“In the final analysis, the personal essay represents a mode of being,” Phillip Lopate writes in his introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay. “It points a way for the self to function with relative freedom in an uncertain world. Skeptical yet gyroscopically poised, undeceived but finally tolerant of flaws and inconsistencies, this mode of being suits the modern existential situation.”
The Art of the Personal Essay is the genre’s definitive anthology, the weighty tome that furnishes all serious nonfiction students with something resembling bicep definition by the end of a semester spent wrestling with the sinuous compositions of Plutarch and Montaigne, Ou-yang Hsiu and Hazlitt, Turgenev, and Dillard. The scope that Lopate gives the personal essay is generous and radical. His selections situate the genre in a clear historical lineage, as part of a global continuum with roots in both Western and Eastern antiquities; his preface articulates a system of values for the mode that uniquely positions it in relation to our current moment.
Lopate’s claim, made in 1994, that “the personal essay’s suitability for experimental method and self-reflective process, its tolerance for the fragmentary and irresolution, make it uniquely appropriate to the present era,” rings even truer now, at a juncture that feels orders of magnitude more atomized and uncertain. In some respects, the personal essay is aligned, formally speaking, with the moment—fragmented, knotted, digressive, undigested, promiscuous. In many others, the personal essayist writes against not only herself but the zeitgeist, too. The personal essay’s most identifiable hallmarks are inevitable sources of friction with the contemporary world: the elaborative instinct runs up against the atrophied attention span; the curiosity of the generalist against the specialization of the technocrat; the friendly and conversational spirit against the sermonizing knee-jerk of the tribe; contrariety against conformity; self-deprecation against self-promotion and self-righteousness; the dilation of the moment against its reduction to a single, airbrushed image.
In tone and temperament, the personal essay is an especially democratic form. For the personal essayist, Lopate suggests, citing William Zeiger on Montaigne, “Refutation represent[s] not a personal defeat but an advance toward truth as valuable as confirmation.” Someone equipped with the constellation of attitudes that define the personal essay—vulnerability and modesty, uncompromising candor and intellectual rigor, all filtered by an even-keeled good nature—would approximate the ideal democratic persona.
As an eminent anthologist, teacher, and practitioner of the form, Lopate himself embodies these qualities. His essay “Against Joie de Vivre” was selected by Robert Atwan, founder of the Best American Essays series, as one of the ten best of the postwar period, alongside such heavyweights as James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, and Norman Mailer. His most recent works include Portrait Inside My Head—a wide-ranging embrace of the miscellaneous, spanning memoir and architecture, drama, and literary criticism—To Show and to Tell—a book of pedagogy—and A Mother’s Tale—a book-length treatment of an old, recorded interview with Lopate’s mother.
Chair of the nonfiction program at Columbia University, Lopate writes in To Show and to Tell, "I consider myself to be as much a teacher as a writer . . . Many of my fellow writers treat teaching as a lower calling; they only do it to pay the rent, or until such time as they can support themselves entirely from royalties and advances. For my part, I think I would continue to teach even if I were to win the lottery." Beyond his seminal contributions to the discourse and practice of the personal essay, he is also the author of three poetry collections and several novels. The recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship and two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, Lopate has an anthology of the American essay forthcoming from Pantheon.
He was gracious enough to spend an hour on the phone with me discussing nonfiction pedagogy, the nature of wit, the relationship between consciousness and style, and the calibration of the spirit so vital to personal essay writing.
In To Show and to Tell, you emphasize the importance for the young personal essayist of studying certain exemplary models of the form. Baldwin is a model of “unsentimental ambivalence,” Emerson one of “[overcoming] anxiety and despair and [staying] on an even keel.” What do you think Phillip Lopate’s essays model?
Two things that I strive for, certainly, are humor and honesty. If I can find humor through irony or self-mockery, I’m going to seize it, because I do think in a funny way that the comic is the truthful. As far as honesty is concerned, I don’t think we’re pure beings. We’re always going to be tainted by some rationalization or defensiveness, but we can at least strive for honesty and try to think against ourselves. I would hope that candor, frankness, honesty would be something that people would look for in my essays.
