Finding a voice for personal essays

Carl H. Klaus

I’ve read a lot of personal essays, and read a lot about them, but I’m not sure I’ve ever written one.

I say ‘not sure’ because I’ve maybe written quite a few in notebooks, or written words that could be turned into an essay, but have never tried to actually produce one that might be published.
I’d like to try that, and have been thinking about giving it a go this year. One obstacle is voice: Who is writing the essay? Is it me, or some kind of essay-writing version of me? And is it a voice that speaks the truth, or a version of it?
Today I came across an interesting interview with Carl H. Klaus, an essay writer, theorist on the craft of the personal essay, and author of “The Made Up Self” (via here). He says something interesting on this question of voice:

I do think there’s some double-edged quality in writing personal essays – because despite the fluid nature of the self, we do in the long run develop a conception of our selves that we aspire to be true to in our own writing.  And yet I know that such a thing is impossible.  To think that I could in fact create a style that was an echo of such a multi-sided thing as the self – that’s simply a cuckoo notion.  So what can I say?  We do, in fact, aspire to write like ourselves even though we know that in some sense this is an impossibility – much as it’s a difficult notion to imagine never being yourself and yet always being yourself.  It’s a paradoxical thing.”

The full interview is worth reading, especially for what he says about Montaigne, which I think I disagree with.

2 replies on “Finding a voice for personal essays”

  1. ‘Who is writing the story’ is such a good question. Have you come across Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story? It addresses just this, and if you haven’t you should read it! It’s brilliant.

  2. Hi Sarah, Lovely to have you here! I haven’t read Gornick, but will look it up.

    I find the “voice v truth” thing so interesting, especially coming from a journalism background.

    Before I published any fiction, a “By Neil Baker” at the top of a story offered the potential reader a pretty straightforward deal – the piece below is written by a real person of that name, and is “true”, as far as he reasonably knows. And if it uses the first person, then that person is me.

    When I started publishing fiction, the deal was completely different. The “I” in a story is neither “Neil Baker” nor me – even if sometimes it was! It took me a lot of time to get my head around that. I’m comfortable with it now, and so are people who know me and have read my stories (to be honest, they were probably ok with it from the start!).

    But creative non-fiction and personally essays are somewhere in between – a genre I would love to explore, but have not yet found a way into. But I will.

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