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Writing The Personal Essay

Leslie Jamison's incredible new essay collection,The Empathy Exams, covers topics ranging from random violence to HBO'sGirls to abortion to bad romance to stereotypes, proving she can write about anything. Here, she tells us how she approaches personal nonfiction writing, as well as provides tips.

When people ask what kind of nonfiction I write, I say “all kinds,” but really I mean I don’t write any kind at all: I’m trying to dissolve the borders between memoir and journalism and criticism by weaving them together. I write about deeply personal experiences (getting hit in the face, getting an abortion) but I also write about reality television and Bolivian silver mines and the history of artificial sweeteners. I write in all these modes because I’m fascinated by the ways personal experience connects to larger histories, and because I want my writing to matter to the people who read it—people who are, by definition, not me. Which raises one of the crucial questions of autobiographical writing: How can the confession of personal experience create something that resonates beyond itself?

When I talk about writing essays that resonate beyond the personal, I don’t mean that personal material isn’t sufficient. Of course it is. Or, it can be. If you honor the complexity of your own life—if you grant us entry into moments that hold shame or hurt or heat, and if you’re willing to follow that heat, to feel out where all the small fires burn, then your readers will trust you. They’ll find flashes of themselves. “We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles,” Emerson wrote. “Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related.” I believe that personal experience is infinite, but I also believe in different kinds of infinity: as mathematician Georg Cantor proved in the 1800s, there are many different infinities—there’s an infinity between zero and one, and another one that counts everything beyond. Both ranges are endless, but they map different terrains.

I’m interested in essays that follow the infinitude of a private life toward the infinitude of public experience. I’m wary of seeking this resonance by extracting some easy moral from the grit and complication of personal particularity: love hurts, time heals, always look on the bright side. Instead, I’m drawn to essays that allow the messy threads of grief or incomprehension to remain ragged, to direct our gazes outward.

In “The White Album,” Joan Didion connects her own nervous breakdown to the cultural disorder around her: the arrest of Huey Newton, the unfolding of the Manson Murder trials, what she calls an “authentically senseless chain of correspondences.” She makes links but she refuses to flatten these links into an easy moral; she wants them to remain provocative but “senseless.” In “No Man’s Land,” Eula Biss positions a personal account of her own Chicago neighborhood inside several larger contexts: the history of the American frontier and the troubled racial politics of urban spaces. In “Upon This Rock,” John Jeremiah Sullivan confesses his own religious background partway through an ostensibly journalistic account of a Christian rock concert.

In my own essay, “The Empathy Exams,” I tell several personal stories—an abortion, a failed heart surgery—inside a broader inquiry into the terms of empathy itself: What does it consist of? Can it be taught? I write about my work as a medical actor—following diagnostic scripts—and I write about falling in love and drinking too much wine and crying on the phone, but I also write about a neuroscientist who is using fMRI scans to figure out which parts of our brains light up when we feel for other people. I quote scientific studies and an eighteenth century moral philosopher; I don’t offer them as intellectual accessories so much as I deploy them as tools: how can these other sources of light illuminate my own story better?

This is one of the central imperatives of combining personal material with history or criticism or reportage: each thread must do some work that isn’t being done by another; that can’t be done by another. Scientific studies show the magnetic signature of empathy; my own life shows the perpetual mess of how it plays out. Sometimes I imagine history and science and memory are puppets, and I’m pushing them onto the stage of inquiry and asking them to have a conversation—to share their knowledge, to argue with each other. It’s a lab experiment: what explosions are uniquely possible in combination?

The flipside of this experimental process isn’t just knowing what to include—being capacious, being brave—it’s knowing what to cut: which connections don’t work, or can’t hold. Once I’ve given myself the freedom to let personal experience throw its filaments everywhere, attach to everything, I need to be prepared for the fact that some combinations won’t work. I can’t fake connections; I know readers can smell it—the faint stink of forced correspondence.

This is the hard part of gathering broadly and summoning the whole world to be part of your story: you can bring everything home, but you can’t use it all at once. I have a purgatory file where I keep every shard I can’t bear to throw away; so that I can resurrect them from the dead if opportunity presents itself—if I see how these old shards can do the work I need them to.

I often think of the subject of an essay as something like a courtyard full of questions—questions about grief, or longing, or memory, or empathy. Writing means walking a furious labyrinthine path in order to peer at them from every possible direction. Every mode of inquiry—history, memoir, criticism—is a doorway that opens onto this courtyard from a different angle. Each glance offers some gift: the pages of a medical acting script, or the humming heart of an fMRI scanner; the grainy resolution of old photographs or the tiny time-machines of old text messages. You can gaze down on the past from the obstructed aerial view of retrospection, or you can gaze up from a hospital table, the folds of a paper gown crinkling underneath the goose bumps on your arms. That’s the thrill of pushing the personal essay beyond itself: the electricity created between erudition and flesh is something fierce. You can move from the rigors of scientific inquiry to the pale vulnerability of an IV piercing a vein. You can travel that distance in a sentence—if curiosity demands it, if the sentiment can hold it.

