Fall 2014

Nerdy Essays

A brief and sudden departure, today, from the trajectory of discussions I established in the first two installments. I’m still writing about Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories, and I imagine I’ll likely write next week once again about issues of narrative self. Today, however, I’m interested in thinking about a curious feature of form contained in this beautiful collection.

I’m thinking about the overall arc of the book, in part, and the way the narrative voice shifts. Hampl begins with writing that the reader recognizes easily as memoir and.or personal essay. And she ends similarly, with two essays that return to questions about the memoirist’s task. In the middle, her voice gradually recedes for awhile as her writing becomes tremendously external. Certainly, we can think about this from the perspective of self-creation…but I don’t want to do that yet. I promise I will. Next week. Yes, next week.

Instead, I want to consider how the center essays of this collection are written as differing versions of a hybrid scholar-essay. There’s a clear intellectual intention to these pieces (the Nerdy), but there’s also the inclusion of the self (in various degrees) and, more importantly, a sense of the journeying mind working through material (the Essay) instead of declaring and defending a thesis. I understand, of course, that within the world of academic specialization, Hampl’s method of writing about Whitman, Milosz, Stein, Plath, Augustine, and Frank wouldn’t pass muster. She “fails” to hit the marks of scholarship, since her work “wanders” around considerations of these individuals. Yet for me, as an essayist who also has published work clearly defined by the great soporific title of “scholarship,” Hampl’s manner of intellectual engagement presents itself as far more interesting, and far more energized than the faux-objectivity, forced-rationality, sobriety that we (at least those of us in the academy) expect. Hampl’s life intersects with this scholarship, and that’s a very good thing indeed.

I find myself wanting to veer into a discussion of content, here, though I’ll resist. Suffice it to say, there’s a clear way her essaying can be read as the artful construction of…

…Next. Week…

Again, to construction, and a question of genre, offering an apparent digression: it unduly annoys me when colleagues across my campus (and other campuses), in and out of the discipline of English, refer to the assignments they make and the scholarship they write as essays. As I tell my own students, professors are rarely, if ever, asking for or producing essays. They’re talking about articles, those self-conscious, thesis-bound, straight-line attacks that can be understood more or less fully by reading the first paragraph. Hand in an actual essay for most assignments asking for an essay, and you’re looking at comments along the lines of, 

where is the thesis? 

you argument meanders all over the place!

Cut this entire section: it’s just a tangent, unrelated to your main point.


Unsupported opinion!

Who taught you how to write? I recommend you return to Strunk&White’s Elements of Style and review the basics.

Ah, but, but, but E.B. White was an essayist, first and foremost, and a pro at the sort of intuitive, connective leaps that motivate a reader through a text instead of repelling them into outer space, like a rocket missing the angle of re-entry and ricocheting off the impenetrable surface of the Derrida-o-sphere, thereby doomed to a life of lonely space-faring. A few words, then, on why I find Hampl’s intellectual engagement so compelling, and the genre choices of the center of her collection such a fine model for how essayistic scholarship can and ought to have a place in the canon of serious thinking.

Another sidelight: in “The Essayist is Sorry for Your Loss,” Sara Levine makes the point that early-career academics write articles. Then, once they have the freedom, they more or less write essays, giving up on the safety blanket of citation. Now, I think I’ll suggest that many of those artifacts aren’t good essays…but they are perhaps essays.

In the case of Hampl, we see a writer who thinks and writes within the more organic style of the essay, meandering (this is a good thing) through her consideration of, for example, the life and martyrdom of Edith Stein. She’s weighing things, here, using the writing to wrestle with complexity, instead of wielding the writing as a mace to bludgeon the reader with a falsified sense of fully-formed idea.

Notably, in this essay Hampl fully suppresses the “I” of her narrative stance. A representative and important line, late in the piece: “The mind goes back instinctively to the brief flashes that spark from Edith Stein’s memoir as if to live again in her life rather than her death, jots of personal life indelibly inscribed in her account of her ‘life in a Hewish family.’ They are the small moments she chose to rescue and reveal as evidence of simple humanity…” (126). This excerpt is not about Hampl (thus no “I”), but is about a consciousness at work. And I think it also demonstrates the honest of the “personal” as a mode of scholarship. Here, Hampl suggests that Stein’s legacy as martyr must be considered, in fact cannot be fully considered at all, without thinking about the life that was lived. Stein can do easily exist as mere idea: a Jew who became Catholic who was murdered by Nazis because she was a Jew who was later beatified by the Catholic Church.

Similarly, in the essay that follows, Hampl writes extensively about Sylvia Plath (the “I” has returned in force in this one!), partly to consider the importance of viewing Plath as an individual who lived and breathed and not just as an idea or representation of American Feminism. To ignore the life is, here, to ignore the reality and complexity and vitality of the idea, as it is in discussing Stein.

