I’ve never really thought I could write personal essays (or non-fiction, for that matter). They never held much appeal to me, as either a reader or as a writer.
A lot of this has to do with my checkered educational history; for someone who aspired to be a writer, it now amazes me how many college professors desperately tried to stomp that aspiration out of me–yet at the same time, it enormously pleases me that I proved them all WRONG. When I first started college, the week before my seventeenth birthday, my basic English Comp class required us to spend the first day writing an essay, predicated around the question you are going to spend the rest of your life on a deserted island, what three people and three things would you take with you, and why? I don’t remember what I wrote; I know one of the people was Stephen King so he could keep writing books to entertain me. But the end result of that essay was me being moved from Basic Comp to Honors English. This was not only a surprise but exciting; whomever that professor was, he recognized my ability!
Honors English, however, turned out to be a horrific nightmare…as did all of my experiences with the English department of that particular college. My new professor–whom I shall never forget, like I shall never forget my first creative writing professor at that benighted plague of a university–was, quite frankly, a moron. There were only twelve of us in the class; she advised us on the very first day that she never gave A’s because that left no room for improvement. I was not an Honors student, so this didn’t phase me, but it caused a lot of discomfort in my extremely-driven-by-GPA classmates. And she stuck to that; none of us ever got an A on any of our essays or papers, and she certainly didn’t teach us anything. My essays were shredded by her on a regular basis; she also liked to proclaim that we would never get so honest an opinion on our writing as we got from her, and even as a naive teenager, I sensed that she took malicious pleasure in being as nasty as she could with our work. We never got anything productive or useful from her; no editorial guidance whatsoever; just nasty condescending commentary in red ink on our papers. That, coupled with a kinder yet equally unhelpful professor in the second semester of Honors English Comp, convinced me that I would never be able to write non-fiction; that writing essays and personal essays were a skill set I neither possessed, nor could learn.
Thanks for that, bitches.
And when you factor in the creative writing professor the next semester who told me I’d never publish…well, you can see why I became absolutely disinterested in college and it just became something else I had to endure and get through.
So, as I grew older and evolved and continued reading and pursuing from time to time my desire to write, I avoided nonfiction and essays. I was never going to write them, I wasn’t any good at them, so why bother? This negative perception continued throughout my life until a friend told me, several years ago, that you write a personal essay on your blog every day. I’d even written and published some, yet I still had that wall up in my mind: I’m not smart enough. I’m not clever enough. Anything I have to say has already been said better by someone else. Anything point I’d try to make would get the response “well, duh, LOSER.”
I started reading Joan Didion last year, beginning with her book Miami, and suddenly, began to see essays in an entirely new light.
This is a book about books. To try that again, it is a book about my fatal flaw: that I insist on learning everything from books. I find myself wanting to apologize for my book’s title, which, in addition to embarrassingly taking part in a ubiquitous publishing trend by including the word girls, seems to evince a lurid and cutesy complicity in the very brutality it critiques. If I can say one lame thing in my defense, it is that I wanted to call this book Dead Girls from the moment I realized I was writing it, in the spring of 2014 I wrote an essay on the finale of the first season of True Detective, trying to parse a category of TV I identified as the Dead Girl Show, with Twin Peaks as this genre’s first and still most notable example. People seemed to like that essay, so I understood that Dead Girls was something I could hitch my wagon to.
So begins Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession. To be honest, while I greatly enjoyed reading this book, I didn’t find that most of the essays were, in fact, about ‘surviving an American obsession’; I thought this was going to be a lengthy look at how the trope of dead girls runs through, and is repeatedly used, over and over, in all aspects of crime fiction; be it a television show, novels, or films. Bolin instead extrapolates her theme to encompass society as a whole, and I’m not entirely sure she succeeds.
Didion, on the other hand, opens this way:
This book is called Slouching Towards Bethlehem because for several years now certain lines from the Yeats poem which appears two pages back have reverberated in my inner ear as if they were surgically implanted there. The widening gyre, the falcon which does not hear the falconer, the gaze blank and pitiless as the sun; those have been my points of reference, the only images against which much of what I was seeing and hearing and thinking seemed to make any pattern. “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is also the title of one piece in the book, and that piece, which derived from some time spent in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, was for me the more imperative of all these pieces to write and the only one that made me despondent after it was printed. It was the first time I had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart: I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder. That was why the piece was so important to me. And after it was printed I saw that, however directly and flatly I thought I had said it, I had failed to get through to many of the people who read and even liked the piece, failed to suggest that I was talking about something more general than a handful of children wearing mandalas on their foreheads. Disc jockeys telephoned my house and wanted to discuss (on the air) the incidence of “filth” in the Haight-Ashbury, and acquaintances congratulated me on finishing the piece “just in time,” because “the whole fad’s dead now, fini, kaput.” I suppose almost everyone who writes is afflicted some of the time by the suspicion that nobody out there is listening, but it seemed to me then (perhaps because the piece was important to me) that I had never gotten a feedback so universally beside the point.
It seems unfair to critique Bolin negatively simply because the book went in a different direction than I thought it would; but I ultimately was disappointed in her collection primarily because I was looking for, I don’t know, a feminist point of view about the misogyny in crime fiction, both written and filmed. That was, actually, my primary carp about her book. I enjoyed it otherwise; Bolin has a dry wit and she wrote about a lot of things from a perspective I hadn’t considered–that of the young millennial female trying to make it in an increasingly hostile world with very little opportunity for young writers to make a living. She also critiques Didion harshly; harsher then perhaps I might have, although I do periodically take some issue with the lens through which Didion sees the world and writes about it–that of a very privileged white woman, whose inability to recognize her own privilege sometimes colors her observations.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem is the third non-fiction book of Didion’s I’ve read over the last two years; the others being Miami and After Henry. I also read her novel A Book of Common Prayer, which, while bizarre, was also terribly interesting and exceptionally written. Regardless of what one might think of Didion’s privilege and how it might color her lens, the woman is an exceptionally skilled writer. Her sentences are flawlessly constructed, and the rhythm manages to convey an almost world-weariness, a sense of being jaded by what people do. The two books are actually good to read together, because they seem to focus on the same thing, even though written decades apart. Bolin uses the trope of the dead girl to launch into her consideration of a world where young people are disillusioned by the lack of opportunity, where intelligence and talent perhaps do not provide a means of making a living anymore, and how the misogyny of society, as depicted through the dead girl trope, helps stack the deck against young women. Didion’s book looks at the beginning of that erosion, the decay of the mythology of the American dream. Her observations of Haight-Ashbury during the days of the hippies and the flower children, and conversations with the young people who flocked there, is an interesting contrast to the world Bolin is writing about: those young people were disaffected by the box of the American dream, felt trapped by the opportunity their parents were pushing them towards; they didn’t want the white picket fence and the 2.3 children and the dog and the split-level house in the suburbs and the long commute into the city for a 9 to 5 existence. They rejected the American Dream; Bolin’s generation wishes it were even an option to reject.
Were I teaching Freshmen English Comp, these two books would be my required texts for my students. Both books made me think; both books inspired me to write myself and gave me ideas; both writers have depth and perception and skill. I got more than I was expecting from Bolin’s book; I got precisely what I thought I would from Didion’s.
I highly recommend both.