Recently, I received the latest issue of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction in the mail. Fourth Genre, is one of the premier literary journals that publishes creative nonfiction in the United States. From the start of my MFA studies (which included the opportunity to work with Fourth Genre’s founding editor Michael Steinberg) and practice in this genre, I have subscribed to the journal and learned a great deal from the essays, interviews, and book reviews published in its pages. I have submitted just one essay to Fourth Genre over the years, I believe, but was not lucky enough to see it accepted; the competition to publish in this journal is fierce. I feel honored just to have a book review in the current issue.
The Fall 2011 issue’s Editor’s Notes, penned by highly respected editor Marcia Aldrich, got me thinking. Ms. Aldrich explains, at the beginning of the notes, that the journal receives a great many “essays and memoirs about illness–not about health care, not philosophical meditations on sickness bolstered by research, but personal narratives.” Although she honors the “tempting authenticity of testimony about one’s own pain,” she goes on to sound a note of caution, saying, “For readers saturated with the topic, however, the writing may seem overly familiar, nostalgic (prone to homesickness), sentimental (a word with overtones of addiction to feeling), even, dare I say it, deadening.” Ms. Aldrich points out that to transcend these pitfalls, writing about illness “needs to defy expectations and break patterns of perception. It needs the play of mind and feeling about its subject.”
It turns out that the essay I submitted to Fourth Genre was “Tulips,” an essay about a personal experience with illness (which I was thrilled to later see published in Superstition Review). The essay has received a lot of strong and positive response, but after reading Ms. Aldrich’s comments I wondered if the piece strayed into the territory she was warning us about. I want to believe that “Tulips” did more than simply relating the experience and providing a personal testimony of pain, because I worked with metaphor and memory to write about not only how the experience of illness and childlessness affected me, but also to discover a moment of balance and acceptance and rebirth, not just within myself but in the world. But I’d have to leave it to readers to decide if the piece succeeds in that way. Reading Ms. Aldrich’s comments made me a little uncertain as I thought about my essay. I began to wonder if I had pushed my writing to do more than the typical.
Toward the end of the editor’s comments, Ms. Aldrich highlighted two essays that appear in the journal: “Unfunny” by David Susman and “Bush,” by Lucy Ferris. I haven’t had the opportunity to read the essays yet; I’m waiting for a bit of time to open up for some good reading. But she concluded by saying, “Both of these essays do what we like essays to do: the writers probe a subject, poking it here and there, turning it on its side this way and that, to catch, in James Merrill’s words, ‘a steadily more revealing light,’ wondering what to think next, pushing their explorations a little further with each paragraph….” In a sense, the editor is echoing something I’ve heard in a number of classes and writings on the personal essay, that it is the play of the mind that is appealing in the best essays, the opportunity to follow a specific narrator’s consciousness as it explores a topic or memory and discovers, in the end, some kind of revelation.
All of this makes sense to me. I think, basically, it is true.
Is there a place in the genre of personal essays for the simple portrait of a time or place, for some element of personal testimony that simply says, “I was here?” (with here being both a place and a state of mind). Certainly we must be careful to avoid what Vivian Gornick would refer to as writing about the situation (a chronicling of events) and leaving out the story (the meaning and/or revelation that one creates and derives from the events). Objective journalism reports events and situations. Personal essays must do something more, and do it in a way that draws on the literary traditions of employing such tools as diction, prosody, and metaphor.
If we say, simply, “I was here,” in a way that causes the reader to respond, “Ah, yes, I was or am there, too, and now I can put it into words and I am not alone,” might that be something? Or maybe the reader might simply respond, “Now I know what ‘there’ is like; I understand something I did not understand before.”
I think we, as writers, have to be just a little careful about writing in the way that we’re told to write. One reason we research different literary journals is that a piece that one editor passes on, another might prefer. No one is “right” or “wrong” in their decision about a piece (unless, I guess, the piece simply isn’t well written in any form). One editor might enjoy traditional narrative, another might demand experimental prose. One editor might have read so many pieces about ill elderly parents that he or she rejects new manuscripts on that topic on the spot; another might be putting together an anthology of just those types of pieces. One of my essays, “The Deer,” was rejected by 13 journals before it was published in Eleven Eleven, and then chosen for inclusion in an anthology of writings by the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors.
New or emerging writers have a tremendous amount to learn from experienced writers and editors, and it would be silly to toss off their preferences or advice without a second thought. But in the end, as we work at our writing, we have to find that place within ourselves that tells us what we need to write, and how we need to write it. That’s not to say we’ll arrive at a time or place where we can write, on our own, material that is so good that we don’t need any feedback or advice from anyone. I don’t know if many, or any, writers ever get there. But in the end we have to get good enough to make some basic decisions about our work, especially its form and direction, on our own.
Ms. Aldrich notes that Fourth Genre is always on the lookout for “an essay that combines cultural observation with personal revelation.” That’s a worthy goal for any writer of personal essays, a classic description of a very good personal essay, and a treat for the reader — and that’s why Fourth Genre is such a good read (read more about the journal and find subscription information here).
I guess all I’m saying is that after I spent time feeling a bit mortified that I had submitted “Tulips” to Fourth Genre, I took a moment to reflect. I decided that all I can do is my best. If I don’t accept less from myself than the very best I can do, I’m doing my job. Eventually, the right piece will intersect with the right editor — if it’s good enough.
In the meantime, I can enjoy reading all the great stuff in Fourth Genre.