Introduction: Scenes from a Life

Increasingly, and not for the first time, I’ve become more interested in true stories, rather than fictional ones. There are many ways to describe it: Creative Non-Fiction, with that funny use of the negative – non – in the middle; Lyric Essay; New Journalism; Autofiction… each with its own bandcamp and cheerleaders. What seems evident to me is that some of the most interesting prose work is happening in these borderlands – where poetics are brought to bear on the true story, mixing up poetry and reportage, the polemic, the witness statement, the argument – I’m thinking Carmen Maria Machado, Claudia Rankine, Annie Ernaux, Jenn Ashworth – who in turn were preceded by James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Truman Capote, Walter Benjamin, Stefan Zweig, Susan Sontag, even Virginia Woolf, whose essays are some of the finest of her writing. Short form versions of these proliferate online – with the internet’s insatiable need for more and yet more content. So quite a few of these selections are available for free. I’ve picked pieces that I’ve just recommended to my current Creative Non-Fiction class. Pieces in a range – let’s call them essays – which I think make for great examples of work written with all the care and attention over language and storytelling that we would expect from fiction. In these difficult times, the writer is called to witness, as much as to interpret. To look at the phenomenon of life as it is lived, to look to use one’s life as evidence for an argument. All these pieces try to do that in their own way. 

‘The White Album’ by Joan Didion

This essay – the title in her collection – gets me every time, with its description of the end of the 60s, covering everything from hanging out with The Doors to the Manson Murders to Black Panthers and the swirling paranoia of both the writer and the times. The strategy is to cut it all up, present us with fragments, lists – everything from her psychiatric report to her list of things she packed to take on assignment. The end refuses to make a conclusion, her ambivalence is her weapon of choice and her sharp skills of observation still to me evoke something of the times, and in a weird way, the times we live in now. My favourite of all her essays – even the famous one about the toddler taking acid in Slouching Towards Bethlehem which in the end just has shock value – this essay really speaks to the way that form can be used to mirror content. And it starts with one of the most famous sentences in all of non-fiction: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

Collected in The White Album, Simon & Schuster, 1979. Currently available from Fourth Estate, 2017

‘The Age of Instagram Face’ by Jia Tolentino

Jia Tolentino, ex-editor of Jezebel and now staff writer for the New Yorker, as well as author of the brilliant collection Trick Mirror, tackles the identity warping effects of face-tune filters on Instagram, and more broadly points out the way in which beauty standards are increasingly being driven by digital software. So we no longer take our aesthetic cues from the real world, but from software which can distort the human face in all kinds of wrong ways. Her observations are kind of terrifying, as they are in Trick Mirror, too, what I like about her writing is that she is asking the ethical questions about the internet that we all should have been asking all along. She is a deeply moral writer in an age when it seems hard to define what morality might actually mean. 

First published in The New Yorker, December 2019 and available online here

‘I’m Not Black, I’m Kanye’ by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Apart from the intense – and necessary – political observations about Kanye West’s identification with Trump, what moves me about this piece is Coates’ relationship with music – one of my favourite topics (of which more later). His memories of seeing Michael Jackson as a kid opens this piece with two beautiful rhythmic paragraphs which evoke childhood and that sense of wonder of seeing something culturally important for the first time. He also reflects on his own fame – post the publication of Between the World and Me, which became a bestseller. 

First published in The Atlantic, May 2018, and available online here

‘Auto Tune Gives You a Better Me’ by Jace Clayton

Jace Clayton works as a DJ (DJ Rupture) and as a writer. His collection Uproot: Travels in 21st Century Music and Culture reflects on the shift from the physical to the digital in music culture but also the effect that software has had on the actual making of music. My favourite piece from the whole collection – ‘Auto Tune Gives You a Better Me’ – goes from explaining Whitney Houston’s natural melisma, to Cher’s infamous use of autotune, to travelling to the Atlas mountains to meet musicians from the Berber communities, where auto tune has become the most widely used form of musical manipulation. Clayton has some examples on his website, but to read the essay you’ll need to buy the book. 

