"Find something that matters to you and write about it." This was the only direction editor Thomas Beller gave the young writers whose work forms Personals: Dreams and Nightmares from the Lives of 20 Young Writers. Beller tells us that he found his brood "through talking to editors, professors, and agents, consulting some small magazines, and, of course, luck." The only thing the group has in common is that they are all in their 20s and they all respect the art of the personal essay. There is very little wildness and defiance in these pieces and no literary experimentation. If these represent the new generation, they are a calm, self-aware and universally thoughtful bunch.
Some of the writers in Personals have been published before; others have not. In the opening essay, "Twelfth Between A and B," Strawberry Saroyan writes about the stages of her simultaneous disillusionment with New York City and her family in California. Quang Bao remembers signs, portents, charlatans and failures among a Vietnamese refugee family in Texas in the beautiful "Fortune Trails." "The Limits of Austin City" takes novelist Ashley Warlick and her brother from Pennsylvania to Texas, "to a place neither of us had been before, a place of barbecue and music, Pearl beer, general lawlessness and trouble." Quite a few of the essays in Personals consider the effects of travel, migration and dislocation on their authors -- people who moved around a lot in childhood, young professionals looking for work, the occasional respite and sensation of going someplace completely different, as when Heather Chase remembers being a 12-year-old in Cameroon and finding that the very foreignness of the place suits the "attitude of detachment" she had already formed after a childhood of never living anywhere longer than a year.
"People talk a lot about the wonders of childhood," Chase writes, "its honesty, insight, frankness and innocence. They don't talk as much about the weakness, the vulnerability, the dependence, the ignorance. All children know this about themselves, and that's why they are easily frightened. I know I was. It is also why every child is eager to grow up, to become like adults. Only adults want to be children."
It would be a mistake to single out one of the writers in Personals as being better or more accomplished than the others. They're all authentically talented and write with skill. Particularly striking are the women's voices -- cool, frank, detached and completely lacking that kind of girlish rumination that always makes you think of Kristin in "I Remember Mama," writing by candlelight in the attic and chewing on the end of her pen. These girls have been out there, so in the contemporary understanding of "write what you know," they're in a position to go for the gold. Quite amazing is Caitlin O'Connor Creevy in "Clementine," the account of her pregnancy with a child she meant to give up but couldn't. Beller compares Creevy to Henry Miller in his introduction and he isn't far off. She manages to be salt-of-the-earth and richly inspiring at the same time, writing in absolutely straightforward, even deadpan terms while contemplating the permanent mysteries of the heart. And in "I Didn't Always Think They Were Assholes," her essay about her disastrous experiences as a founding director of a New York theater company, Carrie Luft is all crispness, comedy and clear-eyed vision. She gazes on the world, as all these writers do, fully formed in her sensibility. -- Salon
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
There are more nightmares than dreams animating this rangy, rich collection of self-portraits by emerging writers mostly under 30. That isn't surprising, given the edgy realism that Beller (Seduction Theory) seems to prefer. In the introduction, he writes that, rather than imposing some single overarching theme or heavy-handed generalization on his peers, he simply asked each writer to "find something that matters to you and write a story about it." The results are uneven, but often trenchant. Set against backdrops as varied as old-money New York, the rural Midwest, Vietnam and Cambodia, the pieces are shot through with similar themes: relationships that crash and burn, unexpected pregnancies, addiction to drugs and other forms of self-destruction, lives in emotional and geographical transit. Some essays are clever and sharply told, such as Meghan Daum's story of a romantic fling that begins in cyberspace and turns crushingly banal in real life; Scott Heim's Midnight Cowboy-like odyssey from small-town Kansas to New York hustler bars; Daniel Pinchbeck's account of dropping out of Wesleyan--a kind of anti-liberal arts J'accuse; and Brady Udall's hilarious look at childhood fibs. Elsewhere, the burden of self-definition yields earnest mini-life summaries and the occasional clich --phrases like "learning process" stand out like half-eaten Big Macs. If they are not consistently perceptive, these writers do manage to condense large, unresolved questions of identity, place and memory into engaging short takes, offering a coherent portrait of life after college and a roster of some writers to watch. (July)
These two books offer unique points of view within the increasingly popular genre of personal essays and memoir. Songs of Myself contains 38 essays written exclusively by freshmen at Towson University in Maryland and collected by poet and professor Scharper. The students write with passion about the past and the present as they move from innocence to experience during the difficult first year of college, touching on subjects such as high school, illness, travel, family death, and religion. Although the essays contain a few irritating grammatical errors and are tinged with the self-absorption of youth, this collection makes a wonderful teaching tool for secondary and college teachers alike and may well be a revelation for parents of young adults. Personals, edited by Beller (Seduction Theory, LJ 5/15/95), ups the age limit and taps the angst of new and aspiring twentysomething writers (with a few barely over that 30-year-old mark), gleaned primarily from the New York City area. Both more polished and more universal than those in Songs, the pieces in Personals also provide excellent teaching examples for English and composition classes. However, they also make excellent reading. These young authors and wannabes all know how to tell a good story and how to make their own personal experiences speak to anonymous readers. Personals is recommended for all libraries, Songs for a more limited audience of teachers in school and academic libraries and parents in public libraries.--Katherine K. Koenig, Ellis Sch., Greensburg, PA
Personals' most consistent motif may be the unreliability of its narrators. . .'It's better this way; take my word for it,' [one author] assures. . . -- Entertainment Weekly
A hit-and-miss collection of essays by Gen X writers responding to Beller's (Seduction Theory, 1995) vague directive to 'find something that matters to you and write about it.' Their concerns have little to do with the dreams or nightmares of the subtitle; hip cynicism and inchoate negativity about careers and relationships drive most of these edgy writings.
Some are prickly, like Robert Bingham's remedy for a 'collapsed' life: 'Don't spend time mulling about your stupid little worthless misery'; join an election campaign and let the 'ceremonial superficiality' take your mind off your worries. Wondering 'what other neurotic Catholic sluts do in their down time,' Caitlin O'Connor Greevy goes from 'partying' ('including unprotected anal sex with an actor, God forbid') to a vow of abstinence. Relieved by a clean HIV test result, she resolves to find 'an employed male who is groomed.' She gets pregnant, though'and wonders how much she can get for the baby. In 'Window Shopping for a Life,' Jennifer Farber measures her life and relationships against the 'thoroughbreds' she finds in the New York Times wedding announcements. Kansan Scott Heim, weary of Wizard of Oz jokes, yearns for 'a bad, brutal Kansas' beyond In Cold Blood. He's 'nearly suffocated with jealousy' when an old friend winds up in prison for shooting an elderly convenience-store clerk. Fascinated by the murders of six gay hustlers in Kansas City, Heim decides to try hustling, quitting only after a savage beating from a john. Bliss Broyard's entry, 'My Father's Daughter,' is the best piece in the collection, sensitive and well written. She examines her relationship with her father, the late critic Anatole Broyard, byhanging out with some of his old pals, hoping 'to discover the man behind himself' and his assessment of her. Though it lacks a thematic focus, there's enough kvetching here for two generations.