Anne Burt ,
Press Officer, Arts & Culture, Office of Communications and Public Affairs
You recently edited and published a collection of personal essays from various writers about their experiences with stepfamilies: My Father Married Your Mother. What attracted you to the genre of the personal, or as some might say, confessional essay?
Before the book, I published several of my own essays on topics ranging from cutting down old-growth rhododendrons to exploring the origins of “Ring Around the Rosie”—I thought it was a retelling of the story of the bubonic plague, but it turns out it’s a Victorian nursery rhyme. I linked this to the phenomenon of health workers resisting smallpox vaccinations, which President Bush had ordered in early 2003 in response to alleged bioterrorist threats.
I find the personal essay—a distilled form of memoir, focusing on a slice of the writer’s life within the context of greater issues—intensely satisfying both as a writer and a reader. The form isn’t new: Montaigne is usually considered the progenitor in the West, but it dates back even further than that. Indeed, Philip Lopate’s wonderful collection The Art of the Personal Essay includes works from 10th-century Japan and the ancient Greeks.
Do you enjoy reading memoirs?
I’ve been a reader of literary memoirs—where authors noted for their fiction turn to writing about their own lives—for some time. I’m less interested in the life events of the memoirist then I am in how he or she tells his or her story: the language, the literary methods used to evoke time and place. This is particularly true when the writer isn’t a head of state, a mountaineer trapped in a blizzard or a political prisoner—someone with an inherently interesting story. What makes many of the latest crop of memoirs fascinating is the writer’s perspective. A book like Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts is a beautiful example of personal history intertwined with literary magic.
Are you also a blogger?
I tried blogging for a month but the pressure to come up with something worthwhile to say every day was much too hard. I got tired of myself.
Do you see the two writing forms, personal essays and blogs, as related?
The current popularity of essay collections is related to our desire for multiple perspectives on events—with our understanding that history has as much to do with “who tells us what happened” as it does with “what happened.”
And the length is a bonus: reading a collection of terrific personal essays on an intriguing subject is like attending a dinner party where all of the guests are not only smart and funny and articulate, but they know when to stop talking and give someone else a turn.
Blogging seems more closely related to writing in a journal or diary, only it’s public. Writing in journals can be a great starting point for composing memoirs or personal essays, but it’s not the same.
If you could read any contemporary person's memoir, whose would it be?
When my kids grow up I hope they will write memoirs—if for no other reason than to get back at me for writing about them when they were kids.
Whose blog would you most like to read?
I would read a blog about what famous writers eat every day. Does Toni Morrison have oatmeal for breakfast? Does Alice Munro boil or scramble her eggs? The mundane rituals of people who are brilliant at their craft are endlessly fascinating—a window into the life experiences that connect us all.
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AT ISSUE is a series of features in The Record and on the web, intended to gather viewpoints from faculty and staff on current news topics.