Proud to be a Lavender-Scented Little Old Lady

For over sixty years, I’ve been writing in the most misunderstood and maligned genre of the writing world. Actually, I was eleven years old when I won a school contest writing an essay in the voice of a book, imploring people to take care of me and other books I called my friends. I received $25.00 dollars for my efforts. A lot of money in 1956.

As an adult, I moved on in search of my voice by joining writing groups, attending conferences and trying free-lance writing. After some success being published in magazines and newspapers, I started a web page and now have over 100 of my memoirs and essays on display for all the world to read.

Joey Franklin’s article, entitled The Critic as Artist, that appeared in the latest issue of the Writer’s Chronicle, compares the essay to art. Citing the critical ideas of Oscar Wilde, it focuses on the importance of personal impression, the necessity of contemplation and the value of self-consciousness. But since the essayist critiques, most often about themselves, they are thought self-centered since they focus exclusively on their own experiences, thoughts and feelings.

Franklin lists many examples of how non-fiction writing has been thought to be literature’s inadequate step child. Disparagement of the essay goes far, far back. In the 1870’s, Montaigne, considered by many as father of the genre, called the essay a foolish attempt and warned readers not to waste their time “on so frivolous and vain a subject.”

Later Samuel Johnson called essays “loose”, “irregular” and “undigested.” Still later, A. C. Benson branded the essayist “a lesser kind of poet, working in simpler and humbler materials.” G. K. Chesterton referred to it as “a joke of literature” and John Waters called the essay literature’s “lavender-scented little old lady.”

As an essayist, I’ve become accustomed to being off in the shadows, misunderstood and ignored. Over the years, I’ve accepted that there are seldom workshops on non-fiction featured at writing conferences and there are many more contest and literary journal opportunities for fiction.

But most recently, Carl Klaus a well-respected defender of the essay said: “the essay….is a highly complex and problematic kind of writing—-an enactment of thought and a projection of personality that uses language dramatically ……and that thereby calls for literary interpretation.”

Phillip Lopate, another defender of the personal essay can’t say enough about the segues and twists the essayist may employ as he winds his way around and through a dramatic tale. Then look at current movies. For each of the last two years, half of the nominated movies have been based on a true story. Perhaps these essays/memoirs are finally getting the recognition they deserve.

Oscar Wilde fully agrees judging the essay is the only civilized form of autobiography because “it deals not with events, but with the thoughts of one’s life; not with life’s physical accidents of deed or circumstance but with the spiritual moods and imaginative passions of the mind.”

My writing group usually critiques my work, prompting me to delete what I think is a revealing passage germane to the story. Or to change a purposely placed repetitive word. They seem to be looking for tension, a quick hook and the character development so necessary to fiction.

But in the essay, I’m the main character. It’s my duty to tell my deeply personal story with as much interpretation as I can muster. When I’m true to myself, the universal appeal of my musings becomes evident.

Now I know why the essay is so controversial. In telling their most personal tales, the essayist bares their soul. They don’t hide behind the words or behavior of a gnarly, fictional character but come out as themselves saying all the tough things and taking full responsibility for their thoughts and feelings. That’s hard. That’s risky.

Wilde calls it “the record of one’s own soul. It is more fascinating than history, as it is concerned simply with oneself. It is more delightful than philosophy, as its subject is concrete and not abstract, real and not vague.”

I love writing essay and memoir. It’s all I do. I’m proud, visualizing myself as a lavender scented little old lady. Though I’m sure the term was said by John Waters as a put-down, I’m taking it as a high compliment. You’ll see me day in and day out, grinning as I’m sitting at my writing desk, with a cup of chai tea close by, pounding out yet another “record of my own soul.”




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