Narcissus (Carravagio; 1594-96)
My latest contribution to Toledo Faith and Values, “Why Everyone Should Write an Autobiography,” went up almost two weeks ago. The timing of its publication, while entirely coincidental (I wrote it in December), connects with a recent kerfuffle over the relationship between journalism and narcissism.
At Gawker, Hamilton Nolan’s piece “Journalism Is Not Narcissism,” challenged the value of teaching future journalists to exploit their personal stories or to fill their writing with navel gazing. “Every year, thousands of fresh-faced young aspiring journalists flood our nation’s college classrooms, in order to learn how to practice their craft,” writes Nolan. “What should we tell them? This, first: journalism is not about you.”
Several things struck me about Nolan’s article. First, I often bring personal stories into my essays, though not always to the extent that I do in “Why Everyone Should Write An Autobiography.” I find it to be a helpful tool to connect with a reader, and in fact, I get reader emails that clearly demonstrate that connection is made. Secondly, all writers (nonfiction and fiction) are narcissistic to some extent. It takes a certain amount of narcissism to believe that people have something to learn from you. Lastly, for a brief moment it made me question my conclusion that “everyone should write an autobiography,” even if that autobiography remains unpublished.
But like I said, that was for only a moment; Remember, I’m a narcissist, which means I also know I’m right.
And so I was also happy to see David L. Ulin at L.A. Times countered Nolan’s piece with “Everyone’s life is interesting: Defending confessional nonfiction,” noting a “fundamental flaw” in Nolan’s piece: “The first-person essays he finds so self-indulgent are not journalism.”
“Sure, they appear in newspapers and magazines, but so do comics, op-eds, commentary — none of which are exactly news,” writes Ulin. “That’s the beauty of mass market publications, that they can encompass a range of approaches, that one form does not have to preclude another, that, ideally, there is something for everyone.”
Ulin agrees that “many are” narcissistic, but insists that “the power of personal essays, when they’re working, is that they break down the boundaries that divide us by making individual circumstances universal, allowing us to share an experience in the most important sense.”
Likewise, Steve Almond at Cognoscenti (“The Literary World’s Latest Teapot-Sized Tempest: Or, When Writers Attack!“) also criticizes Nolan’s piece, noting that he’s “tired of seeing pieces like Nolan’s, that pass judgment on entire genres.” He confesses that some pieces, such as Marie Calloway’s account of her one-night stand are “almost entirely devoid of insight,” but that the idea that most people do not have interesting lives is “complete crapola.”
“Everyone has a rich and tortured internal life, chock full of desire and rage and guilt and despair,” writes Almond. “They may not want to face that life, or make sense of it on the page. But it exists. It’s what makes us human beings.”
And this leads me to my piece, which is almost a meta-autobiographical essay, in that I’m writing an autobiographical essay about my self-discovery process in writing an autobiographical chapter for my current book project (watch out Community’s Abed!).
Still, having my ToledoFAVS essay on my mind when this controversy popped-up online led me to think about the question of whether all individuals really do have an interesting story.
Does a family in my neighborhood, who spend their days hold-up inside their home absorbing the glow of their big blue god in their living room really have an interesting life? They occasionally venture out to get food and to go to work, but I rarely see them outside even on the most beautiful days of the year. Do they have hobbies and does a man who ventures out in his tighty-whities to let the dog go to the bathroom (an image I’ll never forget) even have much self-awareness or an awareness of others?
Then again, it must be interesting to some extent. I’m writing about it, aren’t I? I’m puzzled by it, right? I’m attempting to imagine the path that led to such a life.
The best storytelling and some of the most intriguing essays in the world cannot come from a tabula rasa. That is why fiction writers are told to begin with what they know, and why when we interview them we ask seemingly (yet rarely) simple questions like “So which character do you most relate to, and why?”
Or perhaps the point to be had is something completely different. As a friend (@PerDSmith) said on Twitter, “I prefer his [Nolan's] argument if he started from the premise that no-one’s life was interesting, because then storytelling gets [its] rightful due. The best fiction writers I know are self-indulgent as they write ‘fiction’…but their stories are good…because they are good storytellers not because their lives are inherently interesting.”
The same could be said for nonfiction.
In any case, I think my conclusion remains the same; everyone should write an autobiography. This is not to say that all autobiographies should be published, nor that all stories are as fascinating as others. Rather, writing forces us to “face our past, the bitterness we may have, and to own up to those gifts others have given us.” When we try to write our stories, we may realize how mundane our lives really are and perhaps what we are missing. Maybe that moment of self-reflection can help individuals embrace a new trajectory and offer better contributions to the world.
Perhaps there is even a little insight for others in there.