📙 To Show and to Tell
Author: Phillip Lopate
Full Title: To Show and to Tell
My deepest inclination as a writer is historical: to link up what is written today with the rich literary lode of the past.
I grew up sensing that a part of me was faking being a child; I felt I was already an old soul. Lots of people feel that, particularly those who will go on to become writers.
In my own writing I am trying to say, among other things, “This is my consciousness, now don’t feel so guilty about yours. If you have perverse, curmudgeonly, conflicted, antisocial thoughts, know that others have them too.
In arty films, obsession is the last desperate refuge to pull together random footage with a semblance of plot.
The solution to entrapment in the narcissistic hothouse of self is not to relinquish autobiographical writing, but to expand the self by bringing one’s curiosity to interface with more and more history and the present world.
Not obsession but curiosity. It is my underlying conviction that nonfiction as a practice tends toward reason, calm, insight, order.
What moves me about these memoirs is that both authors were trying to write as rationally as possible about their brushes with madness.
Are you yet a character? Maybe not: not until you have soldered your relationship with the reader by springing vividly into his mind, so that everything your I says and does on the page seems somehow oddly, piquantly characteristic.
The trick, of course, is that you cannot amuse the reader unless you are already self-amused. And here we come to one of the main stumbling blocks placed before effective personal writing: self-hatred.
The proper alternative to self-dislike is not being pleased with oneself—a smug complacency that comes across as equally distasteful—but being curious about oneself.
I may be very tired of myself in everyday life, but once I start narrating a situation or set of ideas on the page, I begin to see my I in a comic light, and I maneuver him so that he will best amuse the reader. Maintaining one’s dignity should not be a paramount issue in personal writing.
Nonfiction writing thrives on daring, darting, subjective flights of thought. You must get in the habit of inviting, not censoring, the most far-fetched, mischievous notions, because even if they prove cockeyed, they may point to an element of truth that would otherwise be inaccessible.
The need thus exists to make oneself into a character, whether the nonfiction uses a first- or third-person narrative voice. I would further maintain that this process of turning oneself into a character is not self-absorbed navel gazing, but rather a potential release from narcissism.
“Denial” is too crude an explanation for the way the mind works, in undulating, aqueous layers of awareness and repudiation of the truth.
They are deathly afraid of exposing that their innermost thoughts may be banal.
Montaigne is not suited to the extremities of adolescent confusion, like Kafka or Dostoevsky; he is for achieving equilibrium (and what teenager is interested in that middle-aged virtue?); he is opposed to the fanatical, apocalyptic, or otherworldly; he speaks for the everyday, for moderation, which he calls the “middle way,” and most of all for experience, which takes a while to acquire.
About purists or perfectionists he remarks, “They want to get out of themselves and escape from the man. That is madness: instead of changing into angels, they change into beasts; instead of raising themselves, they lower themselves. These transcendental humors frighten me.
I have long held the personal essay to be one of the last bastions of the orthodoxy of the unitary Self: those of us who are drawn to practicing this form tend to believe in our possessing a core reality or self, and we would cling to this conviction even if critical theory disproved it beyond doubt.
Poe may have said that a poem must be short or face the risk of mounting imperfection, but pace Poe, perfection is very rare in literature and probably overrated.
Ozick ends with the following question, ‘Your hair is whitening, you are a well of tears, what you meant to do (beauty and justice) you have not done, papa and mama are under the earth, you live in panic and dread, the future shrinks and darkens, stories are only vapor, your inmost craving is for nothing but an old scarred pen, and what, God knows, is that?
I have nothing to say about myself absolutely, simply, and solidly, without confusion and without mixture, or in one word.
Often, I am no sooner asked by an editor to write on a certain topic than I begin to experience a nauseated opposition to the assignment. It could be laziness, or a knee-jerk reaction against authority, or it could be reluctance to comply with what I sense is a conventional exercise. So, for instance, when I agreed to contribute to an anthology of essays by Jewish-American authors about their personal relationship to the Holocaust, I ended up writing a piece called “Resistance to the Holocaust,” in which I interrogated my own aversion to this subject matter.
In testing the validity of certain pieties, the contrarian essay performs a valuable function, like the null hypothesis in experimental science.
(The funny thing is that by and large I am a nice guy, but I need the fiction that I’m not in order to sustain me in the act of writing.)
To be a writer is a monstrously arrogant act.
Have you ever seen two writers of medium reputation being introduced to each other for the first time? Each is probably thinking, “How can he be a writer? I am the writer.” Each sees himself as the emperor of an unrecognized kingdom. It is like that case of the three mental patients in Ypsilanti State Hospital, each with the unshakable conviction that he was Jesus Christ, even after being put together with the other two who had the same delusion.
Good writers down through the ages have known how to cut through the thickness of complexity when it suited them and simply declare. The turn toward aphorism frequently signals this intention.
Sometimes a writer may even bring into existence, through assertion, more wisdom than he or she possessed before beginning to write the sentence. To put it another way: the words themselves, by having been placed in their most compact formulation, generate, side by side, magnetic reactions amongst themselves that release unforeseen meanings. Good writers are always trying to write above their heads, to hit on understandings beyond their conscious knowledge, through fortuitous word choice.
The first time I was assigned to write a review for The New York Times Book Review, I found myself again in the situation of having to invent a persona: to pretend to be this cultivated, self-assured, supremely balanced arbiter who had only a glancing relationship to my everyday self.
It’s not that I’ve made up a contrarian or curmudgeonly persona, but that my physiological restlessness, my low tolerance for boredom, my neurotic antipathy to sentimentality all dictate that I throw in a dash of paradox, humorous chagrin, or spite.
Here the creative nonfiction writer can follow the journalists’ lead. Being trained generalists—that is to say, quick studies who can leap opportunistically on intriguing vignettes and facts, give them a vivid twist, and forget the rest—veteran journalists know that they don’t have to become specialists, they just have to absorb enough of the material under scrutiny this week or month to file an interesting story. When you are researching, what you are looking for, subconsciously or not, is the oddity that will spark your imagination—not necessarily the most important detail, but the one that will excite your love of paradox or sense of humor.
Because some thoughts cannot be expressed in the Strunk and White, keep-it-simple-and-clear recipe, they require a more sinuous, self-reflective, devious syntax.
We go through life like an electromagnetic needle nervously agitating between the undesirable poles of alpha-flat zombie and tortured suffering, trying to find the right voltage of bracingly vivifying pleasure/pain in the middle.
We tend to value renegades like Thoreau, doomed alcoholics like Poe, recluses like Dickinson, misunderstood visionaries like Melville, expansive gay bards like Whitman.
At the same time he felt the failure of most attempts at empathy: “Man is insular, and cannot be touched. Every man is an infinitely repellent orb.
“My only secret was that all men were my masters. I never saw one who was not my superior.
What is the nature of the individual Self in today’s consumer culture? Are our thoughts even our own, or are we merely channeling messages from the mass media, which function as a kind of exoskeleton?
Lopate has a nice book about nonfiction writing called 📙 To Show and to Tell. Since I have my highlights right here, I can easily show you some parts that inspired me: