“What makes Adam want to see The Social Network again is perhaps the same quality that makes him doubt the authentic “essay-ness” about the other essays in this years collection: inaccuracies. Whether inaccuracies in memory or intentional, inaccuracies (facts) must be held in submission to the service of the greater story, emotional or otherwise. The story of thought versus the story of emotion are both equally valuable and I posit that Adam and other essayists/readers who hold reflective or meditative essays better will do well to challenge their own emotional stories by reflecting on others.” – Sarah, 1/23
“The inaccuracies are not at the heart of my argument, rather the idea of something as ‘a jumping off point for a carefully considered analysis of a much bigger concern.’ The ‘something’ of an essay can be a memory, experience, movie, work of art, personal trauma…anything…as long as (again in my opinion as a branded meditative essay-lover) that ‘something’ goes beyond one’s own story.
Now I know that writers of emotionally-charged personal essays, like (to pick a few from this issue) Mischa Berlinski of the armchair view of a third-world disaster in Haiti, Paul Crenshaw of the tricky look at family issues, or Rachel Riederer of the bus accident (already mentioned on this blog)–I know they will say their works DO go beyond their own story…inherently. These essays become universal, so it goes, because they’re not just about bus accidents, say, or abusive relationships, or earthquakes, but they’re about something we all experience–like alienation, identity crisis, isolation.
I just don’t buy it. I don’t hate these other essays, and certainly the best of them put me vividly in a place I have never been, but for me they do not rise to the level of what Smith has done, which is leap from a single work of art to a discussion of the issues of our time. (And, by the way, why can’t emotional personal stories ever show me the universal experience of joy, love, contentment?)
Zadie Smith is in the essay, with a personal experience of early Facebook (she opens the essay with it), but the essay is not ABOUT her. It’s more general. ‘When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced,’ writes Smith. ‘Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships, Language. Sensibility.’ And later: ‘our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.’ And the gem of a final sentence: ‘[The Social Network is] a cruel portrait of us: 500 million sentient people entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore.’ These are big thoughts, and the rest of her words back up the logic.
I see myself in a whole new light because of this writing. Not a good light, maybe, but it’s definitely still turning around in my head. (And Smith’s final words are artfully swiped from a different programmer’s philosophy, on which Smith enlightens us.)
Well, crap! I promised myself I wouldn’t go on and on. Closing words: Inaccuracy discussion aside, I want an essay that leaves its first story–one that goes somewhere else: into the mind, to the books, anywhere. A play-by-play account of Smith watching The Social Network would never have been published anywhere. But play-by-play accounts of other aspects of life are published all the time.
OK, then, memoirists: warm up those keyboards and have at it.” – Adam, 1/24
I must confess that I did intentionally misread you. But, for the purpose of a larger conversation. Is that bad? I’d prefer to call it ‘crafty.’
I am not in disagreement with you about the value of the reflective essay. Using quotidian experiences as ‘jumping off points’ to discuss or think through larger, more universal issues is a great art. Leaping from a single piece of art to a discussion of the issues of our time is no small leap. However, I think you minimize the different aspects of leaping if you think this only relates to writing about content outside of ourselves, content that is not inherently traumatic.
Life is traumatic. If you really followed the accusation Zadie Smith is making—remember, she has drawn a cruel portrait of you—to its core, I think you’d find, if you truly ruminated on it, a traumatizing experience. What is more traumatic than looking into your own heart and finding rot? I believe that following thoughts, logic, ideas is just as valuable as following individual experiences, whether categorized as ‘trauma’ or not. What I mean to say is that dramatic events and non-dramatic events are both worthy of being examined. They both lead to larger issues.
Which brings me to the bone I’d like to pick with John Proctor. In categorizing these essays as ‘trauma essays,’ I believe you reduce these people’s writing to cliches when they are anything but. These essayists are not sharing their experiences because they are titillating stories that might get picked up and made into Lifetime movies or after-school specials. Sustained narrative essays (which I think might be a more appropriate category, though I generally fight against most reductionistic titles) are crafted, thoughtful looks into the inner experience of outward events.
In the introduction to BAE, Danticat says that ‘such is the power of the stories we dare to tell others about ourselves. They do inform, instruct and inspire. They might even entertain, but they can also strip us totally bare, reducing (or expanding) the essence of everything we are to words.’ She goes on to warn the essayist that ‘when we insert the “I” (our eye) to search deeper into someone, something, or ourselves, we are always risking a yawn or a slap, indifference or disdain.’ (How did she know?) She goes on to hope that the craft of writing, the art of telling the story of our thoughts or experiences, is perhaps the bridge that will connect us. Finally, she addresses the argument we are having head on, referring to the essay Adam mentioned above about the Haitian earthquake by Mischa Berlinski, she says:
‘However, his essay, which poignantly and powerfully describes the height of disaster, echoes an instinct we might also display even as we attempt to capture the quietest, most predictable moments: our yearning to preserve our words.’
In sum, whether the content is banal or traumatic, its all worth crafting with words. To quote Mr. Miyagi: ‘Same same.’ Crafting the content in vivid narrative scene or in long, lifeless logical thoughts, supported with dry definitions, quotes from ‘experts,’ and unrelieved ruminations are both valid forms of art. One just happens to be more engaging than the other.” – Sarah B., 1/24
First, I will be the first to admit that it is rather simplistic, even condescending, to lump together a bunch of unique, well-written essays under one “trauma” umbrella. And maybe there’s a better word than “trauma” for what these essays are; honestly, I just wanted an excuse to eventually coin the term “trauma drama” (which I now have, by the way).
That said, the reason I did this was simply that there are so many of them in this volume; if we were talking about BAE we’d probably be talking about academic essays and eulogies (which I actually already did, by the way). I do think that breaking things up in this way allows us to discuss:
And to tell the truth, I think it’s worked out pretty well so far – plenty of engaging, serious conversation about these things.