Until I enrolled in the Skidmore Summer Writers Institute for a two-week course on nonfiction writing, I’d never heard of Philip Lopate, the man who would be my instructor. I guess that shows how little serious reading I’d done in “literary nonfiction.” Lopate, it turns out, is the king of nonfiction, having written four collections of personal essays and edited five anthologies, including The Art of the Personal Essay, a massive “greatest hits” collection comprising works from Seneca to Joan Didion. When I read his Wikipedia entry, I came away with a mix of terror and exhilaration. The terror I felt was wholly unwarranted: Lopate is an extraordinarily kind and generous instructor who consistently encourages developing writers, even as he reminds them of their many deficiencies. It’s been a week or so since I completed the course, and, while I learned a tremendous amount about the nonfiction genre (we’ll see how much my writing improves), my greatest takeaway from Lopate’s seminar was more ontological in nature.
For the workshop, I submitted a 17-page story about my father’s disastrous second marriage and the effect it had on our family. My classmates generally submitted memoir pieces as well—some quite short, others excerpts from book-length works. A workshop in memoir, I learned very quickly, provides a rare view into the most intimate experiences of people you might never have met under different circumstances. While I understood this intellectually from having been so confessional in my own memoir, Midpoint, the phenomenon became much more vivid in the physical presence of other human beings sitting around that workshop table.
It’s Not About Courage
One woman wrote of her emotionally fraught relationship with her Chinese-immigrant mother. A recent college graduate wrote of her descent into drug addiction. A young mother told of losing her baby girl to a rare genetic disorder. The woman sitting next to me wrote about discovering that her mother wasn’t at all who she claimed to be. Manuscript after manuscript, person by person, we strangers shared the most personal confessions one can imagine. This dynamic so struck me that, after reading some of Lopate’s own personal essays, I remarked in class how courageous he’d been to share his experiences with the world, how making oneself vulnerable seemed part and parcel of memoir writing.
“I don’t think ‘courageous’ is the right word for it,” he replied. “Once you’ve shared all those personal details in an essay or a book, it doesn’t feel so brave anymore. The work takes on a separate identity from you—it becomes an artifact with a life of its own.” He went on to explain how Montaigne spoke of sharing details in his essays that he’d never consider telling his closest friend. Therein lies the great irony of memoir, I think: The act of sharing one’s most intimate thoughts with the world, of releasing them like so many captive birds, simultaneously unburdens the writer while investing those ruminations with lives of their own. The very best memoirists, even, transfigure their ideas into art that survives for centuries.
Sitting in that classroom for two weeks, hearing all these stories of trauma, suffering, and doubt, I found the question arose: Are we all writing to unburden ourselves—and if that is so, are memoirists at risk of the worst kind of solipsism? After all, in committing one’s suffering to paper, it’s easy to get lost in the tangled forest of one’s own memories, to believe that one’s anguish is special and, by that virtue alone, worth reading about. Lopate put a pin in that bubble by reminding us that “Everyone experiences suffering at some point. Suffering alone doesn’t make us interesting or entertaining.” He went on to explain that “it’s our fundamental job as writers to be entertaining—whether we’re writing about something funny or something tragic.” That was a bold statement to make to a roomful of aspiring writers who had spent the last several months—or maybe years—recording our sad stories for posterity. Lopate had that ability, though, to remind his students, without the slightest hint of an apology, that this was a writing workshop, not a therapy session, and our objective was to produce high-quality, literary work.
Working Things Out, in Public
The first noble truth of Buddhism holds that suffering, pain, and misery exist in life. Suffering is part of the human condition; and how we choose to meet that suffering is what defines the course of our lives and our character. Tibetan Buddhism’s foremost spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, once noted that “When you are aware of your pain and suffering, it helps you to develop your capacity for empathy, the capacity that allows you to relate to other people’s feelings and suffering.” Empathy, he continues, “enhances one’s capacity for compassion” and helps us connect with others. Sitting in that nonfiction workshop, I couldn’t help but think of this idea that awareness of our suffering helps us connect with others—locates us reassuringly, if you will, within the vast web of humanity. I realize, of course, that such claims can sound a little woo-woo to the more pragmatic among us. But, as a memoirist, I can now say I don’t give a shit. I still think it’s true.
The extraordinary power of memoir and, perhaps, the underlying reason for its durability as a genre is that, by jotting down our stories of turmoil, strife, suffering, or loss, we toss our own coin into the fountain. In doing so, we acknowledge to humanity that I’m working some things out, too. Somehow, seeing all those other coins in the water is reassuring for us, reminds us that whatever uncertainty we’re working through‚ whether tragic or merely distracting, is not a case of life targeting us for punishment, but just part of being, well, human. Moving on from my workshop, I can’t help but wonder how all those manuscripts will look when they’re finished, but more importantly, what insight my classmates will arrive at by the last page.