Panel Participants: Krista Bremer, Sy Safransky, Jaquira Diaz, Heather Sellers, Crystal Williams
As a long-time subscriber of The Sun Magazine, I am forever grateful the editors who once-upon-a-time graciously published my personal essay “Good Enough.” Here, contributors and editors from The Sun consider whether personal writers (really) are self-absorbed, craft in personal essays, matters of equity, and where the political should reside in the personal writing of today.
Krista Bremer, writer & associate publisher of The Sun, moderated the panel and opened with this reminder: the mere decision to write the personal can be fraught. Her father once asked—and I paraphrase—but why-oh-why did she have to write memoir. “The first person is my instrument,” Bremer tells us. And it is her “privilege to enlarge the questions.”
So, how do we expand our scope even as we look inward? Turns out that Ovid’s Narcissus wasn’t such an ego-maniac after all. Heather Sellers challenges the notion that personal writing requires self-absorption. For those of us writing about ourselves, it is only by deliberately gazing, noticing, and reflecting that the “self” can even be recognized. When we let go of the limitations of what we perceive on the surface—and what we thought we knew—then we might begin to really see what is underneath. If we keep on, and are lucky, we find understanding that is not only lasting but potentially transformative for writer and reader alike. Art, Sellers asserts, is the cure for Narcissism.
Jaquira Dìaz cuts right to truth. I like her. She says “I write about girls, but also about monsters…Sometimes, as they say, the monsters are real.” And the audience thinks, we know. We’ve met our own monsters.
She says “In my America, a white woman at a writing conference tells me I look like a gang member.” Oh! Horrible! It gets quiet for a beat. On monsters, I think: when have I unwittingly been someone else’s monster?
Later, Dìaz suggests that a distinction between the personal and political may not be a writer’s prerogative. “For some of us,” she says, “our existence alone is political, so our writing is, too.” When she says “I think we start with empathy,” I think. Yes! And then, I jot down this equation empathy ≠ narcissism.
Crystal Williams invites James Baldwin to join us, sharing two paraphrased quotes she likes to carry around in her mind. First, I am a witness. That is my job. I write I all down. And next, If you tell everything, no one can hold you hostage. As writers, Williams says, courage is like a muscle. And to be courageous, we are working toward the truth in our work.
Bremer then returns to some of the panel’s guiding questions. If it’s not all about us, what is it about? Is personal writing self-absorbed or can it be more? What work can it do? Should it do? Should personal writing be political and even illuminate the larger, human story?
And after her earlier invitation to be brave, to those of us who may be tempted to stay safe, Crystal Williams says her next charge would be: “What politics are you advocating for in your nonpolitical writing?”
As for universal themes? Jaquira Dìaz doesn’t shy away from what is problematic in that very notion. She wonders whether “maybe the conversation needs to shift to consider what is universal? When people say ‘universal’ to me, I think they are really saying that they want my writing to more white and heteronormative.”
All this resonates like a chord and I can’t help but come around again to Bremer’s opening remarks. As a writer, we are lucky to have our respective instruments and the chance to continue (or begin) to “enlarge the questions.”
Beth Mayer’s short story collection We Will Tell You Otherwise won the 2017 Hudson Prize with Black Lawrence Press and is slated for publication in July 2019. Her fiction has appeared in The Threepenny Review, The Sun Magazine, The Midway Review, and elsewhere.