This post originally appeared in the journal Lunch Ticket on November 14, 2014:
Back in September, in the midst of a submission deluge for our upcoming Winter/Spring issue (out next month), our fair blog posted a piece On The Importance of Following Submission Guidelines. I know you read it, because afterwards there were far fewer single-spaced, comic sans, 10-pt. font essays in our CNF pile. Still, quite a few submissions, meticulously crafted I am sure, included personal disclosures we have specifically requested be left off. This never ceased to cause a few face-palms here in the reading room. Dear friends, please, do not ruin your beautiful essays and stories by revealing your identity—LT reads blind by choice.
Yet, by and large, y’all did a nice job with the submission guidelines. I hate to admit it, but honestly, at the belly of the bulge, none of us wants to have our submissions rejected because the reader’s eyes are too tired to battle single-spacing. And yet, readers’ eyes do tire.
Now, our submission window has closed. I’m on the copyediting team also, and so am currently re-reading the CNF and Diana Woods Memorial essays that we accepted for publication. I am giddy with excitement about releasing these beautiful pieces out into the world for more readers. Also, as I peruse these works for errant typos and the evil two-spaces-after-a-period that we LTers disdain, I am reflecting on what particular qualities pushed these particular essays into our thumbs-up pile.
So what is it about these particular essays?
[First, let me reiterate: I am not talking about fiction or YA. Currently, I only read for Lunch Ticket’s CNF section and the DWM prize.]
In personal essay and memoir, of course there is an “I.” In fact, there are two: there is the I of the past, and the I of the future. The past I is the one in the situation described in the essay; the present I is that of the narrator. In personal essay, the narrator is the writer.
The stellar essays in our submissions box recognized that the present-I—the voice of the narrator—is the one that truly harnesses an essay’s power and vitality. As readers, this is generally the one that keeps us reading. Why? Because the narrator is wise. A good narrator makes the personal story of the writer into a universal story for the reader.
The marginalia I most often noted on a thumbs-down essay was this: that the story was surely interesting to the writer, but needed more reflection and exposition to make it interesting to the reader. Don’t be afraid, I wanted to note, to let the narrator delve into self-inquiry. We readers want this, because your self-inquiry becomes our self-inquiry. We are terribly interested in ourselves. In the end, this is why we read. To better understand ourselves.
Is this confusing? Philip Lopate, author, media critic, and Columbia University professor of writing, says this:
“In writing memoir, the trick, it seems to me, is to establish a double perspective that will allow the reader to participate vicariously in the experience as it was lived (the confusions and misapprehensions of the child one was, say), while conveying the sophisticated wisdom of one’s current self.”
The past-I, caught in the moment of the situation, is likely unprepared for whatever conflict arose, and reacts in the spur of the moment. However, the present-I, the narrator, has the wisdom of now, the power of reflection. Hindsight’s 20-20, right?
Use this power, Lopate urges. He goes on to say, in fact, that this double perspective is an obligatory aspect of memoir/personal essay. Not only that, he says, but “this second perspective, the author’s retrospective employment of a more mature intelligence to interpret the past is not merely an obligation but a privilege, an opportunity.”
Take a sip of your coffee. Swallow. It’s worth lingering over his wording here—“an opportunity.” When Lopate says “opportunity,” he is calling attention to the very act of writing, and the way this very act changes the writer. Writing personal essay should be a revelatory process. Lopate says we must let it be that. We must allow the intelligent, wise present-I narrator emerge, because personal essay and memoir writing is a journey of exploration.
It is this very exploration, this very struggle, that makes writing vital, not just to the writer, but to the readership. This is the bridge between the inner life and the rest of humanity.
After all, when we send out our work for publication, isn’t this what we hope for? Connection? Recognition? Doesn’t our heart warm when a stranger’s words leap from the page or the screen, and we suddenly feel that, yes, someone, understands?