If you’ve ever taught or learned in a creative nonfiction workshop, you’ve probably read the introduction to Philip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay. Since the essay club is the only one I belong to, it’s hard for me to find an apt comparison, but I imagine it’s like getting a white belt on the first day of karate class or a money clip when you join the mafia. You’re initiated, welcomed into a new language, and there’s preliminary documentation to prove it.
Lopate’s is an amazing introduction. It’s comprehensive and didactic in just the right way. He sets his parameters and tells us how he wants us to read; no ambiguity, no show. But in every classroom I’ve ever been in, the conversation has quickly breezed past most of the essay’s thorough thirty pages, and has centered around one page, one line even: “While young people excel at lyrical poetry and mathematics, it is hard to think of anyone who made a mark on the personal essay form in his or her youth.” Invariably, someone reads this out loud. Usually the two or three oldest students in the class sneak glances at each other; some are even bold enough to smile. Then everyone else gets really pissed off. They feel the righteous anger of being young, in a classroom with mostly young peers, fresh off a White Album reading, giddy to start in a genre that in turn says, Come back in a couple of decades.
Lopate makes an argument that many others echo: an essay, at its core, is about reflection and learning. “It is difficult to write analytically from the middle of confusion,” he advises us. So the essayist needs to have lived (read: earned) a memory worth analyzing, and must have had the time to sit back, change, and inspect the event with as much attempted objectivity as possible. It’s about trust, I think. We want a reliable nonfiction narrator and reliability is developed through remove. This basic belief results in a sort of reverse ageism that seems to only afflict the essay genre. After all, precociousness is advertised in fiction writers. We like to quantify it exactly. How many “____ Under _____” lists are there for novelists and story writers? A young narrator — immature, impatient, imperfect — excites us in fiction. But when that narrator bares its author’s name, the expectations shift.
I freely admit that I’m oversensitive to the issue. I’m twenty-seven and I write essays and that sense of illegitimacy, of narratorial un-ripeness, is a tension that I’ve never not felt. As a student, in workshops, I remember realizing that all of our critiques started to sound like nervous retreads of the same basic questions — I mean, not to devalue their experience or anything, but has the author lived enough to have a life to write about? Could the author, maybe, perhaps, no disrespect intended, benefit from a little distance from their feelings?
These are, of course, valid questions, but in their onslaught they can become unproductive. They start to push us away from investigation and into poseurism. How many of us spent (or are spending) much of our twenties writing with a narrative voice that is tired and beaten down and aged beyond anything we’ve ever experienced? We attach our names to a two-packs-a-day truck-stop troubadors who have already lived and died and lived again, as though if we imply a weight of experience, imply a greater distance between our character and our current narrator, we become unassailable. Instead of writing into the discomfort of a narrator mid-struggle, confused, we create false safety. That’s how last year becomes a weary “once.” How grad school, becomes “my years in a run-down apartment at the edge of a small Midwestern town where whiskey was cheap and nights were long.”
The implication by omission here is that a self-involved, artsy twenty-something isn’t the person we want bringing us an essay, even if that’s who the writer is. What I want to argue, though, is that many of the essay narrators that grip us in the fiercest ways are ones that do so from a place of hubristic confusion, an uneasy balance of both reflection and discovery that typifies a twenty-something psyche. Often, we find that perspective in works that are not exactly personal essays, but instead blend reportage and memoir. It’s a semi-genre that grows out of a young writer’s unabashed fear that maybe his or her own experiences aren’t yet enough. So part of the personal reflection becomes that quest for information, experience, inspiration. Curiosity begins to coax out memories that are still forming as they’re being written down. We’ve all seen and celebrated this type of narrator, using phrases like genre-defying and groundbreaking. But I think it’s simpler than that. I think we secretly love an essayist who writes young.
Let’s look at John Jeremiah Sullivan’s much-lauded collection, Pulphead. The essays in the collection move through his writing life, ending with his musings from a big house, wife and kids by his side. But the book’s best essay is the opener, “Upon This Rock,” written when Sullivan was twenty-nine years old and carrying the full emotive jumble of that perspective. In it, he sets off to write about a Christian music festival, then lets his own not-too-distant memories push through the story. He is a reporter un-detached, transporting us back and forth between his subjects enraptured by their belief and his own experiences as a born-again high schooler. It’s great stuff, funny yet somehow not utterly disrespectful. I think its true power, what makes it transcend to become greater than the sum of its one-liners, is that Sullivan is still not sure how to understand his own belief. His high school memories very consciously don’t feel ancient. They feel a part of a conversation still happening within him. He describes leaving evangelism like this:
My problem is not that that I dream I’m in hell or that Mole is at the window. It isn’t that I feel psychologically harmed. It isn’t even that I feel like a sucker for having bought it all. It’s that I love Jesus Christ.
“The latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose.”
He was the most beautiful dude.
