While teaching college writing courses years ago, I remember hearing a syllogism that may, it strikes me now, help explain the enormous popularity of the personal memoir. It went something like this: “You write best when you write about what you know; what you know best is yourself; therefore, you write best when you write about yourself.” As a syllogism, this seemed valid: the conclusion followed logically from its premises, no? So why didn’t I then receive better essays when I assigned personal topics?
As anyone can see, the conclusion rests on dubious assumptions. The premises sound reasonable, but they raise some fundamental questions. Do people really write best about the subjects they know best? We see evidence all the time of experts not being able to communicate the basic concepts of their professions, which explains why so many technical books are written by both an expert and a writer. There are brilliant academics so committed to their vast research that they can’t bear to part with any detail and thus clog up their sentences with an excess of information. If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, too much can sometimes be an impediment to clear and robust expression. The Shakespeareans do not always write the best books on Shakespeare.
And can we also safely conclude that we know ourselves best of all? If so, then why do so many of us spend so much time in psychotherapy or counseling sessions? Surely, the pursuit of the self -- especially the “hidden” self -- has been a major twentieth- century industry. Self-knowledge, of course, confronts us with another logical problem: how can the self be at the same time the knower and the known? That’s why biographies can be so much more revealing than autobiographies. As Dostoyevsky said in his Notes from Underground: “A true autobiography is almost an impossibility . . . man is bound to lie about himself.” Yet the illusion that we do know ourselves best must serve as both comfort and inspiration to the new wave of memoirists who seem to write with one finger glued to the shift key and another to the letter I, which on the keyboard looks nothing like it does on the page, thus appropriately symbolizing the relationship between that character and the “self” it presumes to represent. Today’s writers’ market is flooded with autobiography -- now more likely to be labeled “memoir” in the singular, as though the more fashionable literary label promises something grander. Memoirs (the term was almost always used in the plural) were customarily written by public figures who recorded their participation in historical events and their encounters with other prominent individuals. General Ulysses S. Grant’s two-volume Personal Memoirs (1885-86) were bestsellers. The old memoirs were penned by well-established individuals in the twilight of their careers; the new memoir is frequently the work of an emerging writer aspiring to be well established.
The memoir is easily abused by those who feel that the genre automatically confers upon the author some sort of importance. It’s only natural, isn’t it, to be the heroes or heroines of our own lives? And as the main protagonists how can we resist the impulse to occupy center stage and not consider ourselves gifted with greater sensitivity, finer values, higher moral authority, and especially keener powers of recollection than any member of our supporting cast of characters? The most interesting autobiography ever conceived, I think, must be Mark Twain’s. Partially written, partially dictated, never published in its entirety, and never according to his intentions, in many ways a colossal failure of a book, Twain’s autobiography grappled with every psychological and compositional difficulty characteristic of the genre. Twain knew how easy it was to exhibit ourselves in “creditable attitudes exclusively” and tried to display himself as honestly as he could. It was a noble experiment, but it proved impossible: “I have been dictating this autobiography of mine,” he wrote, “for three months; I have thought of fifteen hundred or two thousand incidents in my life which I am ashamed of but I have not gotten one of them to consent to go on paper yet.” To say that memoir, autobiography, and the personal essay can be easily abused is not to disparage these vigorous genres. The democratization of the memoir has resulted in many wonderful books, not a few crafted by young or relatively young writers. I remember being in a Greenwich Village bookstore in 1976 with a friend who was struck by the arrogance of Paul Zweig’s newly published Three Journeys: “Autobiography -- hell, the guy’s not even forty!” I remember chuckling at that remark and laater agreeing that an autobiography composed in one’s mid-thirties perhaps was, as Christopher Lasch argued shortly afterward, a prime example offfff what he memorably called The Culture of Narcissism. Yet I would feel terrible about my response only a few years later when I learned that Zweig had been diagnosed with a nasty form of lymphoma. He would die at forty-nine, struggling to complete a second series of memoirs, Departures (1986); its conclusion remains one of the most compelling and illuminating essays I’ve ever read about someone’s final days.
What prevents personal writing from deteriorating into narcissism and self-absorption? This is a question anyone setting out to write personally must face sooner or later. I’d say it requires a healthy regimen of self-skepticism and a respect for uncertainty. Though the first-person singular may abound, it’s a richly complex and mutable I, never one that designates a reliably known entity. One might ultimately discover, as does Diane Ackerman in the intricately textured essay that opens this collection, “a community of previous selves.” In some of the best memoirs and personal essays, the writers are mysteries to themselves and the work evolves into an enactment of surprise and self-discovery. The “strange thing about knowledge,” William T. Vollmann says in the essay that closes the collection, “is that the more one knows, the more one must qualify perceived certainties, until everything oozes back into unfamiliarity.” Surprise is what keeps “life writing” live writing. And, finally, as Kathleen Norris aptly observes in her introduction, there must be what she calls resonance -- a deep and vibrant connection with an audience. The mysterious I converses with an equally mysterious I.
The Best American Essays features a selection of the year’s outstanding essays, essays of literary achievement that show an awareness of craft and forcefulness of thought. Hundreds of essays are gathered annually from a wide variety of national and regional publications. These essays are then screened, and approximately one hundred are turned over to a distinguished author, who may add a few personal discoveries and who makes the final selections.
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I would like to dedicate this sixteenth volume in the series to the memory of...