“We ought to be training young people not just to assert a claim or use bigger words,” you write, “but to think against themselves, which may necessitate the abandoning of an original argument or thread for a fruitful digression or self-contradictory ambivalence.” How much harm do you think is done by the predominant models of the essay taught in primary and secondary school—the five-paragraph essay, the SAT essay, the college essay—none of which seem to accommodate that kind of comic effect or candor?
It teaches you to be a salesman for a certain position. When my daughter was in high school, she was asked to write an essay about something, and she took both sides of the question and was penalized for it. You’re not allowed to be ambivalent. I think to some degree the way the essay is taught, it’s meant to be a lawyerly brief rather than an examination of consciousness. I think that’s true for the Common Application essay as well, where students applying for college end up doing a lot of discrete bragging.
How do you teach your students to think against themselves?
Partly it has to do with the students’ age. Youth is a time of great uncertainty where there’s this tendency to be self-righteous and moralistic. My middle-aged students have a much easier time realizing the complexity of things, whereas my younger students are often reaching for a simple answer. I try to combat that in several ways. First, by exposing the students to the history of the essay so that they can get out from under the mores of 2018 and develop an appreciation for the pleasure of this kind of playfulness, where you’re not just sermonizing. I also encourage them in their own writing to think more antisocially, shall we say. I want them to pay attention to what they’re actually thinking and feeling, not what they think their peer group should tell them to think. If they experience a blip of uncertainty or doubt, to bring that to the surface instead of just coming out with the contemporary pieties, whatever they may be. Self-righteousness is really the common enemy of nonfiction. For instance, you might get a young person who is inclined to blame his or her mother for everything that’s gone wrong in his or her life. I try to get them to question their own demonizing of their parents and to acknowledge their own complicity in the mischief that’s arisen. Awareness of one’s complicity makes one a more reliable witness, a more credible narrator. We can more readily trust somebody who admits their flaws.
Self-disgust seems as much the “common enemy of nonfiction” for you as self-righteousness. How do you calibrate yourself to be self-deprecating without being self-loathing, self-assured without being self-righteous? That quality of the spirit reminds me of the passage you quote from Emerson on moderation: “Very hard is it to keep the middle point. It is a very narrow line . . . Between narrow walls we walk—insanity on one side, and fat dullness on the other.”
I’m advocating self-curiosity and self-amusement, not to be horrified by oneself but to say, Well, that’s curious, I seem to be making the same dumb mistake over and over again, and to accept the reality that sometimes our intellectual positions are misaligned with our behaviors. Literature, in general, helps us to see the complexity and fallibility of the human animal and to become more tolerant of impurity.
You say in To Show and to Tell that what most stands in the way of personal essay writing is not technique but psychology.
Psychology, yes, but in a way the two go hand-in-hand. When you come across a weak passage in a piece, usually you will find that it’s a combination of technique and psychology that’s at fault.
So technical sophistication, for you, is something that follows from psychological maturity?
Some technical ability does come from a certain psychological maturity. Sometimes I’m forced to tell writing students coming directly to graduate school from college that their sentences are good, but they’re just going to have to grow up a little more. That can’t be hurried, though you can kind of bluff more maturity than you have. In some cases, as with Baldwin and Didion, who at quite a young age pretended to be more worldly-wise and disenchanted, it can be learned, it can be a manner that you put on. Just as you can understand that the display of compassion suggests wisdom, that compassion can be a solution in literature, without actually quite feeling it in your daily life.
How would you advise a young writer to navigate that problem of authority? How does one bluff that kind of persona while still maintaining an essayistic voice that feels authentic?
The first thing you have to do is read a lot and at a high level. Your brain will be reconfigured even against your will. You learn variable syntax, what a reasonable tone sounds like, as opposed to a shrill or ranting one. You learn when it’s good to rant, even. Saturation reading is clearly to be recommended. And then, second of all, you have to have the modesty of immodesty. By which I mean that instead of thinking you are not worth listening to, you have to say, Who am I to be not worth listening to? Who am I to declare myself a failure? It’s all premature. Put on the robe of someone who is much older and saner and try it out. In a way, all early writing is ghostwriting. You’re writing as though for an older self.
I think I remember reading elsewhere that you were once a ghostwriter.