Sullivan is analyzing here, yes, but he is also living with some of the same psyche that he’s trying to understand in his former self. And while his narrator is the educated ex-believer, he’s also goofy and sincere and maybe a bit stoned. It’s a sensibility that allows him to mingle with his young subjects in a role somewhere between observer and participant, skeptic and co-conspirator. He begins to follow around a bunch of rough-and-tumble West Virginian believers. They take him in, he appreciates it, and just that easy proximity signals to the reader that, as much as there’s reportage happening here, a personal essay is also being written in the moment, memories that will mix with and talk to his high school self are being created as he writes them down. It’s a frantic process that leads us to a gorgeous ending, more deeply, personally felt than any reader could have imagined when beginning the essay. Sullivan is among the believers on the last night of the festival, unsure of what to feel. He writes:
The clouds had moved off — the bright stars were out again. There were fireflies in the trees all over and spread before me, far below, was a carpet of burning candles, tiny flames, many ten thousands. I was suspended in a black sphere full of flickering light.
Sure I thought about Nuremberg. But mostly I thought of Darius, Jake, Josh, Bub, Ritter, and Pee Wee, whom I doubted I’d ever see again, whom I’d come to love, and who loved God — for it’s true, I would have said it even if Darius hadn’t asked me to, it may be the truest thing I will have written here: they were crazy, and they loved God — and I thought about the unimpeachable dignity of that, which I was never capable of. Knowing it isn’t true doesn’t mean you would be strong enough to believe if it were.
Here, Sullivan is caught between reflection, speculation, reality. He is analyzing from the midst of turmoil that may never end. And the excitement that I feel when I read and reread his final paragraphs comes from that particularly twenty-something sense of unknowing. No, that’s not quite it. Sullivan knows enough, remembers enough, to support his investment, but also feels no safe remove from the material, complicates it with each new moment, wondering what will, what can, what has to come next. Even when he’s looking back, every wound is still raw.
Wound provides a nice transition to Sullivan’s heir apparent, Leslie Jamison, and her beautiful collection, The Empathy Exams. Like Sullivan, Jamison is both chronicler and subject, a personal essayist who looks for stories to bounce her own experiences off or a reporter who can’t keep her own memories out of the research, depending on how you look at it. Every essay in the collection is about hurt: hers, others’, the personal kind, the global kind. The final essay, and maybe the best, is called, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” It’s a hugely ambitious piece, a study of the long, flawed history of how we present and interpret female suffering, yet through all the cultural context we’re still left with what is fundamentally a piece of memoir. Jamison is trying to understand her own relationship to pain — what she has felt, what she feels, what she will feel, and what all that feeling means. Early on in the piece she establishes her narrator:
I was once called a wound-dweller. It was a boyfriend who called me that. I didn’t like that. It was a few years ago and I’m still not over it. (It was a wound; I dwell). I wrote to a friend:
I’ve got this double-edged shame and indignation about my bodily ills and ailments — jaw, punched nose, fast heart, broken foot, etc., etc., etc. On the one hand, I’m like, Why does this shit happen to me? And on the other hand, I’m like, Why the fuck am I talking about this so much?
Jamison is by no means naive. In fact, she’s brilliant. She’s well read and unafraid to be so. She careens through references both highbrow and lowbrow, from Carrie and Girls to Plath and Sontag and Carson. She takes on the critic’s “we” and examines our whole society’s gendered relationship with pain. But all of that intellect is framed within a perspective that is often confused, sometimes downright maudlin, ashamed of itself and then simultaneously not.
Like Sullivan, Jamison has memories to plumb, but she still feels them as though she’s experiencing them over again, and instead of steady reflection we get a writer dancing on the verge of a great unknown. Jamison is not the wise, calm examiner of the female psyche or, rather, she’s not only that. She’s also the subject who shares with us that, not long ago, she wrote a letter that included the phrase, “Why does this shit happen to me?” She is writing about pain in the middle of pain. This perspective leads us to an ending that feels much more like a beginning, or at least a continuation. “Sometimes, I feel like I’m beating a dead wound,” she writes. “But I say: keep bleeding…I think the charges of cliché and performance offer our closed hearts too many alibis, and I want our hearts to be open. I just wrote that. I want our hearts to be open. I mean it.”
I don’t mean to use the power of Jamison’s writing to suggest that true essayistic greatness only happens somewhere between twenty-three and thirty (though my fingers are resolutely crossed). Nor do I mean to suggest that one can only write about memory like these writers do if they don’t wait too long. I’m not after a reverse Lopate dictum here. But I do think that immaturity, or at least the process of maturing, is a potentially riveting, truly essayistic place to write from. After all, what is young adulthood but a hybrid time of life, pushing toward and failing to live up to a set of expectations? The very same can be said about the essay form. When we embrace that tension, instead fleeing from it, real, valuable work is done. We get writers not only analyzing what has ended, but also sorting out how to begin.
Lucas Mann is the author of the book, Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere. A graduate of the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program, he now teaches at the University of Massachusetts - Dartmouth, and lives in Providence, RI. He and Kristen Radtke are at work on an anthology of essays from the twenty-something perspective. This piece grew out of their gchat conversations.