One of the things I liked about Emily Fox Gordon’s Book of Days is simply that I feel that I’m a lot like her. I recognized myself in a lot of what she had to say. I liked Gordon’s passages on feeling ambivalent about her femininity and feeling like an outsider in social situations, and I appreciated her discomfort with the role of faculty wife and her pleasure at critiquing the faculty wives she found herself surrounded by. Her sense of humor is one I share. I also felt a moment of recognition when I read this:
The signal [that she should become a writer] was embedded in Phillip Lopate’s newly published anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay. The contents of this book were a revelation to me. I read Orwell’s “Such, Such Were the Joys,” Natalia Ginszburg’s “He and I,” Hazlitt’s “On the Pleasure of Hating,” Lopate’s own “Against Joie de Vivre” with delight, as well as with a growing conviction that I had found my genre.
I had known there was something wrong with the stories and novels I had been producing in spurts for decades … I was never very good at, or interested in, creating fictional worlds whose parts were set in motion by the force of psychological motivation. I never understood plot. Characterization, though it interested me, put me into a state of panicky agnosticism. I’d never had much confidence in my intuitions about how — as Eudora Welty put it — “some folks would do.” It seemed to me that folks might do any number of ways.
I’m not a personal essayist and don’t have any stories or novels of my own, but I share her uncertainty about fiction writing and bafflement in the face of plot. I can’t really comprehend writing a novel of my own, unless it were in the plotless, essayistic Nicholson Baker style. I also share her experience of being inspired by Lopate’s anthology. I have that book to thank for my adoration of the essay genre, and if I were ever to want to write something besides the blog and the occasional book review, I would write personal essays. (I think I’m too lazy for that, though — another trait I share with Gordon, except she got over it long enough to write quite a lot!)
Gordon wrote two memoirs, but in this book’s title essay, she claims she was never comfortable with them. She did her best to tell the truth about her life, but she believes that the contemporary memoir requires you to fit your life into a preset mold where the writer suffers, often at the hands of parents, and seeks and eventually finds redemption or transcendence or some kind of healing. She shaped her story to fit this model but was aware of the distortions this created. The essay form does a better job of capturing the truth of a life:
I learned that the memoir and the personal essay are crucially different forms. The memoir tempts the memoirist to grandiose self-representation. The essay, with its essential modesty, discourages the impulse. The memoir tends to deindividuate its protagonist, enlisting him to serve as a slightly larger-than-life representative of the sufferings of a group or community, while the essay calls attention to the quirks and fallibilities we take as marks of our essential separateness. The erratic zigzag of essayistic thinking — the process that E.M. Cioran calls “thinking against oneself” — makes the essay proof against the triumphalism of memoir by slowing the gathering of narrative momentum. The essayist transects the past, slicing through it first from one angle, then from another, until — though it can never be captured — some fugitive truth has been defensively cornered.
She comes to regret having written her memoir at all, except for the feeling of accomplishment it gave her, and, presumably, because it made publishing a collection of essays easier (and also provided material for one of them). I imagine there’s an argument to be made that the memoir is capable of more than Gordon acknowledges here, but I’m sympathetic to her point. It’s the sense of incompleteness, exploration, and provisionality that I like most about the essay form.