I opened a veritable Pandora’s Box of personal memories this week – with the post on memoirs……..
Then remembered a stack of large notebooks I had used in the 1980s to record both initial scribbles and final typed-up papers as I had struggled to make sense of the nature of the organisational venture I was then engaged in - trying to reshape a large bureaucratic system in the West of Scotland. And duly found about 1,500 pages – stashed away behind the Scottish section of my bookcase!!
As I dipped into them, I realized that I now write much better than then – indeed that I think more clearly……And how much of this I owe to my nomadic lifestyle of the past 25 years.
In central Europe in the 1990s I needed to speak more slowly (generally through interpreters); had the time in the pauses, as the interpretation was being done, to think carefully about both what I should be saying - and how to say it. And, under questioning, I was having to explain more clearly what I thought my concepts actually meant!!
Far from being a nuisance, it helped me see things from other people's point of view. I was having to “relativise” – to be aware that the experiences and images certain words and concepts brought to my mind generally aroused very different images in my interlocuteurs’ minds – and to try to deal with this…..
I was able to produce a detailed analysis of the 1980s venture only nine years later - thanks to the greater "distance" my nomadic work had helped me develop. A short Urban Studies fellowship in the mid 1990s in my old University (Glasgow) also helped. You can see the result in Organisational Development and Political Amnesia
All relevant to the flood of books which hit me this week – mainly collections of essays – a genre I have loved since my schooldays when Francis Bacon Charles Lambwere favourites. The literary canon, apparently, distinguishes various forms of essay and “personal essay” is evidently the more precise term for the type I like. The Art of the Personal Essay is a 770-page collection with a superb introduction to the genre by Phillip Lopate who writes…….
The hallmark of the personal essay is its intimacy. The writer seems to be speaking directly into your ear, confiding everything from gossip to wisdom. Through sharing thoughts, memories, desires, complaints, and whimsies, the personal essayist sets up a relationship with the reader, a dialogue -- a friendship, if you will, based on identification, understanding, testiness, and companionship. (xxiii)
The personal essayist must above all be a reliable narrator; we must trust his or her core of sincerity. We must also feel secure that the essayist has done a fair amount of introspective homework already, is grounded in reality, and is trying to give us the maximum understanding and intelligence of which he or she is capable. . . . How the world comes at another person, the irritations, jubilation’s, aches and pains, humorous flashes -- these are the classic building materials of the personal essay. We learn the rhythm by which the essayist receives, digests, and spits out the world, and we learn the shape of his or her privacy. (xxiv-xxv)
The collection makes quite an interesting contrast with the other 700 page anthology which landed with a thud this week - The Lost Origins of the Essay by John D'Agata. Both volumes are international in scope (unlike John Gross’s 704 page classic The Oxford Book of Essays some decades ago which looks only at English writers) but D’Agata’s seems to have more focus on longer, Eastern works. Lopate’s gives us the range and writers we expect. Both are large and handsome but the Gray Wolf Press edition of The Lost Origins of the Essay
Three of Clive James’s explosive collections also await - Cultural Cohesion: The Essential Essays, 1968-2002; A Point of View; and The Revolt of the Pendulum: Essays 2005-2008
And I’m tempted to order George Orwell’s Collected Essays which I have been without for the past 4 decades….. talk about making up for lost time……