It was my second year of an M.F.A. program in creative writing. I was enrolled in a creative nonfiction course. “Think of the ‘I’ of now,” we were told, “and the ‘I’ of then.”
Most people likely haven’t heard of this concept. I had not either. In short: the ‘I’ (or eye) of now—your present perspective, full of wisdom and understanding—should infiltrate your essay, should cast new light on the experiences that the ‘I’ of then could not fully comprehend.
That’s what makes the essay deep. We never used that word, but its requirement was unstated, a sort of prerequisite to being a great essayist.
Oh, how I wanted to write great nonfiction. The desire was so strong, I spent many long hours stop-starting on idea after idea (not the story of the three-legged dog, not the tale of the bamboo forest, etc). I was thrilled and dismayed by so many ideas in such short order that I accumulated a long list of two-sentence Word documents, each of them titled grand, hopeful things.
Finally, after much pain—and the night before my deadline—there emerged a wrought, profound twelve pages.
In the next week’s workshop of my essay, my cohort agreed on the question: “where are you in this piece?”
The ‘I’ of then was quietly offended. I was everywhere—everywhere—didn’t they see! I was in my mother and my grandfather and the many stories I had been told, all the memories passed between them and me.
But my class was right: the ‘I’ of then was kind of a terrible essayist. She had never been trained to write about herself—not directly. It all felt too close, too egoistic. It’s the first thing that no one tells you about writing about yourself…that you must embrace your ego, put aside your humility, your disinclination to say I—I—I over and over. You must sit with yourself for hours and hours, thinking only of you: the funny, and the very best, and the very worst, and the bits of you that you have tried—but, of course, are least likely—to forget. And you must tug all these parts of yourself wide like netting, inspecting the gaps and holes until you believe you have some new understanding, something to say.
You must confront the small part of you that believes you haven’t got a story to tell.
Last week I picked up a picture is worth…: the voice of today’s high school students, a series of essays by teenagers, students at a charter school in Reading, Pennsylvania.
And did they ever have stories to tell.
This passage from student Jean Mouscardy, in particular, made me feel strange and emotional on the metro:
I remember a day when I saw my father. I was 7 years old. (He left when I was only 4.) He saw me after 3 years, and slid his hand on top of my head, then told me, ‘Hey, my boy’s grown a lot. I’m glad to see you.’ He talked to my mother a few minutes then left. I watched him go and I think when I talked to him I smelled something. I had no idea, but it sure wasn’t perfume. Now I know it was alcohol.
Sometimes the eye of now can be a cruel, enlightening bastard.
This is the second thing that no one tells you when writing about yourself: that turning these memories like snow globes will almost inevitably give us new, occasionally damning insight, that we can never unsee what the ‘I’ of now has managed in retrospect to witness.
According to Manuel Guzman, a learning facilitator at the charter school: “the evolving content of one’s personal essay serves as the gateway to all relationships of importance: personal, spiritual, economic, and political.”
This is true. In my nonfiction course, after many machinations at my desk, I wrote a second essay about-not-about myself. I sneakily used the second person: “you felt neglected,” and “you pulled the dog’s tail.” This felt right to me, because—I see now—I could not take ownership of how many times I had hit my mother’s hound dog over the head. I did it because I was jealous of how much she loved him. I could not acknowledge the memory of (what sounded to a seven year-old as) his brain rattling in his skull. I couldn’t, as myself, detail the dog crossing the road, describe how he was struck by a car and the way his body arced through the air in front of me.
It was only after reading what I had written that I realized the guilt in me had grown over the years like a swallowed seed. I had to hazard my way through those memories to understand that some part of myself held jealousy, held cruelty.
Flannery O’Connor said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”
It could be argued that I knew those things before. Yes, perhaps I did. But not in such words, not consciously. To process a feeling, we must articulate it.
So I forgave myself for the dog’s death. The ‘I’ of then—where I still lived, before the essay—became fused to a new self-perception. I could be unkind, but I would not let myself forget it.
In this way, the personal essay is more than gateway. It’s inception, an attempt to make un-nebulous our feelings, to point to tangible words and phrases as the concrete basis for our interactions with the world. We don’t know what we think until we’ve written it.
Writing is meditation, depth of thought. Every sentence, as we create it, is creating us—our relationships with the personal, the spiritual, the economic, and the political.
What no one tells you about writing about yourself is that most of your attempts won’t be great, or deep, and that isn’t the goal, nor is it the reward.
The reward is this: somewhere in two-dozen abandoned essays, I’ve realized that I’m no longer afraid to use that ‘I.’
But I didn’t know I felt that way until I wrote it.