This essay, adapted for TriQuarterly Online, was originally presented at "Status Update: The Personal Essay in the Age of Facebook," a panel discussion at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference on February 3rd, 2011. It was hosted and moderated by Jen McClanaghan, resident scholar at The Southern Review. A podcast of the entire panel is available here.
My mother inherited a musquash coat that has, in the natural progression of such familial flotsam, now taken up residence in the back of my hall closet, where it skulks like a stunted, sullen yeti. I’d forgotten all about it until, while struggling to find a conduit into an essay about my literary relationship with the Scottish author Muriel Spark, I read Spark’s remark in her own memoir that her own mother (who was English) had tended toward flashier winter coats like fox or mink, not the serviceable musquash acceptable to conservative middle-class Edinburgh. Suddenly one of those veins of connection that allow essays to breathe, an artery if you will, opened between us. I was flooded with memory of concrete specificity, thrumming with possibility and metaphor: the coat’s shoulder-buckling weight, its pungent animal odor, its furs variegated from back to belly—tawny through umber—forming those multiple seamed pelts, scars from that multiple slaughter. I’d discovered the meat and bone (or skin), or should I say the very madeleine from which personal essay is formed. The film editor Walter Murch once said about the contents of the cinema frame, “You try to get things to where there’s substance to them. When you hit them, they hit back. At the same time there must be clarity . . . a clear density.” I’d experienced through this fusty old coat what Sven Birkerts calls an “involuntary memory,” a wellspring for story if given articulate reflection, and more specifically, a context—context being the soil from which meaning grows. And when I rescued that neglected old coat and tried it on, it weighed only 5 lbs 3 oz. The last time I’d worn it I’d been a mere three or four years old. This is one, but perhaps not the only, reason it had lain so heavy in my memory.
Context is dependent on time, and time must pass for our lives to accumulate meaning. New media like Facebook and Twitter are interested primarily in the now; these function in the present tense. And sometimes prose constructed in the first-person present tense can demand too much patience from the reader over the long haul; we are forced to live too long in close-up. (Murch once remarked that any movie running over two hours from a single point of view was living on borrowed time . . .) History cannot be accommodated within the present tense—yet our lives are accumulated history and gather meaning through comparisons with what came before. A status update to let everyone know that one is now named Georgina is of interest only if everyone already knew one was originally baptized George. And again, George and Georgina are simply two points on a linear chronology—they are in and of themselves mere facts, and facts are not always synonymous with truth and rarely revelatory taken in isolation; it is in the space, the void between these two points, between abandoning George and becoming Georgina, that story lies. As Birkerts said, “Memoir begins not with events but with the intuition of meaning—(knowing) life can sometimes step away from the chaos of contingency and become story.” This ability to cut between two or more moments, between what Birkerts terms “the now and the then,” elevates the personal essay above the new formats due to their intrinsic transience. Articulate reflection tends to turn the personal into the universal; therefore Facebook appears to be all about me, while personal essays (the good ones) are all about us. “Two time perspectives,” writes Birkerts, “. . . are essential for the four-dimensional interrogation favored by the genre. The moment of the past is positioned here in both its original setting and in the relativistic continuum, as one factor among many in an equation still being solved—as a chess piece (to be Nabokovian) in play in a game yet undecided.”
A discussion of chronology leads directly to the role of editing. The skills that make great films are not dissimilar to those that make great prose—an awareness of both the physical and the emotional distances between the viewer (reader) and any given object or event, together with an ability to manipulate time. You need to be able to edit, to take away or juxtapose material, to get to the essence of an experience. It’s difficult to get to the essence of anything when one begins with 140 characters or less—only the really gifted and poetic among us can distill life into haiku. And I’m not suggesting we all publish essays of Franzenian proportions, but we may need to fumble around inside big, baggy early drafts in order to discover what it is we didn’t know we knew—like those fancy French chefs who simmer a lot of stock with a lot of herbs for a helluva long time before ending up with one of those fabulous two-teaspoon reductions. In other words, you need to shoot a lot of film if you want to end up with a meaningful story, and meaningful stories are rarely chronological in structure. It is in the juxtaposition of images, in the art of montage, that metaphor resides. When my husband asked me what I’d learned after he’d supported me through graduate school, I told him that I’d learned that a story has a beginning and a middle and an end—but not necessarily in that order. (I’m not sure he felt he’d got his money’s worth.) As the editor Walter Murch says in his conversations with Michael Ondaatje: “The images themselves are not sufficient. They’re very important, but they’re only images. What’s essential is the duration of each image and that which follows each image: the whole eloquence of cinema is that it’s achieved in the editing room.” I would argue, too, that the whole eloquence of all forms of prose is achieved in the editing room.
Horace Walpole wrote in the late eighteenth century, “I’ve often said, and oftener think, that this world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.” Perhaps if we thought a little more before we posted to our Facebook page, we would all find it funnier—too often there is little wit in it. And I mean wit in the fullest sense: an abundance of intelligence, humor, and irony. For wit to take root requires distance; it requires sentiment, yes, but not sentimentality. Just as in the laws of shooting comedy, things are often funnier in wide frame or long shot. Often our feelings blind us if we react too close to an event—real-time sensationalism may make addictive TV, but it’s rarely revelatory. Postings online may not “hold” long enough, or the camera may not “pull back” far enough, for the reader to see and appreciate the irony.
Furthermore, “we need to know to whom the thing happened,” as Virginia Woolf said about memoir. Not to be known the way I’m known through my Facebook page, because that is a two-dimensional manufactured self, but to be known as a flawed self, and I feel more intensely myself in the personal essay due to the responsibility I have to the reader to be ruthlessly, painfully honest. The personal essay illustrates what Philip Lopate has termed “the changeableness and plasticity of the materials of human personality.” Therein lies irony, therein lies comedy, and therein, heaven help us, lies room for maturity, or for those most unfashionable of traits, regret and atonement. And I guess I can forgive a writer anything except the lack of a sense of humor and an awareness of self-contradiction. We are in danger of believing ourselves to be important when using instant social media, in danger of being seduced by our own marketing and mythology. The personal essay reminds us, perhaps ruefully, how small we really are, and how large the landscape.
Sven Birkerts, The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again
Michael Ondaatje, The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film
Philip Lopate, ed., The Art of the Personal Essay