The Last Thing I Have To Say About Vacation...I Think
While we were on vacation we visited a young relative away at college. This semester he is taking a class on writing personal essays. I was all excited about this because I've been interested in personal essays for a while now, have a great many questions about writing them, and could really see this young man becoming an essayist. However, in the course of the visit he announced that he really doesn't like personal essays.
After thinking about this, I have to admit that I really didn't like essays when I was a college student, either. I didn't start reading essays--Nora Ephron before she started writing sappy scripts for romantic comedies and Joan Didion, before she also started writing screenplays--until I was in my mid- to late-twenties. And I didn't become interested in writing them until I was in my thirties. Maybe, I thought after thinking some more, essays are not a young person's form.
The personal essay, if I understand it at all, is an attempt to take some event in the writer's life and try to relate it to the human condition. It's an attempt to communicate experience. Fiction is also an attempt to communicate experience, but you're trying to communicate the illusion of experience. With essays the experience is rawer, edgier, because the experience being communicated is true. (Though exactly how true it has to be is one of the questions I was talking about in my first paragraph.)
So maybe young people haven't lived enough, haven't experienced enough, to appreciate essays. They haven't experienced enough, themselves, to recognize the experience the essayist is trying to communicate.
An example, but not a very good one: I am a David Sedaris fan. While we were on vacation, we were listening to David Sedaris Live At Carnegie Hall. On this CD Sedaris reads his essay "Repeat After Me," which I had already read in one of his collections. It's a stunning and moving essay and after I finished listening to Sedaris read it aloud, I started crying in the car. ("That must have been awkward," my young relative said when he heard about it.)
Fortunately, this was one of those moments when my traveling companion was driving.
While he is a Sedaris fan, too, he didn't see what there was to cry about. I'm guessing that this is because, being a civil engineer, he has never cannabalized his children's lives, ripped off stories from his sibling's childhood, or helped himself to what was going on with the boy next door the way I have. The experience Sedaris was writing about--feeling discomfort because his family is his writing material--definitely relates to my human condition. But as a college student I wouldn't have known what he was talking about.
There's a lot of things about life I didn't understand until I lived them. Since I hope I'm not a total freak of nature, I have to wonder if others are like me--they can't understand what they haven't lived. And, thus, the experience essayists are trying to communicate will be lost on them.
Essayer, by the way, means "to try" in French. I love it.