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Comments Form The Intelligent Heart by Patricia Foster What's at issue is that the personal essay is dead, the "I" evicted from the fashionable venues of literary nonfiction. Or so I've been told. "The world is just sick of people writing about their lives," a coUeague complains to me behind the closed door of my office. He is clever, wry, visionary, and I feel myselfshrink as his eyes make a panoramic sweep ofmy desk where pages of a memoir Ue stacked in a disheveled mess. I think of what I've written there, how my family hacked our way out of poverty and nafled ourselves to the middle class, the spikes digging deep into the marrow of our skuUs. I think ofmy mother who saves string, my father who prefers to eat in the kitchen, my aunt who says, "Ain't that right, honey?" when she wants to assert that the world is a rough and perilous place. "Think about it," my colleague says. "AU that narcissism, aU that unresolved emotion." When he leaves, I briefly worry that my writing is irrelevant, old-fashioned , tied too fervently to fury, to self-obsession, to the complicated issues of class. Perhaps I have no right to material so close to me, stories that fester and clot inside me like the beginnings of a chronic disease. Perhaps it is passé to write about the struggle between temperaments, the duel of consciousness within a family Perhaps the old way ofstoryteUing in the essay is dead. Now it's time to be experimental, sexy to jump on the bandwagon of the new, new thing, those essays that intimidate and confuse, essays that defy the rest of us to see them with uncritical awe. "It's better if it's a little more obscure," a student responds in class to an essay about a young man's relationship to his father. "Ifit has gaps,you know." "Yeah, we need to unpack it," another student agrees. "That's what we're supposed to do . . . figure it out, you know, like unpacking a box, not being sure what we've got, not being sure what's really there, only what we think is there." 175 176Fourth Genre I see myself yanking out conflicts, tossing out reliable narrators, letting them wobble and shudder to a stop. "The more fragmented, the better," the first student says. "Then it's one discourse pitted against another." WeU, maybe, I think to myself. But these are merely the buzzwords of academia, and such words—so easily misunderstood—often have little to do with the success ofan essay, the clarity ofthe thinking, the hiUs and furrows ofa meditative form, the ability ofthe writer to engage the inteUigent heart. But what is the inteUigent heart and who gives a fig about that anymore? Sometimes I think I sit alone in my room, in a solemn universe of me and like-minded friends to whom I can point and say frankly, "We care. We believe in the inteUigent heart!"We believe that personal stories matter, that whether autobiographical or cultural, the story must act as a catalyst for thinking and feeling, that it is the congruence ofboth that elevates the essay to the status of art. The inteUigent heart is the heart that seeks revelation in dreams, then turns dreams into insight, and insight into wisdom. The intelligent heart is the balance beam, the quivering tightrope we walk when we dip perilously into our psyches and gather up the stray bits and pieces we patch together and caU art. Perhaps, more often, the inteUigent heart is a masquerade, a carnival, a devilish trickster we wrestle with constantly, fighting shadows and phantoms in our attempt to find its true shape. Not that its true shape will give us any peace. Its true shape merely defines for us the oppositions we can work with, the strands ofambivalence we hold up to soft morning fight. When functioning properly, the inteUigent heart knocks at our door, awakens us from dreams, shudders from the drafty places in our apartments, and demands a quick audience. Write this, it says. And this. And this. And this. FaithfuUy we write it down...


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pp. 175-177
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