Facebook, Twitter, blogs, emails: a lot of what we read everyday is about real people. The popularity of social networking and self-examining authors like Dave Eggers show us that people like to read about individuals and the little snippets that color our experiences and daily lives, whether it’s about struggling with alcoholism or the spoiled chocolate milk in the fridge. And for those who write about themselves, it can be all at once exhilarating, excruciating, healing, educational, and just plain scary. Open that up to friends and family and it can be the best form of comedy, vengeance, or the fastest way to make enemies. In any case, instructor Victoria Zackheim, fiction writer, playwright, and editor of two anthologies, The Other Woman (Warner), and For Keeps: Women Tell the Truth About Their Bodies, Growing Older, and Acceptance, (Seal/Avalon), teaches Writers’ Program students the art of writing in the personal essay genre, and we sat down to ask her a few questions.
Writers’ Program: What’s it like to write such personal stuff?
Victoria Zackheim: Exciting, daunting, terrifying…freeing. I’ve written essays for my three anthologies and each essay changed my life…in the sense that it forced me to look at myself in a new and more honest way. One of the authors in The Other Woman, Maxinne Leighton, wrote for the first time about childhood sexual abuse, something she rarely discussed, even with friends. She struggled through the essay for several months, uncertain until the last day that she could submit it to me. When she did, and it was published, her life changed. A cloud lifted from her and a new life began.
WP: What brought you to write PE?
VZ: I came up with the idea for my first anthology, The Other Woman, and I was expected to be a contributing author. I was just fine being the editor…and writing nothing, but my agent refused to let me get away with that. So, kicking and screaming, I wrote. It was then that I fell in love with PE.
WP: Students often ask, what’s the difference between PE and Memoir?
VZ: Phillip Lopate says that “the hallmark of the personal essay is its intimacy” and I agree. In a personal essay, the writer hones in on one subject of personal interest and shares thoughts and feelings on that particular idea. It can be something that moved us, changed our perspective on life, affected us in some way. That old boyfriend, teacher, broken leg, etc.
In a memoir, it’s a broader picture of that author’s life, more autobiographical and covering a span of time. In a memoir, we take many of our experiences and weave them together into what forms a life. I find the personal essay far more intimate and revealing.
WP: What are you working on now?
VZ: I have a book coming out next month and I’m very excited. It’s called The Face in the Mirror: Writers Reflect on Their Dreams of Youth and the Reality of Age. Contributing authors include Malachy McCourt, Joyce Maynard, Beverly Donofrio, Alan Dershowitz, UCLA Extension instructor Barbara Abercrombie, Sandra Gulland, and fourteen more gifted and generous writers.
Also, I’m trying to finish a novel, but it’s so fragmented, with so many stops and starts, that I’m overwhelmed by the task of figuring out the progression of all the versions I’ve saved. Is Chapter One really Chapter 15? What do I do with three Chapter One versions…that aren’t Chapter One at all! AACK!
WP: How much fiction comes into play with PE? For example, David Sedaris says 97% of what he writes is true, and 3% isn’t true.
VZ: When I send the contract out to contributing authors (for my anthologies), they sign a clause that affirms that everything they write is true. So yes, there might be 3% of “I disliked my neighbor” when the real truth is “I hated my neighbor and wished him dead,” but when events are described, they must be provable and without the possibility of someone stepping out of the woodwork and pointing a finger of doubt.
WP: Who are your favorite PE authors?
VZ: That’s a loaded question for me since I’ve edited three books of personal essays. Having said that: Malachy McCourt, Leon Whiteson, and Christine O’Hagan write about their lives in ways that are poignant and poetic, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, but always memorable. When Caroline Leavitt writes a PE, her scenes and characters are so vivid that they run like movies in my head. Alan Dershowitz surprised me with a self-effacing, very funny, and at the same time moving essay in this new book. Barbara Abercrombie invites you into her personal life and then very quietly straps you to a chair and holds you hostage…in the sense that you absolutely must read more. Jane Smiley’s essay in The Other Woman was at first hilarious…but the second read, and then the third and fourth revealed layers of her personality and emotions that are there to be discovered. In my books, there are 68 essays, and not one I regret having included. They’re beautifully written, honest and revealing, with very distinct voices and very different takes on a theme. I’ve read each of those essays many, many times and find something exciting with each new read. But the very best part for me, as the editor, is the opportunity to work with generous and friendly people who love to write.
Sara Bond is the Program Assistant for Creative Writing (Online) and Events.