I was a ghostwriter in my twenties, writing for people in their fifties. It was very good experience. Not that anyone has to become a ghostwriter, but as you start to write, you’re always impersonating the role of a writer. There’s this confusion about imitation where it’s seen as a fault, but actually we all have to start with it. In imitating a writer we respect, we’re never going to hit the mark. The gap between what we’re aiming for and what actually comes about represents our originality. We can try to be as imitative as possible, but in a funny way we’re guaranteed some degree of originality just by failing to achieve that imitative model. So we have to read a lot, to imitate, and to assert. I’ve sometimes said to my students, If I could wave a magic wand and give you anything, it would be ten percent more arrogance. To be a writer you do have to be a little arrogant. There’s so much in the culture that would persuade you not to be. But when you sit down you have to take on the position that you are worth listening to.
García Márquez famously said that the novelist must be a storyteller, an educator, and an enchanter. Does the same hold for the essayist, or would that be too reductive?
No, I think it’s true. The essayist is both a seducer, an enchanter as you say, and somebody who’s trying to break the spell. One basic difference between fiction and nonfiction is that fiction tries to get you to enter into a kind of fictive space, like a dream space, in order to watch an action unfold. But the essayist is always breaking that diegetic frame and pulling your sleeve, saying, Hey, I’m here, I’m talking to you. The essayist is more conversational and less dream-like. Essays traffic more in reason than they do in the unconscious.
Right, in To Show and to Tell you have a lengthy reaction against what you call “the repression of the telling voice” and the move towards more lyricism and scenic detail in the essay, which can invite an overreliance on poetic language at the expense of a clear through-line.
I think the essay has become a more attractive vehicle. Writers of other genres are looking enviously at it, wanting to practice it, often bringing their own techniques to it. Historically, the teaching of creative writing has centered on fiction and poetry. It’s inevitable that some of the techniques of fiction and poetry workshops will enter the essay. I’m not trying to be a sheriff policing the borders of the essay and saying, No, you can’t do this, you can’t do that. I’m just trying to emphasize some of the strengths of the form. Inevitably there will be some hybridization. There always has been, in fact. If you go back to the original essays of Addison and Steele, they had scenes and characters and so forth. These things are only going to keep interpenetrating. The essayistic voice has entered into a lot of contemporary fiction, with writers like Nicholson Baker, David Foster Wallace, and Ben Lerner using it in their novels. The traffic is inevitable, and it goes both ways. I don’t want to put a tariff on that traffic. I’m a practitioner of all three forms, and inevitably I call on some of the techniques and habits of poetry and fiction in my nonfiction.
Why has the essay become a more attractive vehicle? Does it have something to do with the essay’s capacity for generalism and miscellany, for thinking across disciplines and subcultures in a world that is increasingly specialized and atomized?
That’s a good point. It has very often been the vehicle for the intelligent amateur or generalist. You don’t have to be a specialist. From the other end of the spectrum though, every specialty develops voices who become essayists. In science or medicine, you have someone like Stephen Jay Gould or Loren Eiseley.
The question is a good one, and I’m not sure I know the answer entirely. I think there are a lot of factors. One is that we’re living through a very baffling period where nobody really fully knows what’s going on. The essayistic voice, which is subjective, self-doubting, and inconclusive, speaks to the moment, a moment of uncertainty. Second, I think some of the cachet of the novel has been eroded and people want to hear an authentic voice. You have all of these TV shows that valorize the confessional voice. People want to hear from someone who has gone through an experience and lived to tell the tale. There’s a new value placed on simple experience as opposed to invention. Then, inevitably I think, the essay was undervalued for a long time and we’re in the midst of this kind of correction. Eventually I think there will be a counter-correction. There will be cycles. But I think the essay has been an invaluable tool for the assertion of identity.
Does it also have something to do with the state of the media and public distrust of the reportorial voice, as opposed to the essayistic voice, which is perhaps refreshingly transparent about its subjectivity?
Ever since the New Journalism there’s been doubt registered about the objectivity of journalism and of journalists themselves. One of the most popular essay forms today is the mosaic essay, composed of fragments that somehow cohere into a larger picture. You get something like Didion’s The White Album, and that’s very much in line with modernism and postmodernism in the sense that we can no longer build these grand philosophical systems like Marxism and Hegelianism. We have to go with fragments.
