What am I doing here?
On this blog, I mean.
The other day I was driving over to pick up my dad's pickup to facilitate a fencing project. On the way, I listened to NPR on the radio. They interviewed writer Anne Fadiman, who was plugging her new book (coming out next week), a collection of essays At Large And At Small. By the end of the interview, I decided that I would at least find this book in a library, if not buy it outright; Fadiman has a good eye.
Fadiman's passion is the "familiar essay."
The familiar essay is a subset of the personal essay, but not quite as personal as the personal essay, that we know in the 21st century-- the personal essay, in which the writer essentially regurgitates his innards onto the page, and doesn't talk about anything but himself. In the early 191h century, essayists like Charles Lamb and William Haslet wrote what they called "familiar essays," that were about them, but also about a subject --that is, Lamb for example wrote about tailors, and drunkards, and annoying relatives. Familiar subjects that he knew well, and that his readers knew well, too. *Hmmm. That sounds damned familiar. Giving my view on topics that I know something about, but which doesn't exclude the reader. Oh, it gets personal, but I think that some my better entries are more open than that.
I've wondered for some time what I was doing here. Am I just puking up my thoughts and personal events, or am I actually putting a decent perspective on concepts and events? I'd rather not have this be a simple diary of electronic performance art.
The interviewer asked Fadiman about blogging as a possible new form of the familiar essay, which made me smile, as I'd been thinking about that since the interview began. Of course it is, when done well. But the question puts Fadiman, a professional writer who's been vetted by publishers and editors, on the spot: can she declare her own writing style to be widespread and free? Well, not quite.:
I don't know if it's a form of familiar essay, but I do think that it's an interesting literary genre. There are a lot of terrible blogs, because of course they don't go through the usual filters --it's sort of like eating your coffee grounds raw, as Balzac often did, rather than filtering them, into a somewhat more refined brew, but many bloggers write beautifully, and there of course may be some advantages in not being filtered through the editing process. The hallmark of the familiar essay is that it is autobiographical, but it is also about the world; a lot of bloggers that I read do just the one, or just the other, but they don't combine the two. *I wholeheartedly agree with her.
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I love personal essays. Twain and Kipling wrote some of the earlier ones that I loved. London, and Dylan Thomas, too. I think that one reason I like them so is that they're always written in the first person, with a narrator who doesn't hide himself. Anyone who's ever written an account of pretty much anything knows that the first person is the easiest to write in. If you're going to give a good view of what you know, why not tell it from your own eye? For some reason, many departments have taught police officers to write reports entirely in the third person. The effect is to actually make the report far more difficult to understand. "Officer Smith responded to a report of a burglary," seems a little stilted, when right at the top of the report is the author: Officer Smith. I've refused to write reports in the third person unless directly ordered to do so.
Because it's easier to write in the first person, I believe it's easier to read works written in that fashion. Good detective novels typically are written in the first person, which makes the most sense: how can we empathize with a detective's mystery when we know more or less than he does? Somewhere I read that all good stories are really mysteries, and there's probably a little truth to that. A good storyteller usually knows better than to put the punchline in the first line of the story. A good story has a closing point that the reader feels compelled to read to.
My mama writes in both personal and familiar essay style. Here she writes a wonderful personal essay of the pleasures of summertime in New Mexico before air conditioning, while here is one written in more of the 'familiar essay" style, of May Day celebrations in New Mexico in the 1950's.
My buddies Ambulance Driver, BabsRn, and LawDog all write superb essays in both the personal and familiar formats. Most of them are personal essays, and indeed those are generally the most popular, especially in the case of the extremely popular "LawDog Files" stories that my fellow Texas lawman writes. I don't know how the hell to classify Tam's V.F.T.P. blog, but her Arms Room blog is generally of the familiar essay style [and is superb. And is not posted to enough. (Tamara, trust me on this: that blog is the one that will stand for hundreds of years, regardless of how much pleasure we all get from the Porch.)].
I think back to how I hated writing essays in school, and how I now voluntarily write them. (Usually. Heh.)
I don't really know why I write them. (I dashed out my first one over a couple of beers on a personal holiday.) But it gives me pleasure to do so, and if they occasionally entertain others or invite others to think, then I'm satisfied.