When Does the Personal Essay Become More Than Memoir?

In reviewing two new collections,  If You Knew Then What I Know Now by Ryan Van Meter and Small Fires by Julie Marie Wade (Sarabande Books), James Polchin asks how the memoir differs from the personal essay in capturing the essence of a life.

In the introduction to his anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay, Philip Lopate reflects on the distinct differences between memoir and the personal essay, drawing a wavy line in the sand between the linear narrative structure that autobiographies (and publishers) often demand, and the more recursive moves of the essayist. Lopate writes:

“the essay form allows the writer to circle around one particular autobiographical piece, squeezing all possible meaning out of it while leaving the greater part of his life story available for later milking.  It may even be that the personal essayist is more temperamentally suited to this circling procedure, diving into the volcano of self and extracting a single hot coal to consider and shape, either because of laziness or because of an aesthetic impulse to control a smaller frame.”

There is no better term than “circling procedure” to describe the essays in both Ryan Van Meter’s If You Knew Then What I Know Now and Julie Marie Wade’s Small Fires. Both collections were nominated for a Lambda Literary Award this year in the category of “Gay Memoir/Biography” and “Lesbian Memoir/Biography” respectively.   It would seem an odd place to put these two books.  Yes, both collections illuminate the experiences of their writers, recounting personal histories, childhood memories, and the difficult and mysterious emotions of sexual awakenings.  But each writer chose the complexities and creativity of the personal essay form—its ability to anchor experiences in a reality but still transgress with imaginative freedom—as the genre to give shape to their lives.

In thinking about these collections in their nominated categories, I wondered when does an essay become more than memoir?

Van Meter’s essays often begin somewhere in the middle of a moment, like walking into the movie ten minutes after it has started. This is the opening from the title essay:  “In your sixth-grad social studies class, fourth hour, when Mrs. Perry assigns the group project on European World Capitals, don’t look at Mark.  Don’t look at Jared.”  We are of course confused for Van Meter throws us into a world that we know nothing about, and manages to keep us there.  The writing is immediate, engaging, asking us to be with the writer in these moments, to make sense of these experiences as he wanders through childhood towards the present.  The opening confusions are part of the play, part of the force of his storytelling.

Consider the essay “First,” which was selected for the Best American Essays in 2009, recalls a moment when he was quite young, and, holding hands with his best friend in the backseat of the family car, he asks the boy to marry him.  The impending rebuke from his mother is imminent:  “Only boys and girls get married to each other.” But the essay moves not towards the startled panic of the mother, but rather remains anchored in the confused affections of two young boys in the back of a car.  Van Meter has the talent of storytelling throughout these essays, but they always end in the subtlety of insights.  Whether in the essay “Specimen” where he relates his childhood fears of alien abductions that turn out to be fears of his own otherness in the world, or “To Bear, To Carry:  Notes on ‘Faggot’” that reflects on the meaning and contradictions of the word faggot, these essays stretch not for resolutions (that is too easy) but rather a certain kind of clarity that make more questions possible.

In each turn, Van Meter plays with form, embracing the casual freedom that the essay allows for.  For example, in “Things I Will Want to Tell You on Our First Date But Won’t,” which brilliantly conceives of a nameless man he will (may?) meet through a deeply, Montaigne-like exploration of his own uncertainties, Van Meter turns the private swirl of human contradictions into a public reflection, an essay that is acutely attentive to the power of its creativity as both imagined letter and essay. The collection is not so much coming-of-age, or even the coming-out (the “and-then-I-realized-what-I-desired” genre), but rather it holds in suspension any real conclusions at all.  We are left with just small moments without the determined end.