Which current practitioners of the essay or recent developments of the form do you find particularly innovative or exciting?
There are many essayists doing good work now. Some of them are innovating, others not particularly. Sometimes it’s refreshing to hear a voice that’s single and coherent. In terms of the contemporary essay, I don’t know where to start. I’m supposed to edit an anthology of the contemporary essay. There are a lot of intriguing voices out there.
That’s a follow-up to The Art of the Personal Essay?
Yes, I’m actually in the process of editing an anthology of the American essay, which is going to start with the Puritans in the 17th and 18th centuries and go to the present. It’s become three volumes: one volume tracing the whole arc of the American essay that will be light on the present, a second on what we’re calling the Golden Age of the American essay, which is 1945-1975, the postwar era, and a third that’s more contemporary. Pantheon is publishing them. Those three volumes will be my definitive statement on what I consider to be the American essay. That includes people who are important but whom I don’t necessarily like.
What would you say is the unifying or identifying characteristic of the American essay tradition?
I think it replicates all of American history. America itself has been an experiment. The Founding Fathers were very conscious of this. They were trying to create a different kind of society. It was an experiment that would be improved along the way, if possible. Democracy is something that we’re still waiting for. Obviously, women and African Americans were not given the vote for a long time, and there continue to be contestations about who can and can’t vote. Even the idea of representative democracy leaves a lot to be desired because there’s so much that doesn’t take into consideration the needs and wants of ordinary people.
And if America is an experimental form, so too is the essay. The whole notion of creating a country that is diverse, pluralistic, tolerant at a basic level—all of these struggles get played out in the American essay. In that sense, it has always tried to deal with the promises and constraints and stresses felt by society as a whole, even when it seems not to be addressing them, to in fact be addressing personal concerns. There has always been this play with what America is and what it should be.
The essay, like the institutions of American democracy, seems to have always been imperfect, always a drama of the tension between the actual and the ideal.
The essay is a very fertile form but not necessarily given to perfection. There are very few perfect essays but that’s not so bad, you know. The essay, because it allows for digression and experimentation and exploration, is more inviting of imperfection than a poem, and that’s okay.
Is there such a thing as the perfect essay, or do you think messiness is too baked into the form?
I absolutely think there are some perfect essays—Virginia Woolf’s “Death of a Moth,” E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake,” for example—that seem to have no flaws. But perfection is not something that essayists strive for, even if it happens occasionally.
You have an entire chapter in To Show and to Tell puzzling through how best to wrap up an essay. Elsewhere, in your chapter on teaching Baldwin, you suggest that despite all his brilliance, Baldwin had trouble ending his “longer discursive meditations . . . he kept going off on digressive riffs and not being able to get out of them, and gave in to the impulse to finish with a sermon.” Is the essay more difficult to resolve than other forms?
It’s more difficult to end because it seems to be tracking someone’s thoughts, which could go on endlessly. Whereas short stories have this pyramidal shape that can be diagrammed. It’s easier to diagram a Joycean short story that has an epiphany than it is to diagram an essay. Do essays have epiphanies? They have little bursts of epiphany but they don’t necessarily have a pyramidal shape. They have more of an amoebic shape, thrusting out pseudopodia from time to time.
Your ode to Emerson’s journals seems to register a special reverence for the Emersonian notion of “the meteorology of thought.” For you, Emerson is “the weatherman of his own consciousness, charting his moods just as he observed on walks the changing aspects of nature and sky.” Do you have any particular strategies or specific habits of mind you try to inculcate in your students to fashion them into better meteorologists of consciousness?
Certainly, to be very tuned into one’s fugitive intuitions, instead of trying to start out with a sweeping argument. And then to be aware of what’s going on in the zeitgeist, what’s going on outside yourself that’s affecting you, whether by peer pressure, coercion, or by provoking some contrarian impulse. Consciousness is like a kite following the wind. You have to surrender to consciousness to some degree. If everything is scripted before you sit down to write an essay then it’s going to come across as dead-on-arrival. If you know everything before you start to write, then you’re not going to have that joy of discovery in the midst of writing. When you discover something that you didn’t know before you sat down, the writing becomes charged with energy and rhythm; it delights the reader because you’re discovering something that was unexpected. Much of it has to do with welcoming surprise.
