personal essay

Karl Ove Knausgaard

There’s a story from my childhood that I keep trying to write, each time attempting to get a little bit closer to describing what I’ve since lost, and each time getting a little bit further away from what the story once was. Personal writing today is enjoying unprecedented popularity. Not only do literary bestsellers like Karl Ove Knausgaard and Maggie Nelson engage extensively with the personal, fiction writers too regularly promote their novels with insights into their real lives. Naturally, there are some critics who believe that its tenure is coming to a close.

I’ve always felt its appeal, too. Sometimes I feel that if I choose the right words, in the correct order, something will fall into place and I will be able to capture the whole of my personal history, beautifully lifted from what it was, exonerated from its fragmentation in my memory. The impulse to write about myself often feels egomaniacal. Luckily, my feeling of embarrassment isn’t unique.

In an interview with The Guardian, Knausgaard describes feeling ashamed of this new direction his writing took: “Who would be interested in my life, in the things that I had thought and done, or that had happened to me?”

For Knausgaard, the essential appeal of writing books centred upon his own life is the ability to capture an authenticity in his work that he finds elusive in fiction. He says, “This utmost authenticity, this proximity to the world, is partially sacrificed by the novel in favour of the form itself, to make it possible to convey essential insights into relationships in particular, but also in sequences of events, psychological patterns and social structures.”

When I write about myself I am, if anything, hyperaware of the distance that exists between the event that transpires and my telling of it. But while Knausgaard found that the form of the non-fiction novel better suited his purposes, he also indicates that the events he later wrote about were already undergoing a process of narrativization as they were occurring. Describing the days following the death of his father, Knausgaard says:

In the midst of this emotional chaos, one thought remained unaffected, as if contained in its own compartment, lucid and distinct regardless of what I otherwise saw or felt, and that was the realisation that I had to write about all this. It was a great story.

Maybe this narrativization is a part of the authentic experience, in that we are always trying to make coherent the events of our lives, even as they are happening. But elsewhere, Knausgaard concedes that, “An event is only true as it occurs, such an important part of its existence consisting in the fact that we are in the middle of it rather than outside, unable to see the overall picture, never knowing where it will lead.”

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Knausgaard’s popularity has been contemporary to the ubiquity of the online personal essay. In recent years, this style of writing has been practically unavoidable—it’s even the medium of choice for Hannah Horvath, the writer-protagonist of Lena Dunhuam’s Girls. However, in a recent New Yorker piece, Jia Tolentino argued that the “personal essay boom is over.” With sites like xoJane and Buzzfeed Ideas closing shop, the lurid exposé has gradually become less commonplace (although it hasn’t entirely disappeared, either). While Tolentino isn’t against the personal essay, she points out that with the demand for click-baity pieces many sites would publish essays of disparate quality, as well as publishing essays by (often young) writers who weren’t aware of what they were getting themselves into when they made their admissions so publicly and so permanently. Despite this, Tolentino believes that the Internet genre has its redeeming qualities, saying, “I am moved by the negotiation of vulnerability … I loved watching people try to figure out if they had something to say.”

… many sites would publish essays of disparate quality, as well as publishing essays by (often young) writers who weren’t aware of what they were getting themselves into when they made their admissions so publicly and so permanently.

When I write from a personal space, my writing often feels aspirational. In writing about myself, there is a part of me that hopes to find a voice of my own—and a confidence in that voice—through the brute force of performance. By putting my own experiences on the line, it feels like I am staking more than just my writing, but my self and my own abilities. If I can’t tell my own story, how can I hope to create new stories?

This begets another question, which is—what does a writer get out of writing about themself? Catharsis? Validation? Where fiction has the veneer of existing for others, personal writing isn’t able to share in this illusion so easily. By situating the text within your own personal history, you’re ensuring that the reader can only meet you so far. After all, the real life events that inspired the work stay with you, and the degree of success with which you replicate them with words remains with you as well.

Knausgaard, in his interview with The Guardian, says, “I didn’t want to write about the relationship between a father and son, I wanted to write about my dad and me.” While Knausgaard accomplished this for himself, for the reader, the book is ostensibly still a story about a father and son. Personal writing is how writers have conversations with themselves about their own pasts. Both Knausgaard and Tolentino gesture toward this idea, Knausgaard in the way he justifies his turn to the non-fiction novel, and Tolentino in her defence of the personal essayist who is trying to discern her voice. Personal writing is a private conversation in a public place, the kind you can’t ignore.

While I’m not convinced that personal writing will automatically grant a writer closer proximity to the world, it offers readers a thrilling immediacy. Reading a private conversation is an intimate thing, and the vulnerability and embarrassment that both Knausgaard and Tolentino cite are apt. Writing about yourself means letting others watch while you try to get your story straight. This struggle to lend coherence to the unintelligible can be beautiful, heartbreaking, and hilarious, but it’s also human. In this, perhaps, it manifests the proximity to the world that Knausgaard is looking for. Perhaps it’s in this struggle that Knausgaard finds the world he’s looking for.

One Comment

Sharon Goodier

Personal writing is fraught with difficulties not the least of which is borders. I don’t want to write “Selfie” poems but there’s a long continuum between that and a well thought out personal essay. I haven’t read the interview or the author but I will. Sharon Goodier

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