In his foreword to The Best American Essays 2012, editor Robert Atwan has some interesting commentary about today’s creative nonfiction students. He writes, “They apparently believe that when they write an essay—whether it’s required or inspired—they should write about themselves. An essay for many of them is wholly autobiographical, pure and simple.”
He goes on to ask why: “Could it be that many students don’t know enough, don’t have favorite artists, composers, books? Or have no passion for anything outside themselves and their own microculture? Or could it be that today’s young writers are afraid to tackle subjects that are presumably for experts? In other words, that they believe that an explication of [an artist’s] artistic genius could only be set forth by someone with a PhD in American art history? Are students so intimidated by expertise that they’ve lost confidence in their own powers of observation?”
Wow. A bit harsh, perhaps, but given his position as editor of The Best American Essays, and the fact that he actually founded that publication in 1986, and he has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, the Boston Review, and the Atlantic Monthly AND has done many other things there isn’t time to mention here, I’m inclined to believe him. Atwan is talking about MFA students specifically, but one can assume his comments that show favor for the topic-oriented essay would apply to writers in general. It’s not hard to imagine him issuing the same admonition to any writer of nonfiction.
Of course, Atwan is not the only one who would like to see less focus on the personal and more focus on topics or subjects other than the writer’s life. In an essay on this very subject, poet Nancy Kuhl sees the current popularity of personal writing as a result of a common assumption that “writing is primarily a means of self-expression, as opposed to a craft or a creative discipline.” She argues that many students—she draws on her own as examples—see writing as therapeutic, and as such they think it matters more how the writer grows through the process of writing than how the reader is affected by the work or how it is evaluated according to literary standards.
I think some writers might be tempted to believe the same thing: that writing is about expressing the inner self, it’s healing. Kuhl herself points out that yes, writing can be healing and surely is therapeutic, but she quickly follows that by saying healing and therapy are not the point and certainly not the main goal of writing. And yet, still, the notion of finding one’s self with words persists. Perhaps this accepted notion of writing as self-expression is what drives nonfiction students toward the personal essay. Perhaps it is what increasingly drives professional writers toward it as well, including myself.
Let me be clear: I do not have anything against the personal essay. I’ve written a lot of them, and I’ve read a lot them, and I really like a lot them. But I agree with Atwan and Kuhl that students—and by extension all writers of nonfiction—should not see nonfiction as limited to the personal essay alone. If writers have strayed away from the art of essaying that, as Atwan defines it, is “the trying out of, or fooling around with, ideas and observations,” and if those essays are largely without the kind of substance readers need, then yes, we have a problem here. If people are writing primarily for self-expression or therapy, as Kuhl suggests, and not to offer others a new way of viewing the world or a new understanding or insight into something, then yes, we might be misunderstanding the purpose of writing.
I think that, overall, a return to ideas and observations will bolster nonfiction’s reputation and quality. I would like to see more topic essays and more narrative journalism in the realm of nonfiction, as would Kuhl and Atwan. I want to see nonfiction writers exploring the lives of others or topics that aren’t their own lives more often, because I think writers are allowed to exercise their powers of research, observation, and truth-sifting in more fruitful ways when they are evaluating others, not themselves.
Atwan questions whether today’s MFA students are brave or skilled enough to essay. Are we confident in our own powers of observation? Can we tackle the big topics? Can we find a more universal truth than the truth as we’ve lived it individually? Those are the questions I’ll leave you with, and I hope you find that yes, you do discover and relish the power in your own observations.
Stephanie Anderson is a first-year MFA candidate in creative nonfiction. She holds a bachelor of arts degree in English from Augustana College in Sioux Falls. Stephanie has worked as a journalist for a farm newspaper, and then as a writer and photographer for an international humanitarian aid organization, a job that took her to developing countries around the world. Her work has been published in The Chronicle Review, SCOPE Magazine, and Farm and Ranch Living. She lives in Boca Raton with her husband, Ryan.