On: the personal essay



“Theres an element of solipsism to everything, darling. We are inside ourselves looking out, desperately trying to gather the evidence,
trying to crack the code of this strange world that we
re thrown into. We have to be solipsistic, because we are inside ourselves.”
— John Banville


What is a piece of writing if no one reads it, if no one can attribute it to your name? The work is for you, and only you, meaning that, among other things, the cesspool of internet comments is easily avoided. You become your own worst critic, and best champion, and criticism—helpful or otherwise—isn’t an issue. Of course, criticism—the helpful, constructive version—is an aid of sorts, pointing out gaps seen in the work, gaps perhaps missed by you because you’ve reviewed the words over and again, blinded by the potency or even beauty of your own creation.

Still, I can hardly admonish anyone for keeping their words to themselves. Everyone has an opinion, and the reclusive writer hiding on some mountaintop, or within the enclave of a New York borough, is an archaic concept now, now, that everyone has an opinion, and every writer must be made available to receive, and sometimes respond, to them.

Writers are, by our very nature, unsociable creatures. We hide ourselves in our rooms, or in our home offices, or in the corner of some crowded coffee shop, in order to do the work, conducted only in isolation and in solitude. Humans are, by our very nature, sociable creatures in that loneliness and isolation in large doses can cripple us, render us into hollow husks, and it might even kill us if the lack of communion drags on for far too long. Writing, then, is a balancing act: to isolate, but to connect as a matter of survival, hoping that the work we create matters to someone, anyone, even ourselves.

I find writing, and sharing my work, for others to be a problematic endeavor, something I’ve had to reconsider these last three years when my words started to be published, disseminated, and, in many ways, transformed into something unforeseen. Releasing creative work into the world means it’s no longer yours; it is open to interpretation and criticism. Fiction comes with its own ready-made explanation: it’s fiction, which is to say, it didnt happen. The reader/commenter then has to shrug his shoulders and accept the explanation. Sharing my fiction is hardly an issue. It is nonfiction, specifically the personal essay, that has gotten me into trouble.

To declare a piece of writing as nonfiction, to assign work the esoteric label of personal essay, brings about, on one hand, an overall defense of the work itself. One must contend with, or at least be aware of, opinions/comments wondering why the piece was created in the first place. Why does this essay exist? What’s at stake here?—the favorite question, the vague question.

The personal essay is, I suppose, the transmutation of a ho-hum life into meaningful art; it is navel-gazing solipsism at its finest. Is it enough that the work is important to me since it is, by its personal essay definition, about me, born from me, from my experiences, from my fractured memories? Depends on who you ask, I suppose.

On the other hand, the personal essay is an invitation, intended or not, for others to interpret you, the writer. Your motivations. God forbid, your life. A messy, if somewhat successful, essay on identifying as queer comes with its own headaches, as you can imagine, and though I am proud of that essay, of the work I had to conduct, and was encouraged to conduct by Alana Noel Voth, I felt exposed and terrified to be known like that, to show—in certain sections—my sex life, my personal fantasies. But an essay—any piece of writing—demands particular elements in order for it to work; in this case, the essay asked me to expose myself (figuratively speaking). Otherwise, the essay would’ve failed, crumbled under the declaration of I am queer without any kind of explanation, or facts, to back it up.

Keep writing, keep publishing, and a following will follow. Call it micro-fame, if you wish. The internet allows for most writers—maybe all writers?—to find their audience, their niche, and build upon it. I never thought I’d have fans and critics. (I can assure you, your critics will read your work as often as your fans, perhaps more so. It is a sickness of sorts, and I feel sorry for them.)

But with that following came the realization that strangers knew personal things about me: know I’m queer, know my infidelities, know my estrangement to my family. And, since the summer of 2012, a period that coincided, but not coincidentally, with my relocation to New York City, I’ve all but stopped publishing my work. (A friendly reminder to young writers: writing and publishing are not synonymous.)

I sort of stumbled into nonfiction, a shift that was meant to be temporary while I recharged my Fiction batteries…this was three years ago, and my publishing credits are more nonfiction than fiction. Even the work I submitted, and was since published, as “fiction”were, at times, nonfiction; I like to play games with genre, but that’s for another day. I love nonfiction, the personal essay, but I feared being known, being misunderstood. It happened far too often as the Fall of 2012 began, and I sat around Brooklyn, feeling sorry for myself for more reasons than one, wondering, “What’s the point? Why should I keep up with personal essays? Perhaps I’m not built for this.”

I can’t defend my life—it is what it is—and I’ve grown tired of defending the personal essay, the genre of personal nonfiction, for lack of a better term. I suppose if one can write about elves, or vampires, or sex-crazed submissives, or robots and warlocks and warlords, then one can write about a quiet life in New Jersey, where one lived an upper-middle-class childhood, where things were never quite as they appeared, where domestic violence lived, and recrimination bloomed, and the negotiation of growing into an adult with all of this—shit—piled on your back takes place, and one can write about all of this without defense because one’s life needs no defense, no explanation, and one’s craving to connect is all that is at stake when it comes to art. All of this is to say—I’m trying to expose myself again. Slowly. For the world to see.

— Mensah Demary

Specter Magazine 

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