I finished a course on creative nonfiction at an American university a couple of months ago. The course required us to use a magnificent text the size of an airplane: a 777-page book called The Art of the Personal Essay by Phillip Lopate. The book encompasses a collection of essays from classical authors the standing of Seneca (‘Asthma’) or Plutarch (‘Consolation to His Wife’) to present writers such as Joan Didion (‘In Bed’) or Scott Russell Sanders (‘Under the Influence’). More than a text, the tome is a vibrant journey into the intimacies—so much joy and pain—of vulnerable human beings beyond culture and nationality. While Seneca reflects on dying of suffocation and Plutarch comforts his wife for the loss of their daughter, Joan Didion makes peace with her excruciating migraine attacks, and Sanders acknowledges the burden of being the son of an alcoholic.
In his introduction, Lopate expands into the traits of creative nonfiction, and particularly the personal essay, compared to other genres—the inclusion of literary techniques into factually accurate narratives. “The hallmark of the personal essay is its intimacy. The writer seems to be speaking directly into your ear, confiding everything from gossip to wisdom… At the core of the personal essay is the supposition that there is a certain unity to human experience. As Michel de Montagne, the great innovator and patron saint of personal essayists put it, ‘Every man has within himself the entire human condition.’ This meant that when he was telling about himself, he was talking, to some degree, about all of us.” Read More