The Tournament of Books, Presented by Field Notes  |   In the final match, it's The Good Lord Bird v. Life After Life

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Apr 24
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Our Passions, Our Day Jobs

Essaying Through Life

A youthful pledge to become an essayist gets lost.

For a while, shortly after I finished an undergraduate creative writing course, everything I wrote started with an observation or a realization. I realized this, observed that, examined the subject with airy candor and tried to wrap it up neatly at the end. I was going to be an essayist, and it was going to be awesome.

In that class, a semester-long exploration of the personal essay, I bucked the assignments, insisting on doing interviews in the course of my work. I mixed reportage and observation, ending up with a sort of amalgam of personality and journalism—not quite living up to Aldous Huxley’s theory that the best essays mix the personal, the factual and the abstract, but still personal and loose enough to pass the class. The style works well if you’re an excellent writer observing, say, life in another culture—but not when your subject is life on a Northeastern liberal arts campus and your writing is only halfway decent.

I insisted on doing my classwork as radio pieces, and my professor allowed me to do so, as long as they maintained the element of the personal.... Continue Reading

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Apr 24
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