On the Personal Essay

A The Eminents interview with Phillip Lopate

Posted Sep 16, 2016

University of Houston Digital Library, Public Domain
Source: University of Houston Digital Library, Public Domain

A mark of a good writer, whether fiction, essay, or poetry, is the ability to unflinchingly illuminate the emotional issues that people often try to suppress.

An exemplar is Phillip Lopate, long acclaimed as a fine writer of the widest range: from film reviews to poetry, novels to, most of all, personal essays.

Lopate is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, been a judge for the Pulitzer Prize, and is Professor and Director of the nonfiction writing program at Columbia University. He is my The Eminents interview today.

On the personal essay

Marty Nemko: How would you define your métier, the personal essay?

Phillip Lopate: A personal essay often includes some or a lot of personal confession. That makes the reader feel less lonely in their confusion and darkness. And confession makes you a more trustworthy narrator. But that’s not enough. The essay must also be artistically rendered: You must keep the reader engaged, whether with wit, conflict, mischief, and/or yes, with honesty.

MN: I’d like to write more personal essays. What would you say to me?

PL: In addition to the above, you must read a lot of personal essays—you needn’t reinvent the wheel. In new work, we need to see the shadow, however faint, of previous effort.

Also, most good essays are conversations with yourself, not just your decided thoughts but your dilemmas. Contradictory strands create an essay that’s richly ambivalent.

Oh and have fun writing because it enhances both the writer’s and reader’s experience.

MN: I believe the personal essay is underrated for both writer and reader. It affords the writer great freedom: not only  to be confident or admit doubt but to speak personally yet invoke others’ ideas, to be rational and/or emotional. And essayists write at a length that enables them, within a year, to explore a number of topics, whereas in a book, they’ll likely only tackle one. And as a reader, per-minute of my time, I’m getting a helluva lot: practical takeaways, a literary experience, and an intimate experience with the writer.

PL: Yes, the essay is a wonderful medium. I might mention that some writers who longed to be novelists were better as essayists: Sontag, Baldwin, Vidal, Mary McCarthy, Mailer.

On personality and relationships

MN: In your essay, Against Joie de Vivre, you wrote, “There is no harder work I can think of than taking myself off to somewhere pleasant, where I am forced to stay for hours and have fun…I don’t even like water beds.” But why not fan the flames of, as you term it, “hedonistic delusion” rather than, as psychiatrist Irv Yalom writes, “stare into the sun?”

PL: Hedonism can be a rational response to a difficult life. I’m fortunate in being able to find great satisfaction in my work. Give me something interesting to work on, not two margaritas.

MN: If you have an ability, you want to exercise it, not anesthetize it.

PL: Exactly.

MN: I’d guess that, for you, work is especially appealing because, as a writer, you have control: You can play around with your own thoughts and when you find those insufficient, draw upon others’: their wisdom, their humor, their failings.

PL: My other work, teaching, also is satisfying because I can be with people but in controlled circumstances, which aren’t as likely to yield the pain of dealing with family.

MN: But in Against Joie de Vivre, you lament that you can’t consistently focus on the quotidian. Isn’t an admirable definition of the life well-led to maximize your time doing what you’re best at, especially if it’s pro-social?

PL: Honestly, that “lament” was a form of discreet bragging. I really do like to write and when I’m not, I think, “Okay, I’ll be a good citizen now” but fact is, that’s secondary.

MN: The essays you suggested I read in preparation for this interview focused heavily on family, and earlier in this interview you spoke of pain of dealing with family. What do you want to say about family?

PL: Domesticity has been a challenge for me but painful as it’s been, engaging with family has been a school for reducing solipsism and increasing my understanding of people’s different reactions to stress. If someone in my family is getting emotionally bent out of shape, I’ve had to learn to adapt.

MN: Why, instead of their adapting to your self-described hyper-rationality, is it important for you to adapt to their emotionality?

PL: James Baldwin wrote that he wants to be a nice person and a good writer, in that order.

MN: I'd argue they should be in reverse order because being a good writer may result in your being nicer to more people, having a bigger positive impact. Agree?

PL:  For most of my life, I wanted broad impact but now, at 72, I’m not so sure that’s always my first priority.

MN: In your essay, The Story of My Father, you describe taciturnity as a privilege. Explain that.

PL: It enabled my father to go into internal exile while remaining in the family’s bosom. Indeed, at times it’s best to shut up. My wife and daughter have accused me of being too silent at breakfast but I don’t want to talk when I don’t have much to say.

MN: In that essay, you focused a lot on your dad's late-in-life dementia. You’re now almost 73 and live a life of the mind. Do you worry at all about dementia?

PL:  I do and it bothers me when I can’t, for example, remember a name. I don’t know if it’s pre-senility or whether there are too many names packed in our brains.

MN: Alas, senescence is an inevitability. All we can do is try to strike the balance between graceful acceptance and raging against the dying light. But from having engaged with you in this interview, at the risk of presumptuousness and being patronizing, it’s clear to me that whatever decrement you’ve suffered, your brain remains enviable.

PL: Thank you. I’d like to end by saying that I’ve had an enduring appreciation of psychology and so I’m pleased that this will appear in Psychology Today.

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia. His newest book, his 8th, is The Best of Marty Nemko.