First published in Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture, FSG, 2016. Taster available here

‘Walking While Black’ by Garnette Cadogan

The idea of the flâneur – or flâneuse – is intrinsic to certain kinds of non-fiction writing: that notion of being, as Baudelaire described, ‘the botanist of the sidewalk’. One of the things which made me slightly jealous of Jace Clayton was his freedom to go places without needing a chaperone/veil. This difference is addressed in the book Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin – and is further complicated here by Garnette Cadogan, who finds the experience of walking around New Orleans very different and decidedly more dangerous than when he walks around Kingston, Jamaica. 

First published in Freeman’s: Arrival, Grove, 2015, and available to read on Lithub

‘Men Explain Things to Me’ by Rebecca Solnit

This coruscating piece by Rebecca Solnit, which indirectly gave us the word ‘mansplaining’, launched her from being a San Francisco poet and political writer to an internationally known one. The scenario she describes of having her own book explained – or mansplained – back at her is so commonly familiar that it went viral. Yes, Rebecca, in our own ways, we’ve all been there too.

First published on TomDispatch, April 2008 and available to read there. Collected in Men Explain Things to Me, Haymarket/Granta, 2014. Also available to read at Guernica Mag

‘The Old Man at Burning Man’ by Wells Tower

I’m not going to lie and pretend that the premise for this isn’t a bit of a cliché – the father/son bonding experience of taking a trip together. Except this is at Burning Man and is in turns very funny and very weird and surprising and entertaining and written in Tower’s cool, laconic prose which gained him such attention for his wonderful first collection of stories Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. It’s also a story about being embarrassed by one’s parents, and describes his singular, peculiar childhood with great tenderness. 

First published in GQ, February 2013, and available to read online here

‘The Communal Mind’ by Patricia Lockwood

Delivered as a lecture at the British Library and published in the LRB, this piece is an interesting take on The Internet and what it might be doing to our heads. Lockwood is a prose stylist – sometimes too much, which can make her a bit of a Marmite writer, but I really enjoyed this attempt to describe the felt experience of scrolling though the random stream of information on the web. She uses third person to speak about herself in an interesting way too (cf Annie Ernaux): “She opened the portal. ‘Are we all just going to keep doing this till we die?’”

First published in the London Review of Books, and available to read here

‘When the Sick Rule the World’ by Dodie Bellamy

I love Dodie Bellamy’s essays. They always have such serpentine structures, making a virtue of digression, which then turns out to be what the piece is about. They personify the disobedience and bloody mindedness of the wayward body and they detail what it means – in intimate physical detail – to live in the world of the sick. They are also very funny. One moment they are about giving a paper at the MLA, the next she has her arm in Eileen Myles’ toilet. In this, the title essay of the collection, she considers what it might mean when the ‘sick rule the world’ with a rhythm and an insistence that is both truthful and moving and drily funny. 

First published in When the Sick Rule the World, Semiotext(e), 2015. An extract is available online here

‘The Creaking Door’ by Tom Lee

Following on the theme of sickness, in this extraordinary piece, Tom Lee describes his experience of being in intensive care for fifty-one days, for twenty-two of them in a medically-induced coma. The struggle for life – and his sometimes horribly acute awareness of what was happening to him – is written in clear, unsentimental prose. It’s interesting to note to the effect that this experience had in his later fictions, where this trauma turns up in unexpected ways in the characters and subjects of his stories and his widely acclaimed first novel The Alarming Palsy of James Orr.

First published in The Dublin Review 51, 2013, and available to read online here

‘Does Anyone Have the Right to Sex?’ by Amia Sirinivasan

This is probably a slight cheat, in that it’s less a personal essay, than a feminist critique/philosophical investigation into the INCEL phenomenon. In this fearsomely articulate and interesting piece Sirinivasan uses the case of Elilot Roger, who in a homicidal rampage murdered his housemates and two women from the college that he dropped out of, claiming that the world owed him sex and relationships. Sirinivasan cuts through a lot of crap to think about how these rigid gender norms are enforced by patriarchy and given rocket fuel by the dark corners of the internet. 

First published in the London Review of Books, March 2018, and available to read online here