Monday, October 28, 2013

Proving Personal Writing Still Matters

Cheryl Strayed, editor, The Best American Essays 2013

In reading this year’s edition of the Best American Essays, the format struck me before the content. Most years’ editions sequence the essays alphabetically by authors’ last names. Not so this year, where editor Cheryl Strayed organizes twenty-six essays in a manner somehow differently. The thematic structure doesn’t present itself obviously until readers penetrate well into her sequence. Even afterward, her subtleties aren’t necessarily obvious.

The word “essay” has been cheapened by generations of schoolteachers who, lacking any other term for the five-paragraph monotonies students write to prove they’ve done the reading, yclept them “essays.” But this does the idea no justice. This series returns essays to the meaning they had when Montaigne pioneered the form, calling them the French for “attempts.” As in, let’s try this shit and see what happens.

And boy, oh boy, does something happen. Strayed compiles some well-known authors, including Charles Baxter, Zadie Smith, and Nobel Prize-winner Alice Munro, but she mostly shares less famous writers who, by turning hard, unblinking eyes on their own lives, manage to recount stories that exceed their authors. These writers prove George Bernard Shaw’s adage that only the intimately personal ever becomes truly universal.

Some essays address larger topics. Walter Kirn’s “Confessions of an Ex-Mormon” answers media stereotypes about Mitt Romney’s religion by recounting Kirn’s brief flirtation with Mormonism, and how it continues to save his life. Angela Morales’ “The Girls in My Town” gently laments how economic realities create two classes in America’s wealthiest state. Jon Kerstetter’s “Triage” reveals what happens in the moment combat surgeons choose to let a GI die.

Others remain more insular, unpacking something specific to the author. Tod Goldberg’s “When They Let Them Bleed” correlates “Boom Boom” Mancini’s most famous fight with his own obese, self-mortifying youth. Richard Schmitt’s “Sometimes a Romantic Notion” debunks the melodrama behind joining the circus. Steven Harvey’s “The Book of Knowledge” reveals what he discovered when he reread his late mother’s letters, discovering a disquieting stranger in his house.

Strayed also includes the most chilling essays I’ve ever seen in this series, Vanessa Veselka’s “Highway of Lost Girls” and Matthew Vollmer’s “Keeper of the Flame.” These two invade readers’ consciousness with such incisive power that I dare say nothing more about them. However, Strayed places them very early in the collection, leaving readers’ nerves frayed and jangling, prepared for the profound nuances of everything that comes after.

Early essays start big, addressing the authors’ personal weight in major issues. There’s a great deal of objective fact: the 1987 Black Monday stock collapse, Mitt Romney, a schoolboy’s death in a Dallas trash dumpster. These stories have a place not only in the authors’ worlds, but in ours, and their stories impinge upon us readers as concretely as the nightly news. We respond because we recognize ourselves.

As the collection progresses, however, essays become increasingly personal. Authors start omitting details like dates, geographical addresses, and sometimes even names. The language becomes transient, narratives grow non-linear, and the essays come to resemble poetry for our aggressively non-poetic age. By inviting us into their lives, rather than visiting ours, the authors make themselves vulnerable, and we find ourselves wanting to trust them.

I’ve used prior editions of this series as Freshman Comp texts, and would cheerfully use this edition too. Strayed’s selections don’t merely showcase diverse, challenging topics—from cancer and postpartum depression and grief, to love and family and music. She also chooses authors who convey their topics well, with professional attention to well-chosen words and phrases that convey beyond their literal meaning. I can pay no higher compliment than to say this collection makes me want to try something new as a writer.

Unfortunately, as more states move to adopt Common Core educational standards, many parents don’t realize the standards explicitly discourage personal writing. Though Common Core explicitly encourages nonfiction reading, that doesn’t include essays like those in this collection. David Coleman, who co-wrote Common Core, has said: “As you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think.”

Yet this series’ continued success, and the caliber of writing in this collection, prove the lie in that statement. Personal writing matters because humans are empathetic beings; by sharing others’ thoughts and feelings, we think and feel more deeply ourselves. As the dwindling magazine industry dries up venues for innovative, risk-taking essays, philistines like David Coleman threaten to overtake our discourse. Editors like Cheryl Strayed stand fast against them.

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