I have been pondering, recently, what genre my writing falls into. Actually, more often than not, I know precisely what kind of writing I am tasked with. When writing for the newspaper, of course, it’s straight journalism - the who, what, why, where, when and how. If it’s a research paper I’m engaged in, then I must carefully seek material and cite it in the final product. My ponderance today has to do with what, exactly, is my default writing style. With no constraints - what comes out?
I guess in modern terms, it could be defined as my blog style. In days gone by, it would be the style of my personal journal or diary. Written in the first person to be sure, but it’s more complicated… and yet at the same time much simpler than all that. It is perhaps the least restrictive form of free writing. However, when written for public consumption - a relatively new phenomenon brought about by the advent of web logs (blogs) - it must be coherent. Disjointed ramblings and accounts of my daily minutia without any deeper inference or reflection won’t garner many readers.
And isn’t that why I do it? I have written, by hand, journal entries during particular periods of my life in the past. Not only were these entries not meant for public consumption, they apparently were not meant for my own consumption. I have not gone back and re-read those entries. Although I didn’t know it, those writings were about the writing - not the reading. They were truly one-shot, single draft entries. There was no thought as to direction, theme or even organizational structure. It only had to make sense as the words spilled out in that single instance - never again.
That’s not to say that my scribblings were nothing more than the therapeutic pairings of words and punctuation. It also doesn’t mean there is no future value in those musings. Quite the contrary, I expect I will have occasion to re-examine those forgotten pages and extract insight from them. It has always been my intent - yet today is not the day. Although I am hard-pressed to remember the specifics of what I wrote, I do remember the nature and style of my musings. Except for grammatical and organizational enhancements, it is remarkably similar to the genre I am writing in at this very moment.
It is a genre defined by its lack of definition. As varied as it is exclusive, the personal essay is my default writing mode. Derived from the French word essayer, which means to try, the personal essay is an account of a piece of the essayist’s life. A personal trial. At best, it will have an ultimate direction; a point; a lesson learned; a moral. But not always and often these insights are left to the reader to determine - to establish and identify with the author’s experience. “Yes, I get that!”
And so often it is true that I can relate to writings of the likes of Vidal, Twain, Dillard, Stevenson, Orwell, Mencken, Baldwin, Didion and so many others. I wonder what that must have been like. They take me back to a place I’ve never been. On the most intimate level they share with me our lives. And I get that!
Perhaps it is because of the breadth (if not the depth) of my experience that I have a wealth of revelations to share. My life has taken me in many directions and continues today. Though in retrospect it represents so much acquired wisdom, I was often, in the moment, nowhere close to grateful for having the experience. And more often than not felt no wiser after the conclusion of said experience. Indeed, quite the opposite; I felt feeble, weak, shortsighted… stupid - these were the adjectives that best described my behavior. Not all were bad, yet each and every one of my experiences provided me with an opportunity for growth, however, not necessarily in the moment.
There is great comfort in knowing that stupidity is not exclusively mine. It is equally satisfying that my predecessors have derived from experience that which I often had to find for myself. The insights are so simple yet elusive. A mentor once described these revelations as “Brilliant flashes of the obvious.” And so they were, but again I am not alone in the self-discovery of so many basics in life. It’s nothing like I thought and at the same time, it’s everything I knew.