There was a panel at the recent AWP conference in Denver that I unfortunately wasn’t able to attend. It was described this way:
- Beyond the I: Memoir as Cultural Criticism. (Mimi Schwartz, Michael Steinberg, William Ayers, Dustin Beall Smith, Kim Dana Kupperman) “True memoir,” Patricia Hampl writes, “is an attempt to find not only a self but a world.” Whether narrating a coming-of-age story, bearing witness to volatile political events, or recreating memories of the past, memoir, at its best, puts a personal face on history. Panelists will discuss strategies for writing and teaching memoir, exploring the alchemy of memory, imagination, and social context that moves memoir beyond the anecdotal and confessional and into the realm of cultural criticism.
As a “learning essayist” I have often thought about the conflict inherent in writing essentially about the “self,” or personal experience, while at the same time wanting to connect with readers and say something that is, in the end, important. Let’s face it — as important as we might think we are as individuals, in the grand scheme of things, we’re really not. Humankind has been around for a long time, and the earth and space have been around for a lot longer. This point was brought home to me once when I visited the Museum of Natural History in New York City. The Rose Center for Earth and Space within the museum has a wide indoor walkway that spirals down from the top of the building to the bottom, and is designed to represent the history of time. You start at the very top with the “big bang,” and as you step off the walkway at the bottom, you’ve arrived at the present. All along the walkway events in time and space are indicated by distances on the walkway — something that happened over a billion years might be indicated by a few steps, something that took a million years might be just one step. You can find things like the birth of the solar system, the formation of the earth, the era of the dinosaurs.
At the very bottom of this lengthy walkway, a tiny, tiny, tiny bit just before you step off represents all of human history. It’s kind of shocking. It really brings home how “small” human history is in comparison with all of time and space — never mind how insignificant one person is within all of that time.
Yet…as writers or human beings, do we accept ourselves as so insignificant?
Maybe we want to believe we are significant — or have something significant to say at least. Why else would we sit in front of our notebooks or computer screens day after day, struggling to get the right words out?
As writers, whether we are writing fiction, poetry or creative nonfiction, I think our significance lies in the fact that we are trying to solidify, express and even expand our impressions of the world through our creativity. We are assigning meaning to our world, and that meaning can touch and affect the lives of others, as long as we keep that goal — affecting and relating to the reader — in mind.
When I read someone else’s work, I am often impressed by mastery of language, or observational skill. I might be interested in what happened to the writer (or their character) and get caught up in the plot of a story, because plot can be interesting or just plain entertaining. But what really strikes me, when a piece really strikes me, is that I suddenly find myself thinking about the world — the physical, historical, emotional or psychological world — in a new way. When a writer prompts me to think in a way that didn’t occur to me before, when I find myself considering the writer’s view or idea and turning it over in my mind and maybe even learning something new and important about being human or the world, then I’m really impressed, and appreciative.
I read “War and Peace” when I was in my twenties, while riding the “T” (subway) in Boston to and from one of my earliest jobs in the public relations department of the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities. I remember just trying to figure out who all of the characters were and what was going on for the first, say, four hundred pages of the book. But I was determined to read that book, because it has so often been called “the greatest novel ever written.” And when I completed it, I put it down and thought to myself in a state of awe, “that book just defined the human condition.” (It really does. Read it and you’ll see.)
I’m certainly never going to write anything like “War and Peace,” and I’m not sure that much of what I write falls into the category of “cultural criticism” just yet. But what I am striving to do is find meaning in my life and experiences, as a creative nonfiction writer, that says something more about being human and about the world than about me — because let’s face it, when I write a piece that only says something about me, it’s really not very interesting.