Whenever I read an author who’s been recommended to me as a good model for essays or the great essayist or something more hyperbolic, I’m always struck by two things: one, how subjective the phrase “a good essay” is and two, how I almost never like the author.
A couple weeks ago, writer Roxane Gay took to Twitter to answer questions not only about what she’s looking for as the editor of The Butter but general writing advice. One of her many Tweets included a short list of writers people should read if they wanted to understand essay writing better/know what she personally preferred in her submissions. Among the books was The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison.
Being a scant 56 pages in, I probably shouldn’t judge Ms. Jamison’s work or Ms. Gay’s recommendation, but I’m absolutely going to. While Ms. Jamison’s writing is intense and almost lyrical and the thought she puts into her work is both sympathetic and focused, it borders on being dense and melodramatic, even hysterical. Part of that is the nature of the two essays, “The Empathy Exams,” which includes information about her abortion and heart surgery, and “Devil’s Bait,” which explores Morgellons disease and the people who attended a conference about it in Austin, Texas. Part of it also seems to be her personality, something that is just a bit fragile and vulnerable but aches to help others in an effort to heal herself. Or at least, that’s what I’ve come to understand.
However, her writing doesn’t seem to be for me. I am not nearly that intense, lyrical, thoughtful, pleading, or meticulous, and I don’t want to be. Those words have negative connotations for me and are not things to imitate. I prefer Ms. Gay’s writing, which is more robust and straight-forward and not nearly so exposed. I don’t want to see the writer naked, pinned to a slab with a harsh light shining on her and illuminating all of her flaws, hopes, and secrets. I want to follow the thread of a thought, the exploration of a topic, not wade through an author’s haze of reaction.
Much of essay writing seems to exist between these extremes: straightforward, plain-speaking prose and intense, introspective prose-poetry. Growing up as a writer and attending writing workshops, I was always led to believe that the latter was the most important, the most skillful, and the one that you had to replicate if you ever wanted to sell your essays (which, in itself, would be highly unlikely). Periodically, I would make an attempt, sitting in my desk crammed in my closet, shielded by my clothes, typing rapid-fire on my type writer. I would set my lips in a thoughtful moue and lower my eyebrows and quirk my eyes into a squint as I attempted to peel back the layers of reality in search of whimsy, thought, and epiphany. Without exception, my efforts were melodramatic and laughable, and I almost never finished one. I certainly never turned one in as an assignment. So I put essays next to poetry in my Box of Writing I Will Never Pursue.
Then I entered my mid-twenties and started casting about for some writing that I could do. My fictive efforts were drying up. Poetry held absolutely no appeal. I didn’t know how to break into pop culture and its ancillary media. I wasn’t yet set on graphic novels. Thank God I found the group Binders Full of Essayists.
I am a silent partner in this group, but I am present. I note the “Brag Your Byline” weekly events and click on the links of people’s published essays. I learn so much about so many different women and faucets of life and, most importantly, I learn that the published essayist can be so much more than lyrical, introspective, and emotional. I learn that I can write an essay (and maybe even get one published).
Discovering that there is a market for straightforward, plain-speaking prose at a time when I seriously doubted my ability to contribute as a writer was so meaningful. It still is. It helps me drive back the jealousy when I see old high school friends succeeding. It helps dampen the self-doubt when I read some of Ms. Gay’s favorite authors and realize I’m nothing like them. It lets me respond to disappointment and criticism with anger and humor instead of depression. It encourages me to write every day even if the result goes nowhere but my permanent draft folder.
It also allows me to keep reading writers I don’t necessarily have anything in common with. It encourages me to be supportive and open-minded (to an extent). I plan on finishing Ms. Jamison’s essays, if for no other reason than to see if there’s something I can learn from them. Although I don’t particularly care for her voice, I can see past her writing to the hours of thought and revision she put in each essay. I can see restless patience as she pulls and tugs each essay into shape. I can see courage where she goes to a conference of people she has nothing in common with and attempts to get to know them and their pain. I can see strength where she forces her pain into writing. I may not want to write like Ms. Jamison, but I certainly want to possess the same strength of character and that’s reason enough to keep reading.