I am back home, having just unpacked the small red suitcase that accompanied me to a little-known mountain town over the weekend. There wasn’t much to do there except recline on an adirondack chair while gazing down valley, then stroll down the hill, down Main Street, through the afternoon blast of sun that hadn’t yet figured out it’s no longer summer, past pie shops and Americana doo-hickey shops, and then, to my great delight, stumble upon a used book store.
There I pondered dusty book spines, considered a biography of Janis Joplin (couldn’t stomach it), skimmed Jeffrey Toobin’s book on the Supreme Court (more interested in Jeffrey Toobin than the Supreme Court), and then, just when I was about to turn and head out the door, I found this.
The book is almost 800 pages, and since I never finish anything, I’m sure I won’t finish this either. But I’m deep into the introduction, which has lots of wonderful quotes by writers who knew their way around an essay — Gore Vidal, F. Scott Fitzgerald — as well as editor Philip Lopate proclaiming the genre as the bailiwick of the middle-aged.
Here’s what he says:
“It is hard to think of anyone who made a mark on the personal essay form in his or her youth…the personal essayist looks back at the choices that were made, the roads not taken, the limiting familial and historic circumstances, and what might be called the catastrophe of personality…the wonder is that the personal essay can make this bitter awareness appetizing and even amusing to the reader.”
I have loved the essay form since I was a teenager. So when I discovered there was something called blogging, which is a 21st century version of essays, and that there was a whole community of blogger/essaysists with which to cyber-fraternize, and occasionally it was possible to pull down enough monthly ad revenue to purchase a bag of groceries, well — I knew I had found my metier.
And now that Philip Lopate has assured me that at 50, with much of life behind me, I am poised to hit my essay stride in this decade, I feel pretty fired up.
I don’t have a lot to report from the book yet. The print is small and I’m tired from my trip. But from the little I’ve read I’m struck by how much of the traditional hallmarks of the craft I use, without knowing I was actually using them.
An intuitive, groping path.
A movement from the individual to the universal.
One of my favorite bloggers, who is more writerly than bloggery, is Elizabeth Aquino, who writes about the intersection between “parenting, politics, disability and poetry.” Elizabeth has a singular ability to link odd subject matter bedfellows, and distill them into what Lopate calls “a supposed formlessness which is more of a strategy to disarm the reader with the appearance of unstudied spontaneity than a reality of the composition.”
Elizabeth has honed this art, which she manifests on a daily basis in her blog posts. Yesterday’s was a musing on Cheech and Chong, the pending shut-down of the federal government, Obamacare, and growing up a Yankee fish-out-of-water in the south. The post incorporated other elements too, but they all strung together effortlessly on a literary clothesline that I highly recommend reading.
I read another essay today, not a personal one, but a formal one, written by my friend WQ Belle, who tackled the issue of slut-shaming, and the discomfort that Americans have about mature women owning their sexuality. Some of this essay incorporated a post I wrote about casually dating a younger man,and the deluge of awful mother/wanton hussy comments I received when the piece posted on HuffPost,sending me into a paroxysm of Bad Mom Guilt (because good moms aren’t also sexual beings??). I recommend Belle’s essay too, which is expansive, well-referenced, and examines why we are stuck in the 50s when it comes to allowing women to be sexual creatures, whether or not they’re also mothers.
But back to my point, rambling as it is. The Art of the Personal Essay made me reflect on my love for essay writing, which I now call blogging, and how, in the looking-back that essaying requires, there may be a looking-forward, a renaissance in creativity that I never imagined middle age to bring.
Or at least some bigger ad revenue.
So rock on, all you middle-aged bloggers. Don’t shellac the ugly of your life; embrace it. Speak the truth as you know it, and comfort those who are searching to find themselves in you, in all your glorious imperfection.
“The true confessors have been aware that not only is life mostly failure, but that in one’s failure or pettiness or wrongness exists the living drama of the self.” – Gore Vidal.