As a writer, I’m a personal essayist and memoirist. As an editor and reader, however, I’ve found that the literary nonfiction that has fascinated me most lately is a mix of investigative journalism, research, and personal narrative.
Three books I’ve liked—Katy Butler’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death, Kristin Iverson’s Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, Rebecca Mead’s biography/memoir My Life in Middlemarch—are good examples of a seamless blending of journalism and personal narrative.
But the book that got me started thinking about all this was Elyssa East’s Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town. What first drew me to the narrative was East’s compelling curiosity about the town’s mythology and her fascination with its history. East describes this small New England village as “an enchanted New England ghost town.” And that pull, that attraction, influenced (either consciously or unconsciously) how the author set up her narrative and chose her narrator.
For the most part, Dogtown is a combination of immersion journalism and cultural criticism, along with some very spare, but important, personal remarks and observations, most of which East intermittently weaves into the early parts of the narrative. These disclosures explain why the author felt compelled to visit and then to write about Dogtown. And that “personal voice” was what initially drew me to the narrative. After the first sixty-five pages, however, the intimate voice disappeared, and the observer, researcher, commentator took over. That’s not a complaint. The narrative held my interest. But both the writer and reader in me wanted to know why the author made that shift.
East states that “what makes Dogtown distinct is utterly elusive and I only wanted to be in the book to further illuminate this feeling; to help the reader live this sensation on the page with me.”
In other words, one of her aims was to have the personal segments serve a larger intent—that is, to evoke in the reader a similar sense of wonder to what the mythology and history of Dogtown had induced in her.
There is, of course, much more complexity, as well as a dimension of tension and apprehension, within the narrative, but her comment triggered some thoughts and questions that had been on my mind for quite some time.
Where memoirists and personal essayists like myself must place their narrators—that is, the autobiographical “I”—at center stage, writers like Butler, Iverson, Mead, and East, among many others, can locate their narrators on the periphery, or even off stage, as reporters, witnesses, or observers: what one might call the E-Y-E.
And it made me wonder. Apart from our chosen subjects and goals, what other qualities and concerns help us determine what kind of narrator we will choose?
Find the form that releases your best intelligence. Find what you do exquisitely well and play it to the hilt.
I would love to be able to write the same kind of narratives as the authors of the books I’ve just mentioned. Narratives, that is, which marry the personal to larger cultural and historical issues and events. But, as I’ve said, my narrators, more often than not, are variations of the autobiographical “I,” the persona at the center of the narrative.
Poet William Stafford comments (inadvertently) on this predicament when he says, “I can imagine a person beginning to feel that he’s not able to write up to that standard he imagines the world has set for him. But to me that’s surrealistic. The only standard I can rationally have is the standard I’m meeting right now.”
To which I’ll add my belief that the narratives and narrators we choose are closely related to matters of temperament, disposition, and sensibility. As well as to the ways in which we view the world.
Over time, I’ve come to accept that my sensibility is not that of a literary journalist or cultural critic. In consequence, the majority of my narrators will be similar to the kind of persona Montaigne describes in his Essais when he says, “It is about myself I write.”
Before everyone’s off to the races on that one, let me qualify the statement. This isn’t an endorsement of narcissistic or confessional writing. Quite the contrary. It’s closer in spirit to what essayist Scott Russell Sanders refers to as “the singular first person.” And in times like these—when the messages we frequently see are generic slogans, hash tags, like “I’m lovin’ it, “Let’s go places,” and “What’s in your wallet?”—it’s especially important that we hear “the singular first person,” the individual human voice, more often.
Subject in an essay . . . becomes not the target so much as the sight, the lens through which you see the world.
The majority of my personal essays and memoirs tend to revolve around two “subjects”: baseball is one, and the other is my (congenital?) sense of feeling like a displaced New Yorker in the Midwest.
Over the course of several years, I’ve written a memoir about one of those “subjects” and a series of linked essay/memoirs about both. Each offers variations on a single subject, yet each demands a fully rendered narrator/persona—what Church refers to as a “lens through which you see the world.”
Because my body of work ranges from adolescence to later life, each piece also requires a different (and differing) viewpoint and perspective. An adolescent point of view, as we know, doesn’t convey the wisdom or perspective of an adult point of view. As F. Scott Fitzgerald says, “Writers aren’t exactly people . . . they’re a whole bunch of people trying to be one person.”
This means that finding the most appropriate narrator/persona for each individual work—in other words, the “lens” through which a writer views the world—is at least as much (and perhaps even more) an aesthetic concern as a personal one.
The right voice can reveal what it’s like to be thinking. This is memoir’s great task really: the revelation of consciousness.
Though my narrators are “I”-centered, they aren’t strictly “autobiographical.” I mean that I don’t approach the writing of personal essays or memoirs as literal disclosures about myself or my personal life.
The circumstances of a life, I believe, are raw material for uncovering some larger or more inclusive or expansive idea. In my case, it’s often something I didn’t know I knew—such as a powerful, but previously unexplored, influence or idea, or perhaps an as-yet-undiscovered relationship, both of which might have been hiding out on the fringes of my consciousness.
But this isn’t true only for memoirs and personal essays. I believe that whatever narrator/persona a writer chooses—a witness, an interrogative or analytical self (the E-Y-E), or some version of the subjective “I”—the important human story in a piece of literary writing is, as Patricia Hampl stresses, the narrator’s attempt to come to terms with something—a situation, idea, momentous event, thought—something he or she couldn’t explain or understand except through the writing.
I’ll add to that by citing writer and editor Scott Olsen, who says that “as the world becomes more problematic, it is in the little excursions and small observations that we can discover ourselves, that we can make an honest connection with others, that we can remind ourselves of what it means to belong to one another.”
To extend this notion, Patricia Hampl claims that if “you give me your story, I get mine.” Which suggests to me that, no matter what kind of narrator/persona a writer might choose, or what idea or subject a writer might pursue—a larger issue or idea, or something specific and personal—if what the writer says has intellectual merit and emotional authenticity, the chances are much better that that narrator’s curiosities, discoveries, and inner struggles can, as Scott Olsen says, “make an honest connection” with other human beings.
When a reader can say to him- or herself, “Oh yeah, I’ve felt that way too” or “I’ve thought the very same thing, but I didn’t know that any one else did,” it’s as much as disclosing the fact that the reader has never been able to articulate those thoughts and feelings exactly as this particular writer has just done.
And if you’re that particular writer, isn’t this the happy result you always set out to achieve?