SO today, around 10am My Personal Essay online workshop starts. Last night at around 1 am, I wrote a little "lecture" on the history and definition of Personal Essay that is posted as part of today's class.
One am? Well, I wasn't sure I wanted to do it this way -- I usually get into the pool slowly in this class starting with journals and moving to essays, and then I decided to start right off with essays -- and then I had a few false starts. I reread it just now and it's remarkably coherent -- and honestly I'm starting to wonder if little House Brownies wrote it while I slept on the keys last night.
I've never posted a lecture from a current class before, but I thought enough people wonder how these things work, or if you could get a "true Hildie" experience online -- and I thought maybe this would answer those questions.
So without further adieu,
So much of what I am about to say, I learned from the Introduction to Phillip Lopate's bookstop of a book The Art of Personal Essay. I've loved this book for a long long time (the pages are falling out of my copy) and used it for courses since the late 90s.
Personal Essay dates back to the Greeks, Plato and Friends. During this time it was defined that all ESSAY fell into two categories -- The FORMAL and the INFORMAL.
A FORMAL ESSAY was one that followed a specific plan and used rules of logic, like the ones you might learn in a logic course that has a lot of p's and q's in it. A scientific experiment, a math proof, an academic paper. A formal essay on a topic, with a thesis or hypothesis, a methodology and a conclusion. It's serious, long and has "dignity."
You know, an essay.
The INFORMAL essay does not follow those rules and as we all learned around the age of 12, was an essay where you could use "I." It can ramble. Use humor. Be self-revelatory.
But there is more than that. In the 1500s, Frenchman Michel de Montaigne more formally defined that Informal or Personal Essay, as a conversation within ones head, where one struggles with a moral issue, discussing it and hashing it out in search of an answer. Enter terms like Multiplicity, Duality of Nature, and "entering a dispute with onesself."
This gets us closer to what we know today as a Personal Essay.
And you are saying, "What about David Sedaris?" He doesn't seem to struggle with moral dilemma. He writes personal essays. He's funny! Have you heard the one where he's a department store elf at Christmas! (here's the link for those uninitiated . . . . http://www.npr.org/templates/story/stor
Yes, yes, yes. I'm getting there. Be patient.
At the same time -- you enter a contract with your reader -- you "take off your mask" or reveal certain things -- embarrassing, surprising things. You gain that readers confidence in your confessions through this conversational manner (sounding more like Sedaris?).
This "honesty" then, paves the way for an exploration of a situation or topic. By being so honest, admitting even that the writer is capable of some evils -- being lazy, insensitive, jealous etc, by a behavior they are not proud of -- it allows the reader to then understand them with sympathy -- and to feel their plight as they work through a moral dilemma or surviving an affront without the appropriate reaction.
The goal then being two fold in my mind (I diverge from Lopate and his colleagues at this point and head off on my own trajectory) --
*"Writers" by my own definition, write to put the "externalia" into perspective, to understand that which life has thrown their way.
*Personal essay then serves as one of the best ways for a "Writer" to write -- to get down that which is stuck in his or her literary "craw" and to write through the scene of the crime and struggle through words to put it into a manageable, mold-able perspective.
AND YET -- perhaps one of the most important things to remember about Personal Essay is then, that it follows one basic rule that fiction follow as well -- the main character (in this case THE NARRATOR, aka YOU or THE WRITER) must change from the beginning of the essay to the end. The PROCESS of working through the event, the issue, the morality, or just seeing an event from childhood through adult eyes for the first time -- it must have the effect of CHANGING the narrator, so that s/he does NOT DOES NOT DOES NOT have the same world view at the end, as s/he did at the beginning, but has grown or had a subtle internal shift. Sees the world through glasses of a different tint. A new lens.
(well, it's a beginning).
PS if you want to join the class, I believe there are 3 seats left. Contact the good folk at www.writer.org --- also there are seats left in my STRUCTURE YOUR BOOK TOMORROW, April 9, 9:30-1:30 in Arlington.