I am very late to the game in remarking to the fiasco of sorts around "The First Person Industrial Complex" as it was titled in Slate but this is my blog and I had money-earning writing to do, dammit and so it took me a moment, OK? I think that there is a lot of value in what Laura Bennett wrote and I also agree with many of the critics of the piece. But again, this is MY BLOG so I want to talk about my experience as it relates to this piece. My quote appears in the Slate story as follows: This snippet came from a thoughtful, cordial one-hour interview on the phone and as much as I want to be outraged that the full depth of my relationship to first-person writing didn't make the cut, I know that I have similarly cut conversations into quotes for the purpose of both clarity and brevity. I stand by this quote and believe there was far worse that it could have been finagled into. In reality, a fuller depth of that experience was better captured in a section of a story that was ultimately cut in my piece "The Cult of Work" for Hazlitt. It read:
Because I make a comfortable living as a writer, people expect me to feel exempt from the pull of monetary incentives. And in an economy that demands that the overwhelming majority of us work for a living, to express ingratitude at my position would be distasteful and tone-deaf to the point of being mean-spirited. I am indeed grateful to be a writer now but this gratitude is a sigh of relief rather than an exuberant shout. Writing has disfigured my relationship to my interior life as I seek to monetize its every fiber, transforming a once thoughtful exercise in self-reflection into a spreadsheet of experiences arranged in order of their potential monetary value.
There are no longer minutes but seconds between when I have a peculiar thought or experience and when I consider how I might sell it to a publication. Even as I write this, I withhold the darkest and the least linear elements in this particular constellation of thoughts in the knowledge that an editor would cut them anyway. I hoard my most clever turns of phrase even when they are apt for a conversation. My hope is to one day insert them into a project that will not be metabolized at the speed of the internet. It is not an entirely ignoble plan but the lived reality of which results in rampant self-censure in my personal encounters.
The point of this passage was not to say "Woe is me, I can't write as freely as I want!" but to express that no matter how graphic the detail, how intimate the prose, and how much a reader relates to the experience at hand, they are not reacting to a fragment and not a whole. Their relating to the story I wrote is authentic but it is not relating, necessarily, to me as a living, breathing human.
An unedited documentary of my own life would be profoundly dull and most of my thoughts and feelings are ordinary as fuck. But there are pieces that emerge from the quotidian and the extraordinary alike to which I say, "You belong to others too, I think." I then take a gamble on whether or not others will relate to them and craft a story based on that experience, thought, or moment with myself. I reconfigure it not to be deceptive but to explain it in a language that people speak. Sometimes it has a dream-like quality that matches the moment at which the thought happened even if the thought itself felt uncomplicated and sometimes it is expressed with more linguistic authority than I've ever actually felt in my body. In any case, it is a reimagination of the original feeling as a means of both self-preservation just as much as a means of self-disclosure.
Personal essays are often a middle chapter in a life. A mark of punctuation. A turning point. A milestone. They are made more poignant by being incomplete, teetering on the edge of some resolution but not entirely resolved. And though they are abridged version's of the writer's reality, they have the power to make readers feel something like resolution. These essays take what people thought was disfigured in them and readers recognize it as a familiar scar. And in showing the distance between the writer and the wound, proving that they can be made whole again.