More Than Meets the I
What's wrong with exposing yourself? A noted author defends personal journalism
LAST OCTOBER, I-AND PLEASE PARDON the personal pronoun-published a book about what it feels like to be a man living in an age when feminism is ascendant. Three-quarters of the book consists of encounters with various men. The rest of the time I play golf, drink, have lustful thoughts about my wife and women other than my wife, learn to surf, buy firecrackers, conceive a child, think about why becoming a father terrifies me, and at one point meet a former lover who informs me that while I often had sex with her, I occasionally jumped ship prior to climax because that would have been unfaithful to my other girlfriend at the time. My reward for these revelations has been a temporary reputation, according to one Toronto reviewer, as a leading practitioner of “cutting-edge personal journalism.”
I believe this was intended as a compliment, but I’m not sure what “personal journalism” is. I like to think personal journalism-that is, writing about oneself-is not just the opposite or the enemy of impersonal, straight reporting: for me, it’s a kind of Journalism- Plus, factual reporting that also draws on the experiences and inner life of the reporter, moi.
Do I have this right so far? A personal journalist is the kind of reporter who might interview a subject about his gun collection, take his leave, and then later, on the highway, decide to stop for a cup of coffee. The waitress might ask where he was from, and in answering he would wonder what it would be like to go home with her, but he wouldn’t. Instead he’d go back to his hotel and write a story about the gun collector, and he’d include his conversation with the waitress, what he thought about her, and how he felt about the encounter afterwards-although he might, ifhe were running out of space or had any taste, leave that last part out, and let the reader figure it out. That, to my mind, would be one kind of personal journalist. Why is that story more personal than any other brand of journalism? Because the reporter has a part in it. What’s wrong with that? The reporter was there, after all. Is the story less revealing or truthful or “objective” than a straightforward report of an interview about guns? Not at all: a straightforward news report often entails more artificial manipulation of events, material, and quotes than does a subjective I-was-interviewing-this gun -collector-and -feeling-depressed -so-I -checked -into-a -motel- and -w hat-do-you-think-l-saw-there? kind of story. Unadorned facts about a gun collection are subjective too; the story isn’t being written by a machine. Every journalist commits personal journalism at some level every time he or she writes a story.
So is personal journalism any less rigorous than impersonal reporting? Not if it’s done conscientiously; truth is, it’s harder, because there’s a whole additional realm of information to report. Does it make for a better (aesthetically complex, deeper, more human, more readable) story than the non-fat, pure-facts version? Most likely. Is there something wrong with a readable story? Only if you’re incapable of writing one-in which case you might be a bureaucrat at a national news organization with nothing to do but sit around and write handbooks about what is and is not journalism, personal and otherwise.
The problem is, I now find it near impossible to write anything that isn’t personal. As I grow older, the mendaciousness of most morality becomes apparent to me, and I find it difficult to hold an unwavering opinion with any conviction. The less certain the world appears, the more I am forced back to the only dependable place I know, which is where I am, what I see, how I feel. I notice flaws in great people, strength of character in criminals, and ambiguity in everything. It seems only fair and honest to admit it, which perforce entails describing myself a little. By writing myself into a story, I hope I also improve my subjects’ odds of being treated fairly: I ought to judge myself and them by the same standards. I’ve lost my taste for blaming the ills of the world on the System; my faith and my anger have taken up residence on a lower floor, in the realm of individuals. That suggests a certain reportorial mode.
At its best, reporting done from the centre of someone’s personal experience and passion has given us the greatest journalism of this and every other century. History doesn’t remember impersonal journalism. Tom Wolfe isn’t thought of as a personal journalist, but all his work is essentially concerned with his relationship to his own skepticism. Ryszard Kapuscinski never writes just about war: he tells us what it’s like to be Ryszard Kapuscinski in a war (down to how much vermouth he liked in his martinis in Belize), because by monitoring his own habits and desires he can cast the moral ambiguities of war in a truer and more vivid light. Whatever Norman Mailer writes about (and sometimes it’s hard to tell), it’s always about Mailer. He is inseparable from what he sees, and refuses to lie about the fact. Nora Ephron, no one’s patsy, established her long career with an essay about her breasts. “Before I say anything about my breasts,” it began, “I have to say a few words about androgyny.” Personal journalism can take you into the moment and therefore into your true mind, both fine places for a writer to be. Then there’s Joan Didion, the most “personal” journalist of them all, wondering aloud why she’s obsessed by dams and malls and why she suffers from migraines. “I had better tell you where I am, and why,” she campily begins an essay called “In the Islands,” and then goes on to explain that she is in a hotel in Hawaii, waiting for a tidal wave and contemplating a divorce. To a writer who couldn’t pull off Didion’s subsequent feats of reporting about Hawaii or her insights into what the islands mean to her, that opener might seem self-indulgent. But it is the perfect lead to an essay about how we try to find Paradise in places it can’t exist.
