I’ve been working on an essay lately, and it’s doing all the things that working on an essay should: making me think, making me dig, making me research. More importantly, it’s forcing me to ask questions of myself, to reexamine my opinions on literary trends and traditions — narrative, to be specific. I’m the first to admit I’ve had a rather fraught, complicated relationship with this term and all of its requisite weight. On one hand, we use it to describe the telling of anything. On the other, it can become somewhat of a confining suggestion that ends up reading more like a mandate, especially when our own personal ideas of narrative are a radical departure from the historical tradition.
I have a lot of respect for tradition and rules. I’ve spent a lot of time learning them. So while I think that they do work and will continue to work for a majority of writers, I don’t feel that my work — or at least, my idea of my work — fits into what I consider a rather small and tidy box. The surging popularity of the lyric essay is one example that seems to argue in my favor, suggesting that a loosening of traditional essay rules gives way to a freer, more poetic form. That’s not to say, though, that this new emerging form and its departure from tradition is a guarantor of success: I’ve seen plenty of lyric essays, or at least, pieces titled as such, that do not work. We should experiment and depart from rules, but we can’t assume that departure equals automated privilege, or success.
For a long time, I have written to write: to get things out (catharsis), to figure out how I feel (clarity), to better understand what I see in relation to the world (context). But I’ve largely ignored how I do it. I’m coming to a point in my life as a writer where I am thinking more and writing less, and I don’t think this is a bad thing. I am more mindful of what I’m putting down, and beyond that, I’m increasingly interested in locating my own place in a larger literary tradition. The last time I thought about something like this was when I was writing the precis for my thesis: I was prompted by my professors and the MFA director to “chart the literary lineage” of my work, of the overall project. I mainly focused on the text itself, rather than me as a complex, evolving writer. It was a useful exercise, because it was the first time I tried to identify where this particular thing lived in terms of tradition.
I did the things you’d expect an MFA candidate to do: draw on the writers that had, up until that point, resonated most with me, whose work I mirrored and often imitated. Now (and being more well-read has a lot to do with this) I am examining my writer self, the things I’ve written and the things I will/want to write. I’m discovering that I have internally rebelled — or at the very least, desperately, desperately wanted to — against the confines of traditional narrative for the majority of my writing life. But let’s go beyond the personal, beyond the “I feel” — the traditional narrative that I had been taught to buy into was not serving my story. In fact, it rendered a whole host of my observations and experiences obsolete, or unwritable.
There is a lot written already about this departure from narrative, or from traditional narrative, as it were. It’s not anything new or buzzy as far as the literary world is concerned. Experimental (such a vague, often unwelcome term) work did not just appear within the last couple years, though one could argue that the Internet explosion may have had a role in cementing its visibility. As a young writer, I felt isolated when I looked at what I was writing and what I wanted to be writing, realizing how different the idea and the actuality were. I also feel like I lacked the personal resources — discipline, focus, dedication — to seek out the answers. I did so passionately in some regards, starting with a literary awakening in high school when I read Kerouac, Ginsberg and Joyce Johnson for the first time. Their stories subverted the traditional stories I was used to, and I was radically inspired, seeing what language was capable of when a writer deviated from the norm and really harnessed the power of words.
Part of what I find the most frustrating about narrative — specifically classic narrative, the move from one moment to the next in a straight line — is the inaccuracy with which it represents experience. A huge part of writing nonfiction, whether of the essay, journalistic or memoir variety, is remembering: looking back at an experience, attempting to glean some meaning from it. The very nature of remembrance isn’t conducive to straight-line narrative; in fact, it’s completely at odds with it. In some ways this is where talented writers can step in, take the reins and write the story straight. I’ve seen it done very well time and again. But as both a reader and a writer, I want something that is closer to reality, something that not only mirrors the messiness, the chaos and the process of remembering, but thoroughly embraces it. Segmented, fragmented and braided prose has the most malleability, the most potential. And I think it is the vessel built to hold the most truth.
(A note: I’m writing an essay that blends personal experience, philosophy, history, etymology and lyricism. This post is a byproduct of that.)