If Van Meter’s essays anchor themselves in storytelling, Julie Marie Wade’s essays are more collage-like compositions that weave together stories, imaginings, and journal entries.  Many of the themes in these essays echo from Wade’s earlier book Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures. Here she more clearly embraces those fractures, through the minutiae of life, through movements between philosophy and popular culture, and through the forms of writing. There are essays on objects (“Keepsakes” and “Three Keyes”) and on the body itself as an object (“Bone” and “Skin”).  In “Keepsake” Wade reflects on her younger self’s doubts about religion:  “I hear voices on television chime ‘Don’t take my word for it,’ and I wonder precisely whose word we are suppose to take.  God’s? Our parents’?  A school teacher’s or trusted friend’s?  What happens when their words start to contradict each other?”   Later, she writes, “language is not our first language” and turns instead to “innuendo, insinuation, intuition” as vital to a sense of ourselves and those around us.

In “Bones” she explores the struggles with her body image as an adolescent so often euphemized as “good bones” like her mother and grandmother, but, as her mother tells her: “We have to work a little harder.”  This work is a reference to fitting in, to succumbing to the image of the thin, petit beauty queen.   But this consideration of bones leads Wade to a thread that weaves itself through so many of these essays:

Look at the story embedded under the words, like and obscure painting with a notorious one preserved beneath. I have learned the word aesthetic, meaning ‘pleasing to the eye.’  Now I learn its sound-alike word—ascetic.  A smaller word, thinner.  Their resemblance is no accident.  The one leads into the other, and the other corroborates it.   Like the bones of the body, the meaning of words lies underneath the social layers of flesh we wrap around them.  Throughout this collection, Wade wanders through the underneath qualities of language and experiences, exploring what is needed to strip away, to uncover, to get at some deeper meaning about our histories and our present.

The layered painting is a metaphor Wade uses to construct four “triptych” essays of her mother, grandmother, father, and aunt.  Recalling the medieval art of church altars, these essays reach towards the lines between facts and fictions of each family member’s life, such as her grandmother’s emigration to Seattle, or the mysteries of her father’s life before she was born.  These essays, structured in “panels” of narrative, recall facts she knew and those empty spaces of family lore she needed to imagine, allowing Wade something more than mere memoir.  Her essays border between fiction and non-fiction, between lyrical poems and short stories, and, like most powerful personal essays, between experience and larger insights.

Which leads me back to the question I started with:  when does a personal essay become more than memoir.   I raise this question with these two collections for there is a lost history to the gay and lesbian personal essay. To ponder the history of such experiences over the past several decades, leads us again and again to the creative, personal and political possibilities the essay form provided.  Think of James Baldwin’s early and later essays that merge racial and sexual experiences with an acute social critique.  Merging lived experiences with acute insights echo years later in Adrienne Rich’s classic “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Experience” of the early 1970s, and in the crucial writings in This Bridge Called My Back, an anthology of creative and personal essays by such writers as Barbara Smith, Cherrie Moranga, and Gloria Anzaldúa who used the essay genre as a way of opening up a space for lesbians of color in the sexual politics of the day.  I think also of Andrew Holleran’s deeply personal essays of gay life and the tragedy of AIDS published in the journal Christopher Street in the 1980s and 1990s.   There are many others in this history of the gay and lesbian essay that points to the genre’s importance over the past several decades for writers whose sexual lives were so often unspoken and unwritten secrets.

At the heart of an essay is a kind of fragmented thinking “just as reality is fragmented and gains its unity only by moving through the fissures, rather than by smoothing them over,” wrote German philosophy Theodore Adorno in his celebration of the genre in “The Essay as Form.”  Such fissures have been most important to gay and lesbian essayists over the years, in finding imaginative ways to write of their sexual lives as being creatively and socially meaningful.

There is something that gets lost in calling If You Knew Then What I Know Now and Small Fires memoirs or autobiographies.  It shrinks the form these writers work in, and the possibilities they wish us to imagine.  For Van Meter and Wade, the narrative arc of experience that would give their works a memoir-esque quality is vanquished by each writer’s keen ability to use the essay form to look deeper at the shards of experience and family history.  While both writers represent a new era of essays of gay and lesbian experience—in which the writer’s sexual life is part of a constellation of experiences and not the central one—they each find in the essay form a life constructed in fragments rather than a wholeness of experience. In different ways both remind us that there is a wide gap between memoir and personal essay that we too often ignore.
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James Polchin is the editor of Writing in Public.

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