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Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction

The Art of Self by Steven Harvey, Guest Blogger

Blog Entry No. 8

The guest blogger for this posting is Steven Harvey. In my opinion, Steven is one of our best and most knowledgeable personal essaysists. “The Art of Self” is one of the most thoughtful, incisive pieces I’ve read on/about the personal essay. It’s a reprint from the sixth edition of The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction, an anthology co-edited by Robert Root and myself.

"The Art of Self" by Steven Harvey

On a flight recently I met a fiction writer. Both of us were on our way to a writer’s conference in Portland, Oregon, and when I told her that I wrote personal essays she laughed. “Oh, I love the form,” she said. “It’s so easy.” I heard the ice in our drinks rattle in the silence that ensued. I had plenty of time, before we landed, to think about what she had said.

Confusion about the essay begins with a misconception: that art must be invented. To be creative—the argument goes—literature must be made up. Since the personal essay begins with a real life, it is less creative, less artistic, than fiction. Such a view, I think, is mistaken, based not only on confusions about writing, but on confusions about art as well. What makes writing—writing of any kind—an art is not invention, but shape. Shapeliness. The facts, the events, the invented flights of fancy do not make up a work of art. The shapeliness of the author’s composition takes us to that level.

The urge to shape begins in loss. All of us are losers, of course, because we are human, but artists console themselves, redeem losses, with their creations. John Logan has written that the baby, weaned from its mother’s breast, begins moving its mouth as if to shape words, language beginning with the first loss. For the writer, these mouthings never stop. Understood this way, art does not begin with ego, but with feelings of self-annihilation, the artist creating a surrogate self. So, the potter shapes a pot. The painter catches a scene. The musician holds note.

And the essayist fashions a text. “My advice to memoir writers,” Annie Dillard writes, “is to embark upon a memoir for the same reason you would embark on any book: to fashion a text.” The result is that the text—even if taken from the writer’s life—has a life of its own, separate from the author. “After I’ve written about my experience,” Dillard adds, “my memories are gone; they’ve been replaced by the work. The work is a sort of changeling on the doorstep.” Only the text, shed of ourselves and hammered into shape, can redeem us. The enemy of the text, then, is what happened, and this is true whether the work is fictional or not. What happened may matter to us, but it is lost on us if we do not transform it into art.

Writers fashion a text, giving shape to our joys and fears, by making choices on the page. Choice—not invention or reportage—gives direction and purpose to a work of literature and there are certainly many choices to be made: When to begin? When to end? Do I fess up or lie? Should I use a pencil or a computer, yellow legal pad or typing paper? To drink or not to drink—and when! In the course of sifting through these and a thousand other choices, writers make a series of essential decisions that give singular shape to the work.

First, they must, at some point, settle on beginnings and endings. Life has none. It goes on and on. My dog lives in a constant blur, a stream-of-consciousness from Purina to Purina. Only humans can choose beginnings and endings. Meaning starts the moment we say “in the beginning” and “here endeth.” These are crucial shaping choices.

The essayist also must make choices involving proportion and pace. There is much art in what is relegated to background information, the essential but dull material in an essay. Any editor will tell you there is art, as well, in what is left out entirely. By the same token, the writer must decide what counts and when to bear down. In a memoir, this may be the penultimate moment—that brink when an event can go either way. Sometimes, for the essayist, the moment is given over to an idea as nuances and ambiguities are exploited and explored. Here the writer chooses to savor an event by giving it its due.

Most crucial of all in shaping a text are the choices an author makes about language. A memoir writer comes to terms with an experience, and the terms that the writer settles on tell all. Each of us has many voices—the voice for a friend, a colleague, a student, a lover—and each voice is different. Personal essayists do not need to have enormous vocabularies or--spare us—a gift for grandiloquence, but they must constantly adjudicate the voices in their heads and choose the right language.

These, then, are the essential shaping devices, the tools of the essayist’s craft: beginnings and endings, proportion and pace, and language. They do not involve invention, but they are the way to art—and they are rarely easy.

Recognizing that art is in the shaping of language not in inventing or being true to life, can be liberating for students. They do not need to have exciting lives in order to write about themselves, nor do they need to resort to fanciful creativity. Instead they can find that any event, when fashioned in words, can have meaning. But all of us, whether we be students, teachers, writers, or—bless their souls!—readers, reap benefits from carefully shaped composition. “All that you love you lose.” Yeats wrote, Our life slips through greedy fingers even as we live it. Works of art may not give us our lives back, but they are money in the spiritual bank. With these hard-earned things of beauty we redeem a lifetime of losses.


Steven Harvey is the author of three books of personal essays: A Geometry of Lilies, Lost in Translation, and Bound for Shady Grove. He has published poetry and nonfiction in many magazines including Harper’s, The Georgia Review, River Teeth, Fourth Genre, and The Oxford American. He is a professor of English at Young Harris College as well as a member of the faculty in the Ashland University MFA program in Creative Writing.

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