When you’re lying on a hospital gurney, it can feel like there is nothing else in the world—nothing but your fear, or your chill, or the promise of anesthesia, or the shadows of the surgeons who are about to cut you open. It can feel that way—and that feeling is a truth, but what it believes isn’t true at all: because you’re not the only thing in the world—the only person who has ever hurt, the only person who has ever worn a paper gown. In truth, there is a whole world beyond you, in that moment and always—a whole world of other hurting bodies, of surgeons and their training; there’s a whole world of hearts, heart anatomies and heart myths, hearts transplanted and broken. There is so much outside the false cloister of private experience; and when you write, you do the work of connecting that terrible privacy to everything beyond it.

Ironically, as a reader, I never used to be a fan of anthologies or personal essay collections. As a teacher, I did love showing students how to write personal essays or short memoir pieces. As an English teacher and a writing instructor, it often felt miraculous to me how a mediocre piece could be transformed in just a few short weeks through revision, how a piece could evolve from bland and cliched to raw, powerful, and beautiful. But I never liked reading short pieces in my leisure time.

It wasn't until I started writing as a blogger and freelance writer that I started to appreciate collections of personal essays as a genre. I love seeing writers that I "know" online take different perspectives and approach topics with unique styles. As a parent, reading about other mothers' experiences from so many different angles has helped me gain insight into myself as a mother.

I've been thinking a lot about personal essays from three different perspectives: as a reader, as a writer, and now as an editor. I've been trying my hand at publishing my own pieces, and I know that it's hard (really hard) to write a great personal essay.

After our call for submissions for My Other Ex: Women's True Stories of Leaving and Losing Friends, to be published in September, I also spent months reading essays with an editor's eye, trying to decide which pieces to accept and which to pass on. And that was just as hard.

And it occurred to me as a beginning editor that we editors are not often transparent about what we are looking for. I'm lucky in the sense that I taught writing and developed writing curricula for well over a decade, and all of the best practices (and unwritten rules) of memoir and essay writing are (somewhat) fresh in my mind. But most of us writers haven't taken an English class in quite a while. And we aren't recent MFA graduates either.

So here's what I think -- as a teacher, writer, editor, and reader -- about the ingredients of a great personal essay, one that is carefully crafted to draw in a reader, make her care about a topic, and keep reading.

1. Use what you know about good fiction and storytelling. You should develop characters, settings, and plot (a sequence of events) into a story. Use sensory details and vivid description to create separate, carefully chosen scenes.

2. Combine the personal and the universal. This is your story, your life, your emotions but your writing should also express and reveal a larger meaning, a theme, a deeper truth, beyond the surface details of plot and character.

3. Find your voice. More importantly, find your unique voice that is best for each piece, or different moments of the same piece. As Kate Hopper, in the invaluable Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers, explains, voice is:

"the feel, language, tone, and syntax that makes a writer's writing unique. In nonfiction, voice is you, but not necessarily the you sitting in front of the computer typing away. Voice can be molded by a writer to serve the subject about which she is writing."

It might take a while to find the best voice for a piece. Is the right voice ironic, funny, anxious, playful, breathless, or solemn? We all have multiple identities and show different parts of ourselves at different times. Use that versatility in your writing.

4. Alternate focusing in and focusing out. Choose specific and compelling moments, memories, and feelings, and hone in on them, using those particular moments to help to convey theme and purpose. Pretend you are using a video camera to focus in and out, slowing down the action, like a cinematographer, very purposefully to guide the reader toward what's important in the piece.

5. Be specific, not general. This is what I called "The Rule of the Pebble" to my students (thanks to Nancie Atwell, my writing teacher guru). It basically means don't write about a general topic or idea; write about one particular person, place, time, object, or experience. In other words, don't try to write about all pebbles everywhere (or "love" or "friendship" or "football" or "sunsets"). Write about this one particular pebble (or the friend that broke your heart freshman year, or the sunset that you saw last night, or memory, or place), its meaning to you, the concrete details that shape how you think about it.

6. Experiment and play. Try out different literary devices and techniques, such as similes, personification, and metaphors. Or experiment with using different sentence lengths strategically. Use repetition, of words, of lines, of phrases. Play with imagery. Many of these devices should only be used sparingly, but, used effectively, they can add surprises and richness to your writing.

7. Learn the difference between revision and editing. You must do both. It's easy as a writer to focus on spelling errors and sentence structure, rather than making big (painful) changes to our writing. Revision means "to look again." You do things like: make sure that your theme and purpose for writing are clear; try out different leads (ways to begin the piece); rethink your conclusion; change the organization.

In editing, a separate stage, we do things like catch run-on sentences, fix errors in punctuation or spelling, or replace overused words and expressions.

8. Read, read, read, and read some more. What all writers have in common, as far as I know, is that they're constantly reading. They pay attention to their favorite writer's craft and style and try them out in their own writing. They internalize the beauty and the utility of the perfect word, the perfect sentence, and the perfect metaphor.

What are your favorite personal essays? Whose writing do you turn to as models for your own writing?

To learn more about The HerStories Project and its next essay collection about friendship breakups, My Other Ex: Women's True Stories of Leaving and Losing Friends, visit the HerStories website.

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