the problem was simply that I was reading the excerpts out of context and that the summary could do it no justice. I purchased the book and read the first 50 pages quickly and voraciously, noting that I had read such a book before (the first 50 pages of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius are quite similar).
The way Strayed reacts to her mother’s death, which is the beginning of her own story, made me feel like I don’t love my own mother enough; she is so completely and utterly shattered by the death of her mother that she cheats on her husband, shoots heroin, and sells all her belongings to spend a summer backpacking on the Pacific Coast Trail. Placed in her situation, no doubt would I be profoundly sad, but would I go to any of these extremes? Of course, I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think I would behave so destructively. Does that mean I don’t care enough?
Of the decision to backpack, Strayed writes:
I would walk that line, I decided — or at least as much of it as I could in about a hundred days. I was living alone in a studio apartment in Minneapolis, separated from my husband, and working as a waitress, as low and mixed-up as I’d ever been in my life. Each day I felt as if I were looking up from the bottom of a deep well. But from that well, I set about becoming a solo wilderness trekker. And why not? I’d been so many things already. A loving wife and an adulteress. A beloved daughter who now spent holidays alone. An ambitious overachiever and aspiring writer who hopped from one meaningless job to the next while dabbling dangerously with drugs and sleeping with too many men.
What I hear in the narrator’s voice are self-pity, indifference, and a tiny bit of boastfulness. And why not? Why would the reader want to read about a completely purposeless journey? Where is the self reflection? Where is the hard work of growth? Where is the humor? Despite some of the action – sex, encounters with wild animals, bruised toes – , the memoir lacks drama because it relies on self-imposed conflict but doesn’t bring perspective to it. Writes Kugelmass:
I could wake up tomorrow, empty seven dollars in quarters into my pockets, and try to walk to Reno. It would be perilous. I could easily die. But it wouldn’t make a great story, and neither does Wild….Wild is the most self-aggrandizing tale of trauma that I’ve read in many years. Yes, it’s horrible to suffer abuse and poverty, but that does not explain or excuse every single unethical act an adult chooses to perform. People who think it does become abusers themselves. Has Strayed ever met a junkie or an adulterer who didn’t have a sob story? I certainly never have.
Kugelmass’ insight could teach a writer interested in crafting a personal essay or memoir how to write about personal experience in a way that doesn’t alienate the reader. In the midst of my thinking about this subject, I stumbled upon another piece of writing that inspired the same gut reaction I had while reading Wild.
I originally started reading John Fram’s “Odd Blood: Serodiscordancy, or, Life With an HIV-Positive Partner” because I was fascinated by the subject matter. However, like Strayed’s memoir, the essay made me feel like I’m incapable of loving another person. Would I stay with my partner if I found out he was HIV positive? I don’t know. I especially don’t know what I would do if I had only been with that person for less than a year, which is the case in the essay.
Connecting the observations I had about Wild with the observations I had about the HIV essay, I discovered that I’m wary of writers who write about personal experience in a way that pushes the reader away. While reading both essays, I felt like I wasn’t X enough, like I wasn’t human enough to know what these writers meant.
When the writer romanticizes experience, when he or she fails to put enough time and space between him/herself and the piece of writing, and when he or she isn’t ready to fully let it go, to make it not only personal but now universal, then the writer alienates the reader. The writer should have 1) purpose (why tell it now?), 2) perspective, and 3) a desire not just to tell the story but also the hope that the reader can learn something from it.
One of my favorite examples of an essay that’s extremely introspective yet not at all indulgent is called “The Unwriteable” by Mark Doty, originally published in the spring 2012 issue of Granta. I actually heard Doty read the essay at a bar in Manhattan before I had a chance to buy the copy and read it. Rarely does a piece of contemporary creative nonfiction make me feel like it took the author courage to write it, but I approached Doty after the reading and told him he was courageous.
He writes, “I have been a masked man – not for a long time now, but there was a period in my life, in my twenties, when I – how to say it? – lived in hiding, lived a double life, was sexually duplicitous? All problematic terms. I was married to a woman and having sex with a man.” Like Strayed, Doty explores adultery and , and like Fram, he includes the theme of homosexuality. On one hand, a reader could argue that Doty’s conflict, like Strayed’s and Fram’s, is self-inflicted. Still exploring and discovering his sexuality, Doty cheats on his wife. Why should we feel sorry for him?
We got drunk on Scotch, talked for hours in a state of increasing enrapturement, and made out in my car. ‘Made out’ is deceptively casual. I think it must have felt momentous to me: I must have felt I was doing something I was supposed to do. These statements are speculative because I feel, in some sense, I wasn’t there: I was giving myself up to a current, I wasn’t making a decision, I was being carried in the direction the world intended….
Naivite isn’t the best excuse, but how can we fault him for being so honest with us?
Another example of a deeply personal essay that still manages to engage the reader is Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That”. Didion writes about her experiences first moving to Manhattan in her twenties.
That first night I opened my window on the bus into town and watched for the skyline, but all I could see were the wastes of Queens and big signs that said MIDTOWN TUNNEL THIS LANE and then a flood of summer rain (even that seemed remarkable and exotic, for I had come out of the West where there was no summer rain), and for the next three days I sat wrapped in blankets in a hotel room air conditioned to 35 degrees and tried to get over a cold and a high fever. It did not occur to me to call a doctor, because I knew none, and although it did occur to me to call the desk and ask that the air conditioner be turned off, I never called, because I did not know how much to tip whoever might come—was anyone ever so young?
That last question, so simple, is a line I consider one of the most memorable of all that I have ever read. Her tone is self deprecating yet sympathetic at the same time. The reader can tell that the narrator is a woman who has done the hard work of growing, of finding perspective, of being able to look back at her former self with both awe and pity.
Many people have asked the question of Strayed’s memoir: why now? Why is she choosing to write about and publish her experiences on the Pacific Crest Trail now, 17 years later? I think a good personal essay or memoir doesn’t make the reader ask that question. The narrator’s reason for telling the story, no matter how far away he or she has moved from the triggering event, should be apparent.
In “The Unwriteable”, Doty answers that question directly. “Why write this now? Because Alex is dead, just this week, of cancer. My wife is years gone, and now him, and thus of the three of us I live to tell the untold tale, what I promised, at least tacitly, I wouldn’t say.”
Didion writes, “But most particularly I want to explain to you, and in the process perhaps to myself, why I no longer live in New York.”
And in writing this blog post, I was hoping to explain to myself and possibly to others why some pieces of creative nonfiction alienate the reader and why others, despite similar subject matter and a deeply introspective tone, engage us and invite us to reconsider our own lives because we are all fundamentally the same.
(Photo by trix0r)