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Why read an anthology of tell-all personal essays?

Wednesday, Oct 26 2005
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If you had to define yourself in just a few words, which ones would you choose? The question reminds me of those magazine ads for, I don't know, diamonds or insurance or something that showed a photo of a woman and a series of terms -- "cross-country runner," "wine enthusiast," "twin" -- that presumably labeled her quickly and effectively. My own self-description would change depending on who'd see it. My mom? A conservative list ("reader," "thank-you-note sender," "bed-maker"). My friends? Something more frank ("smartass," "plant-killer," "person who crosses the street to pet dogs"). I can say with authority, however, that even if I weren't married when I hit middle age I'd never call myself a "single woman of a certain age," and that even as a mom I'm unlikely to refer to myself as a "mother who thinks." After all, which ones don't?

Those two phrases refer to recent collections of personal essays edited (and in some cases written) by locals. Single Woman of a Certain Age is "29 Women Writers on the Unmarried Midlife," as the subtitle has it, gathered by the San Francisco Chronicle's "Single Minded" columnist Jane Ganahl; Because I Said So is 33 mothers on a whole host of topics, selected by the gals who created the Mothers Who Think section on Salon.com, Camille Peri and Kate Moses. (Disclosure: Peri is my next-door neighbor.) I admit I originally picked up Because I Said So because I know Peri and a few other contributors, and because I'm a new mom and I wondered whether it would speak to me. Single Woman might also have been up my alley; after all, I didn't marry young, and I'm rapidly approaching the lower register of what Ganahl considers "midlife." (I also worked with one of the contributors in a past job.) But if I'm the demographic, or close to it, neither book has hit its target. Their self-definitions are not my own, and they don't tell the whole truth about the women I know.

Personal stories are all the rage right now. The book of the moment, for example, is The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, a memoir of the time after the journalist/novelist/critic's husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, died suddenly of a heart attack at age 71. The book was excerpted in the New York Times Magazine, in the form of a perfect raw essay about grief. Though I have virtually nothing in common with Didion except writing (and on a vastly different scale, I know), her words seared their way into my brain. Granted, she described her experience for her own reasons, not because some editor asked her to do so. And perhaps it's unfair to compare anyone to Didion, author of five novels and eight books of nonfiction. But if you're going to publish your autobiographical essay in a book -- as opposed to a one-time piece in some gone-tomorrow newspaper -- you'd better go deep, have something original to say, and make it stick.

The pieces in Single Woman and Because I Said So are intended to be personal yet universal, honest and painful and funny. A few in each book succeed on every level. But mostly the stories they tell are so individual, so specific to the writer, and told in such a casual, can-you-believe-I-did-this tone that I can't relate. It seems that the writers in these books have defined themselves as narrowly as possible. One could argue that that's the nature of a themed anthology -- after all, Single includes only work by unmarried women over 40 -- but that's not the source of the limitation. It takes gumption and vividness to make a personal essay stand out. Not every writer needs to be a Joan Didion to get there, but each needs to be clear about who she is and why anyone other than her mother or her friends would want to read about it.

Because I Said So is the better collection, which isn't surprising given that Peri and Moses have real talent and the juice to lure quality writers. Janet Fitch's "Thirteen," about raising her teenage daughter after her husband leaves, is thoughtful and cleverly structured; it gave me insight into how a single parent balances her own needs with those of her child. Denise Minor's "There's No Being Sad Here" offers the truest understanding of what it feels like to be autistic since the novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The funny and sharp "Immaculate Conception," by another neighbor of mine, Fufkin Vollmayer, explains precisely why one would choose to have two children -- in her case, two boys 18 months apart -- without a partner. "Why I Left My Children," by Mari Leonardo, is simply heartbreaking. I wanted to like more of these essays, but several are too short to be satisfying (only four pages for the wonderful Mary Roach?), or too narrow to be familiar, or just too sappy.

In fact, sappiness is the downfall of most anthologies of women writers. I just can't stomach that fake "You go, girl!" tone, that pseudo-hip voice of a woman in her 50s talking about her tattoos. It's embarrassing to read an essay by a woman taking too long to say something that no one really wants to hear anyway, to watch her discover that dogs are friendly or young lovers unreliable, and then go on and on about it.

Single Woman of a Certain Age made me laugh now and again, but mostly I cringed while reading it. Now, I vividly remember being unattached and wondering whether I would be so forever -- maybe that seems easy to say now that I'm not, but it's true -- yet these stories made me sadder than I recall feeling at the time. I have many friends who fit the profile of this book, but I don't think of them as pathetic in the way that so many of these writers portray themselves. They're trying so hard not to be bothered by being single that they undermine their own power. One standout exception is "The Glamorous Life" by Anne Buelteman -- her first published piece -- about the itinerant existence of a performer in a traveling musical. She sounds like she's genuinely enjoying herself, unapologetically.

It's both nerve-racking and purifying to write and publish an essay about yourself. Writing it feels the way I imagine a Catholic feels at confession: sitting in a dark box, telling your secrets to an unseen, judging listener, hoping for transcendence. Once the piece is published, the feeling becomes more like the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when we announce our lameness to the world and ask for forgiveness aloud. It's not a casual thing, the tell-all; if you just throw it together and toss it out into the world, you risk defining yourself as a lightweight. And that's one word I'd never want to put on my list.

About The Author

Karen Zuercher

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