Don’t misunderstand me: there is much, much, much, much more hideously bad personal journalism than there is brilliant stuff. It’s hard to do, and when it fails the stench of burning flesh is overwhelming. I once wrote a column for Chatelaine (my first mistake) in the form of a diary of my life that to this day makes me actually yelp and cringe when I think of it. Or did you see that column in the Globe last summer, by that Vancouverite who complained…without irony…without even a dab of humour!…that society discriminated against him because he had a small penis? Hilariously stupid on every conceivable level. Even if the heartbreak of penile dwarfism was a story (and I have my doubts; on the other hand, I don’t know much about it)-even so, the first principle of personal writing is, Thou Shalt Never Write Directly on the Nose About Anything.
That’s part of the challenge and compulsion of personal writing: addressing the unmentionables without making too much of an idiot of oneself. Personal journalism isn’t a matter of confessing-the trick is to be candid, and to be candid about being candid, which can make for a graceful caginess. While researching my book I met a bunch of philandering golfers who objectified women to an encyclopedic degree. They had more names for female body parts than a mother does for a newborn. One was “blow-job hair.” (That would be hair short enough to allow a woman’s face to be seen by her male partner while…oh, never mind. Buy the book, and turn to page 33.) I find typing those words slightly embarrassing, but when my editor read an early version of their adventures he sent back a request for stories about my own experience of oral sex. In a novel, maybe. But in a work of nonfiction? I told him he was crazy. He told me to try anyway.
So for two weeks I tried to write about oral sex. It was like writing about cement. The subject is inelegant at best, and my experience with it barely deserves a letter to Dear Abby, never mind eight pages in a book. Thousands of words later, I realized I had the wrong angle. The way for me to write about oral sex was to write about not being able to write about oral sex.
To be honest even to that slight degree is liberating for me. Personal reporting always is when I can suddenly see over the old stone wall of my own reportorial repression. And if the glance has been a graceful one too, so much the better. Just as telling the aforementioned story of the gun owner would be liberating, with its convenient twin symbols of his guns and the beddable waitress, men collecting what men collect. At least it would be more liberating to write (and read) thamts impersonal counterpart: an anecdotal lead about the historic Winchester over his desk, five freeze-dried paras, three quotes, the required disturbing/reassuring statistics about violent crimes. Are we snoring yet?
Which raises one last question: why do the print and broadcast media alike still resist the personal-except as an occasional dose of kinkiness on the op-ed page or in the feeble-minded “commentaries” of an Eccentric Correspondent like that buffoon Andy Rooney on 60 Minutes? Why do so many reporters live to grunt out impersonal journalism-that endless rack of two-button suits, that statistic blear that gives even the most gripping stories the siege of Sarajevo, the abortion argument, the AIDS crisis, national elections-all the kick of a double-A battery? Most impersonal reporting is chloroform in print, Snoozeworld. Why do it, then? Does the innate grubbiness of our so-called profession make us reporters yearn to belong to something established-hence all the high-collared rules of reporting, and our reluctance to undo them? Why else did a journalist friend at a prestigious Canadian news organization cluck that he was “shocked” that I had “written such a personal book”? What does it say, on the other hand, that my American friends (none of them reporters) thought the book could have been “racier”?
My guess is that non personal journalism is a blood relative of political correctness. It’s a form of emotional propriety that serves no one except (this will come as no surprise) the owners of the media. After all, it doesn’t take much to sustain a newspaper, a radio show, or a TV news hour: you do the same thing again and again, and eventually people fall into the habit of consuming it. Why rock that familiar, profitable boat? Why develop highly individual writers who might then ask for a little highly individual compensation? Personal journalism will always be suspect because it reintroduces a rogue X factor, the wild card: the writer, and a mind that won’t take Lie Down as a command.
Of course, no one needs to make an entire career out of personal reporting. I simply recommend it as a diversion. And if you want to play it safe and never offend anyone, I’d avoid personal reporting completely. Don’t give us your self, the bright hot spots of your heart and mind, because they’ll make everyone nervous. Stick with the status quo and the impersonal, with “real” reporting; give us the facts, our daily bread, in a reliable, comfortable format, guaranteed to hold only reliable, comfortable ideas. Do that long enough, they might even make you a manager.