In To Show and to Tell, you define good nonfiction as consciousness plus style. Do you think there can be a neat separation between the two? Does consciousness not manifest as style?
You know, it’s funny, Thoreau thought that he was not interested in style. He just wanted to say what he had to say. Of course, he has a great style, so it’s puzzling what he meant by that. He had such a beautiful feeling for sentences, but claimed not to care much about that. Then you have writers like Donald Barthelme, for whom language is a medium in and of itself, regardless of what he wanted to say. A lot of modern writers are very drawn to just using language as a kind of paint. My own approach to this—and I can’t speak for everyone else—is to try to be clear in saying what I want to say, and then hope for felicity along the way. I’m not going to kill myself if I write a sentence that is merely functional, which doesn’t have stylistic sparkle. I’m just going to hope for a certain percentage of sentences that will have some stylistic sparkle. There are some writers, like Elizabeth Hardwick, for instance, who put more pressure on every sentence and insist on a kind of higher polish. Sometimes her writing is a bit difficult because it’s trying so hard to be condensed and dense. I do think ultimately that style involves a crystallization or density of thought in language. Wit, in other words. I think that being witty is partly being open to the invitation of the mischievous part of your mind. A lot of wit is really a kind of sentence that inverts itself, like an aphorism or an epigram. That can be cultivated. If you look at the classical tropes of ancient Greek and Roman writers, they had all of these forms for sentences to encourage wit. Cicero and other orators would have these sentences that would turn in on themselves or reverse themselves and people would clap.
A tradition that continues with writers like Geoff Dyer.
Geoff Dyer is very attuned to inner mischief. He’s somebody whom I read with pleasure almost all the time.
Dyer is mischievous at the sentence level, syntactically mischievous.
Exactly, Dyer is trying to give himself pleasure before he’s trying to give the reader pleasure, which is why he’s fun to read. A writer like David Foster Wallace is puzzling to me because on one level he had this enormous equipment of technique and on another he wanted to be sincere and straightforward and simple. There was this tension in him, a kind of tension on a psychological level between buoyancy and depression. Whereas I think that Dyer is easier to read because he’s not quite so depressed.
How does structure arise for you? Does it come rather organically or is it something that you find you have to manipulate and finesse endlessly?
I do think that structure has to do with impatience. I’ll start writing something and I’m going along, and it’s all very smooth, but then I’ll start to think that it needs a jolt, it needs to go deeper. Structure can have to do with depth. Am I grappling with the most honesty or difficulty that I can? So I try to push the essay in a deeper direction structurally. Sometimes structure just has to do with my boredom meter. I get bored of listening to myself and think that I need to take this somewhere else. This is something I mention in To Show and to Tell: I start out exploring, but along the way I begin to realize that some kind of spinal argument is developing underneath the exploration, and I can push it, manipulate it so that it will go someplace more interesting. We can’t just explore open-endedly. I also think that the essayist is not necessarily the one to determine for him or herself what his or her structure is. That is, I do think that in the future there will be academics and literary critics who apply the same kind of analytical insight to the essay that they are now applying to poetry and fiction. Poetry has the study of prosody; fiction has the study of narratology. There haven’t been that many academics or theoreticians of the essay that have addressed this question of structure.
What will the essay have? Digressionality?
The pattern of digression, absolutely. Sometimes in fiction, a writer like Javier Marías, who digresses all the time, and who says that digression is the point of his work, will use a lot of essayistic technique. My students are always asking me about structure. I’m never sure how to answer them because it seems like the problems in their essays are not necessarily structural, but what I’m calling psychological. They’re not being honest with themselves or not seeing themselves clearly.
How do you see the relationship between the “digressionality” or “knottedness” of the essay and the maintenance of some central through-line?
Focus comes from the steady attention applied to any passage. It isn’t necessarily the desire to follow an argument, but the desire to follow a voice. If we like the writer’s voice we’ll be led anywhere, and digressionality isn’t really seen as digressive, it becomes us just listening to someone we want to listen to, being in the company of someone who has an interesting way of looking at things. That’s what I hope to achieve in my essays.
An interview with Phillip Lopate
Henry Ace Knight