Rain either rolls off your back or gets under your skin
For Write Stuff readers, I have composed a personal essay regarding a five-week writing course I took earlier this summer. It is a five-part series, but I was unable to post this week's part on the Write Stuff site. So I will post it here. If you have not read the previous posts, please take time to read them before reading this part as they all build upon each other. In order: 1) Where does rain come from?, 2) Rain intensifies the drama of the question, 3) Rain—everyone needs it like everyone needs a great narrative.
Two weeks later—I sit in the familiar warehouse that is the classroom of a writing workshop on the art of personal essay. The class discussion of homework complete, a cookie provided by the Flood Fine Arts Gallery owner crumbles in my mouth and the class assumes the task of critiquing the third draft of personal essays. My personal essay has grown from a three-page, double spaced first draft to a nine-page document. A couple classmates have privately commented to me their solidarity with my work and I believe we may be kindred spirits in the dark art of literary craft. Ann Pancake writes in the Poets & Writers article Reading How You’re Read, “Art is not created by consensus.” I understand this and realize that most of my classmates cannot detach their teacherly or motherly habits. Ann Pancake further reminds to “consider any personal biases a reader might have for or against a particular piece. Such prejudices might concern you as a writer... the critics insecurities about her own work, or the subject matter of the poem, story, or essay being critiqued.”
Even with this understanding, I am not prepared for today’s critique.
“He’s a jerk,” says one classmate holding a copy of my manuscript in front of her. “He’s not even listening to her.”
“And there’s a weird detachment,” says another. “Almost voyeuristic.”
The workshop instructor displays a wry smile, and I cannot decide if he is nervous or devious. He reaches for his bottled water and unscrews the cap. “Matthew is doing something different here. I think he’s the only one doing this. Can anyone tell me what’s going on here?” he asks.
You see, many of my classmates wrote in the style of a memoir—experience based personal narrative. It tends to be linear as far as general plot. This is not wrong. A good memoir is a delightful reading experience. Another way of looking at a memoir is that it is autobiographical and follows a real life plot line. But this is boring for me to write. Plain vanilla ice cream is a grand delight—one of my favorite, especially Ben & Jerry's Organic Vanilla. But Ben and Jerry’s Vermonty Python explodes with flavor. As a consumer, Ben & Jerry’s Organic Vanilla ice cream is great, but put in the director's chair—I want to experiment. Personal essay seems the perfect laboratory for me. A personal essay is an idea piece that relates a universal theme. It is part memoir in that it deals with personal history, but it is part essay in the fact that the personal history is plumbed for a deeper theme, lesson, or anecdote. It can be written in past tense, but can be written in present tense.
The instructor knows what I am trying to do. I use techniques common to fiction. To be honest, I did not know exactly what I was doing—regarding technique. I write what was in my head and let the story form on the page. (Most drafts I write in a composition book or moleskin notebook and enter them into my laptop later.) What emerged was a narrative with three viewpoints. This is something the workshop instructor identifies and shares with the class. He explains it this way to the class: “Matthew is both the narrator and principle actor in this piece.”
Through the personal essay, I—the writer—assume several masks (roles or point of views): principle actor, narrator (or, if this was a film, a director) and the third mask is somewhat mysterious. The workshop instructor uses the term writers mask as an expression of the face the writer assumes to relate the narrative. For example, most memoir writers use one mask—I, the writer/narrator. For me that seems too linear—a matter of personal preference. The instructor has a difficult time identifying the third mask until one of the classmates (the only other man in the class outside myself), says that it embodies the spirit of foreshadowing.
“Kind of like the voice of a prophet,” says the instructor. “Suggesting something bigger than the current narrative presents.”
This is rich critique—something I can use to strengthen the personal essay. The previous critique is also useful, but relates more about the reader than about the prose I am crafting.
Again, I am not aware of what I am doing. Writing the essay seems intuitive to me in that I present a story that shifts in and out of scenes and summary. For example, the exposition territory allows me to present personal summary and develop an emotional landscape—the inner life of the narrator. The dialogue presents scenes of drama where all the action takes place. This dialogue part is risky in a personal essay due to the fabrication of it. Did I really say that? Did she really say that? No recording device is present. So I guesstimate the actual scenes as best I can recall. To some writers creative guesstimation presents an ethical dilemma—shifting empirical evidence to fit the narrative if not pure imagination. I shrug off the comments of being a jerk and embrace the critique about multiple masks.