Essay on Understanding the Essay Post-MFA

Several times in my life, I’ve heard various, indispensable books referred to as “Bibles” — The MLA Handbook comes to mind, for one. But I’d never before seen a non-Bible held up as though it were actually a holy book — as I’d seen Catholic priests do with legitimate Holy Bibles with both hands towards the heavens — until my professor, at the beginning of my MFA, held up a large white tome above his head in the same manner, and instructed us that this anthology of personal essays  would be our “Bible.”

At least, I think that’s what he said. More than the words he used, his gesture impressed in my memory, and its significance was not lost on me.

The expression of a book being called a “Bible” has been used so often that its shock value has been watered down so as to mean absolutely nothing to me, . . . except that a particular person thinks a particular book is very important. But witnessing the book being held up like a real Bible — the act itself — seemed to revitalize that old cliché, and it was as though my professor was saying it for the first time, with its full impact, causing me to wonder a bit uncomfortably if it wasn’t a bit sacrilegious.

The anthology was The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present (1995), selected and with an Introduction by Phillip Lopate. I’ve since realized that my professor of creative nonfiction had good reason to literally hold it up as an example we should follow. Lopate didn’t just select a canon of classical and contemporary personal essays that we would do well to read and learn from; he also wrote an indispensable Introduction, which highlights the personal essay’s characteristics.

In it, Lopate admits that the essay is a “notoriously flexible and adaptable form,” but that its “hallmark . . . is its intimacy,” and at its “core . . . is the supposition that there is a certain unity to human experience.” There’s a “preference for a conversational approach” and the “struggle for honesty is central to the ethos of the personal essay.” “Personal essayists are adept at interrogating their ignorance” and “common to the genre is a taste for littleness.” These are just a sampling of some of Lopate’s words on the matter.

I know of no other work that has been more quoted and referred to as an exemplary place in which to understand what the personal essay is as Lopate’s Introduction has been. I’ve been holding Lopate’s Introduction pretty close to me and taking it as Bible truth for these past few years. It has served me well.

Since completing my MFA, I’ve also started reading what others have said about the essay (not that I’ve not read what others have written on the essay during my MFA as well — but Lopate overshadows all the others). I’m currently writing a conference paper in which I discuss — and need to briefly define — the personal essay, and naturally, I used Lopate’s introduction as a starting point. But quoting only one source is not very good scholarship, and so I’ve felt the need to branch out.

I was surprised to see that another essayist wrote a relatively similar introduction to an anthology of personal essays only two years after Lopate did, The Norton Book of Personal Essays. I would imagine these two anthologies were in strict competition with each other, each vying for a place on university syllabi. And yet, Joseph Epstein, editor and writer of the introductory essay that appears at beginning of the anthology, decides to actually quote Phillip Lopate’s introduction in his own.

I’ve also been surprised to see additional insights into the personal essay from others.

For instance, early on in his introduction, Lopate basically conflates the “personal essay” and the “familiar essay” into one thing. I took him at his word, not even questioning the premise. But lately, I’ve been reading more about the familiar essay; bought Anne Fediman’s At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays, for instance, and looked up the entry on “Canadian Essay (English)” in The Encyclopedia of the Essay where I read that “The great majority of English Canadian essayists of literary quality have preferred the informal, personal approach of the familiar essay, and a discussion of the essay in Canada is therefore essentially a discussion of the familiar essay.”

But didn’t Lopate say they — the familiar and personal essay — were the same thing?

Well, not quite. But that’s how I’d remembered it for the past several years. What he actually said was that he had:

“never seen a strong distinction drawn in print between the personal essay and the familiar essay; maybe they are identical twins, maybe close cousins. The difference, if there is any, is one of nuance, I suspect. The familiar essay values lightness of touch above all else; the personal essay, which need not be light, tends to put the writer’s ‘I’ or idiosyncratic angle more at center stage.” (xxiv)

I’ve been trying to understand the essay beyond Lopate — see what other essayists and theorists have written about it. But then, I always seem to come back and weigh this new information against Lopate’s words, as though what he wrote was law.

I’ve found some funny things along the way, like an essay I’ve previously seen referred to several times by Annie Dilliard called “To Fashion a Text.” This I found listed in a bibliography of uncollected essays on her official website, with its original publication appearing in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, and then listed as having been republished several times elsewhere. What struck me as funny was the note following it. Dillard wrote after the purely bibliographic entry on “To Fashion a Text” : “This [meaning her essay] is emphatically not interesting; I renounce it.” Intreaging. You better believe I immediately ordered Inventing the Truth from the interlibrary loan system.

When in school, I primarily seemed to be concerned with the writing of essays. Granted, I never took a course on the essay as a literary genre, but did discuss in terms of creative writing workshops. There were a few key texts that we used as touchpoints for the personal essay — Lopate’s anthology being chief among them. But I’ve discovered that there is an entire world out there!

There’s Lydia Fakundiny’s The Art of the Essay; essays by Virginia Woolf in The Common Reader, First SeriesCarl H. Klaus and Ned Stuckey-French’s Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time. I’ve realized, especially with the latter book, that there isn’t a whole lot of literary theory surrounding the personal essay, and that most of what we understand of the essay in a theoretical sense has come from essayists themselves, as opposed to critics, and that these have come in the form of personal essays. And so, it makes sense that the resources we use as guides are in fact appendages to large anthologies of personal essays — Introductions, like Fakundiny’s, Epstein’s, and of course, Lopate’s.

I’ve just begun to dig in into these essays on the essays. It’s been fun and I’m  learning a lot, and also struggling to compose my own working definition of the essay while  simultaneously sharpening my understanding of it.

What I’m doing, in effect, is essaying: sifting for truth, and admittedly weighing it against my own experience and Lopate’s introduction, not dissimilar to weighing apocrypha against canonized scripture.


Question: What is your understanding of the personal essay? or What are some of your favourite essays on the essay?