“Ultimately, a life seeking greatness is about the loss of the self in the service of a more complete reality,” Hampl writes (105). Yet that complete reality cannot ignore that a consciousness is at work. Even as much as Stein refused to tell her conversion story — as Hampl relates several times in the essay — she was still animated by that story, as private as it might have been.

Ultimately, this is the power I see in the activation of lived experience in scholarship, and why as much as I admire the intellect of Hampl’s Stein essay, I vastly prefer her writing about Plath, where she offers close reading of the poet alongside Plath’s biography and Hampl’s own autobiography (more on why she chose to be so distant in discussing Stein next week). By writing about how our live’s intersect with our reading, we can better articulate how the meaning of texts cannot resonate in a vacuum. Indeed, texts are meaningless without readers. If I veer a bit too close to reasserting an unfiltered Reader Response theory here, I apologize. But, still, we cannot ever refuse to acknowledge the way our own experiences govern our thought. There is no such thing as pure scholarship: everything is written from a subjective position, from an “I” who is shaping the material. The act of the essay, then, becomes a more genuine act of intellectual engagement.

Remembered Reality

Focus on: Patricia Hampl, I Could Tell You Stories

Or, I should say, the focus is on the early parts of this book; the first two essays, to be precise. Or, perhaps I should say, the focus is on establishing a certain foundational layer for the conversations that will emerge over the next three and a half months. Hampl works wonderfully here (so, so much better than the text I had originally intended as the first for the course…which I won’t name here…which focused far too much on the sexual prowess of the (male, of course) author…and took itself way too seriously…and counts itself as innovative when it just really might not be), because in I Could Tell You Stories, she probes the impulses of memoir while simultaneously engaging external literature. It is a book that goes straight into the mind of the author, and that mind is not one stuck in its own orbit. Instead, she uses personal story, experience, and literature as a way to essai toward a rich understanding of self, memory, and story.

These first two essays end with these lines: “Moving though it all faithfully, not so much a survivor with a harrowing tale to tell as that older sort of traveler, the pilgrim, seeking, wondering.” Such a perfect line, really, to offer clearest answer to a question I asked my class on day 1 — what’s the difference between autobiography and creative nonfiction, between memoirs and memoir? Hampl nails that answer, referencing the classic essayistic journey, the quest always to seek and the refusal to succumb to the false hope of concrete endings. After all, a pilgrimage doesn’t end a faith journey, instead ignites a passion for a renewed stage of seeking, which is precisely the impulse of life itself.

Much in these first two chapters, then, strikes at the important definitional level of meta. Hampl establishes a cleavage between the too-easy notion of factual reportage as the bedrock of memoir. Indeed, in relaying the mismemories of her “first draft” memory of a childhood piano lesson, she illuminates how recollection presents us with the opportunity for reflection. We will get the facts wrong, always. And if we’re ethical nonfictioneers, we’ll seek to “fix” mistakes moving forward, even as the “fixing” may in fact take form as rumination on why we remember things differently, or more detailed, or at all.

The act of memoir, then, is the act of recovering the self. Or, I might say, the act of memoir is an act of revealing one sort of self…to author and to reader. We are built of multiple selves, versions of ourself that emerge in different occasions: I can be the lively teller of goat stories at a party, or the moody contemplative wandering in a forest, or the energetic raconteur of the classroom, or the self-conscious writer stumbling over his own words. My totality is, of course, a combination of these things, a Venn diagram of the selves that congeals into something I can call “Me.” In my own act of memoir, I look for the self that wants to tell a particular story…or, perhaps, I seek to recognize a self not fully known. In this sense, I refer both to the revelation of a heretofore unrecognizable MicroSelf and the lifelong assemblage of the FullSelf.

In a sense, Hampl is writing about the fracture of our identities, some scattering that occurs, I’d wager, at the moment of adolescence. As children, we know ourselves fully, driven by the impulse of life and unaffected by self-consciousness and subterfuge. Each subsequent year, we learn how to conceal, and rupture, and try on the masks of the world offered to us. In recalling stories, in thinking about what stays with us — “We store in memory only images of value,” Hampl writes — we begin to recognize the parts of us that we have become immune to.

Fall 2014 Project Course: I Am Just a Version of Myself

The full title:

I Am Just a Version of Myself: Creative Nonfiction and the Shaping of Identity

Over the next few months, I’ll be attending to these books:


8.28 to 9.11: Patricia Hampl, I Could Tell You Stories

9.16 to 9.25: Harrison Candelaria Fletcher, Descanso for My Father

9.30 to 10.9: Mark Doty, Firebird

10.16 to 10.23: Lauren Slater, Lying

10.30 to 11.6: Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior

11.11 to 11.18: William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways

11.20 to 11.25: Maggie Nelson, Bluets


Supplemental texts will include:

Sven Birkerts, The Art of Time in Memoir

Various essays and articles that will be referenced as they come up