Less-Than-Secret Lives: Symposium on the Personal Essay 10/03/09

Report by Joey Von Hoven:

The Personal Essay Symposium at Tulane on Saturday, October 3 was an intriguing chance to see, up-close and in sharp comparative relief, four writers’ different styles, positions, personalities, and takes on the personal essay and on writing in general. This revealed some interesting dichotomies, intersections, and comparisons that could have fueled a much longer panel discussion.

Phillip Lopate, the acknowledged elder statesman of the personal essay, seemed to have the role of sagacious and judicious patriarch of the symposium. His reading on his experiences with poetic insiders and his subsequent shift to his hallmark role as personal essayist shed a lot of light on the topic (and left me with a great impression that it’s okay if it turns out you’re not great at something, because that leaves you to discover what you are great at … If your parents won’t tell you that, you at least have Phillip Lopate). Lopate’s essays are intended to be insightful and thought-provoking (and sometimes amusing) investigations on a topic. Even an essay about his own sexual experiences is full of reverberating reflections on the human condition (“Fornicating is like parenting…you feel someone somewhere else is doing it better”).

Meghan Daum believes that essays have an intellectual hook, using the writer’s experiences to reflect on issues of contemporary society. In My Misspent Youth, her first collection of essays, Daum tackled image obsession and the fetishization of life and culture through the lens of her own disillusionment with the trappings of being a cultured, classy intellectual. In Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House, from which she read at the Symposium, she develops these themes by exploring the lives of her parents. Allen. When she read – in a tone of wistful pity – the scene in which she leaves her mother, recently moved to New York City, Daum seems more like the parent than the child. There’s an undertone – of the culture of superficiality and aspiration claiming her family as casualties – running through a lot of Daum’s work, as though she’s pursuing and indicting something like a victim-detective. This may be an intellectual hook, but it’s sharpened and it’s personal.

Chris Rose, wired and high-strung, gave a bard-like, animated reading of some of his pieces on post-Katrina New Orleans. For Rose, “it’s all heart, passion, and soul, which doesn’t seem to be rational at all.” His work is a series of shots of life, impressionistic scenes meant to get at the truth—of a city, of life. His Kerouac-like account of his discovery of New Orleans reveals Rose’s vital identification with the city, while his pieces focused on children were rendered with a tender, sensitive voice. But this voice also occasionally rises to outright indignation at failures, neglects, and persistent stupidities that have made life in New Orleans harder than needs to be. (When Rose talks about his banal first-name-basis acquaintance with a decomposing body, the incongruity isn’t lost on him.) His short-essay collection, 1 Dead in Attic isn’t just Rose’s story of a hurt and desperately struggling New Orleans, but also of his own personal succumbing to traumatic stress—something as far from the trite pretenses of journalistic objectivity as one can get.

Jonathan Ames is the jester, bawdy and lighthearted. He makes fun of himself and his misfortunes and awkward situations, but even when he’s kvetching about it, the joke is never really on him. (I wonder if I was the only person who was left wishing that I, too, had “shat my pants in the south of France”?) Ames admitted to playing with the line between fiction and non-fiction, though there doesn’t seem anything deceptive in his portrayals. Actually, by writing creative and funny accounts of what it’s like for Jonathan Ames to live in the world (which sometimes seems like the Tao of humiliation), he is probably the writer in the symposium who most breaks down even the idea of the distinction between fact and fiction.

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