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Roundtable The Art of the Personal Essay Introduction Steven Harvey Our Roundtable topic is "The Art of the Personal Essay."We can, I suppose , call almost any human activity an art—as a glance at some selfhelp titles can verify. There is The Art of Culinary Cooking, TheArt ofMaking Wine, and The Art of Flower and Foliage Arrangement. There is The Art of Editing—which sounds Uke an oxymoron to me. And, my favorite, a clarion caU for the arts: The Art ofHandbell Ringing. But is there an art to the personal essay? I have just finished writing a new book of personal essays, caUed Bound for Shady Grove, about the Appalachian mountain music where I Uve and, as part of the project, taught myselfhow to play clawhammer banjo, in part by usingArt Rosenbaum's book, TheArt ofthe Mountain Banjo. So when I asked my wife, who has endured hours of clang and cluck at my hands, about the title of this roundtable, she put the matter succinctly. "If you can caU the banjo an art," she said, "then I guess you can get away with saying that the personal essay is one too." But there is a problem with caUing the personal essay "art." Urflike poetry and fiction, the essay has a special obligation to what happened, which caUs into question the artful manipulation offacts. And aU ofus who have written personal essays know that facts—the details of lived experience—are great teachers. Stubborn facts, unadorned by our manipulations, take us to a world we did not expect to find and could not imagine. They keep our words fresh. The personal essay may, like Icarus, enjoy momentary flights of 206 Roundtable: The Art of the Personal Essay207 things that might have been, but, like Antaeus, it is always stronger and more vital when it touches the firm ground of things simply as they are. And yet, things as they are have no human meaning. The world has no beginnings and endings. Life is not divided up into segments, nor does it time its surprises for maximum effect. Personal essayists have no alternative but to shape events, and when they do, they are, like the potter, the painter, and—oh, heck, why not!—the banjo player—artists. JournaUsts rarely feel this way about their writing. Just imagine a rookie reporter bringing a thoroughly revised and edited copy of an article to his boss and saying, "look what you have done to my art!" By and large news editors are rightly suspicious of such art. They want the facts in a straightforward format. But personal essayists—more akin to poets and fiction writers than reporters—have every right to see their work as art, though an art that is usuaUy improved, not ruined, by a good editor's scissors. Where do we draw the line? I'd like to suggest an idea here, a contention. Writing, in any genre, becomes art the moment that we care as much about the way it says what it says as we do about what it says. When the shape it takes on the page, rather than the event in Ufe, becomes the matter at hand, then the work is art. Often personal essayists use the same artistic tools as poets and fiction writers for shaping what they say. The essay must begin and end, it must build; the writer must choose words weU and make use of devices such as imagery and figuration that the language offers. But due to its obligation to the world as it as, these artistic choices feel different for the essayist. They are colored by the writer's aim to make something of his life and the reader's hunger for the actual world. To begin an essay is not to enter a new world, but to pick up where the real world left us. To end an essay is not to complete an imagined reality, but to appear to return to the mess of living that we never really left behind. So, what is the "rhetoric of the art of the personal essay"? To help us understand this largely uncharted verbal terrain, Fourth Genre invited a group...


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