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Diana Joseph on Essays

I’m a big fan of essays and memoirs, but I know a lot of people who don’t like them because they think an essay or memoir is self-absorbed. While sometimes this is true, the best personal essays that I’ve read end up not being self-absorbed at all.  And it’s these fantastic essays that leave me willing to forget about the essays that aren’t as good.

I hadn’t been able to articulate my idea about what makes a good essay well until I came across an interview with memoirist Diana Joseph where she explained her idea of an essay. The interviewer asked Joseph how she could turn her “you had to be there” stories into good writing for the book.  Joseph responded,

That’s the thing about an anecdote, right? It’s usually only hilarious if you were there. Sometimes, though, the story is interesting even if you weren’t there, and for me, that happens when I care about the people in the story. My students and I call this “Species Recognition.” Readers need to recognize these people as fellow humans.

But while the story needs to be good, and the characters need to be developed, there’s still the matter of what it means and why should the reader care. In order to push the anecdote beyond “You had to be there,” the writer needs to reflect. The writer needs to answer to the question of, “So what?” And the best answers go beyond the obvious, the clichéd. For me, a good piece of writing will lead me to two reactions: recognition — I know exactly what you mean — or revelation — I never thought of it like that. The best writing gives me both.

What Joseph articulates are the two most important parts of the essay, the rewards the reader gets for going through the piece — recognition or revelation. You need to either feel like you’ve connected to the essayist by understanding or feel like the essay has helped you think in a new way. Personal stories can do that, if they’re written well and the author makes an effort to move beyond themselves. Essays that don’t try to provide that little something extra tend to fall flat and stray into the land of self-indulgence.

Tomorrow, I’m going to post a review of I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloan Crosley, and a lot of my opinion of the book comes from thinking of it in these terms, so stay tuned!

Do you like to read essays and memoirs? Why or why not? Does the idea of “recognition or revelation” make sense to you? Do you have a favorite essay?

Photo by John Althouse Cohen via flickr.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Julia Smith April 20, 2009, 10:54 am

    I love the recognition/revelation thing. I feel that the whole blog phenomenon can be held to these standards, as what are blog posts but mini essays and memoirs?

    There is a blogger I love who takes a basic everyday situation and makes it into the most hilarious post ever – except for the one she writes after that, and the one after that. Definite recognition factor in her posts!

  • Dorte H April 20, 2009, 1:49 pm

    Pretty picture!

    If people think memoirs are self-centrered, it must be the wrong ones they have read 🙂
    I don´t read many, and not very often, but when a truly interesting person writes the story of his/her life, they often tell you the most wonderful stories about other peoples´lives, their environment, their circumstances of life or something else you can learn a lot from.

    Some of the best Danish actors have written marvelous accounts of their ups and downs in lives.