When We Aspire to Write Like Ourselves: A Conversation with Carl H. Klaus

January 14, 2011 | 8 books mentioned 14 10 min read

coverCarl H. Klaus, now 78, has dedicated his life to the reading, teaching and writing of personal essays.  He taught at the University of Iowa from 1962 to 1997, where he was founding director of the Nonfiction Writing Program.  He is the author and co-author of several textbooks as well as five books of essays, including Weathering Winter, Taking Retirement: A Beginner’s Diary, My Vegetable Love, and Letters to Kate: Life after Life.  Klaus has just published The Made-Up Self: Impersonation In the Personal Essay, a deft, fascinating exploration of the ways essayists manufacture numerous selves in order to convey their experiences and the workings of their minds.  It’s the defining achievement of a long and distinguished career, essential reading for anyone who loves the personal essay.  As Reality Hunger author David Shields says, the book is also “an extremely valuable correction to any misconception of ‘nonfiction as truth.'”  Klaus recently talked with The Millions by telephone from his home in Iowa City.

The Millions: When I saw your new book, I’ve got to tell you, I thought it sounded pretty post-modern – a book of essays on the art of essay writing by an essayist who was also a teacher of essay writing.  But I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was very much for a general reader, a layman, anybody who’s interested in essay writing.  Was that what you hoped to accomplish with the book?

Carl Klaus: Well, I was overridingly concerned with my sense of how much impersonation is involved in a kind of writing that I had always taken to be about as close as one could get to the author herself or himself.  This is an awareness that grew on me over years of reading essays and also writing them and reading what essayists themselves had to say.  I should tell you that I was frankly astonished by my discoveries.  But it is, in a very real sense, a post-modern book – it’s at odds with a kind of fixed and simplistic notion of the self.  I wanted readers to see how voice and persona are so multiple and mutable.

coverTM: Let’s talk about Montaigne.  Andrew Sullivan has written in the Atlantic that Montaigne was “the quintessential blogger.”  And Sarah Bakewell, who has just come out with a new biography of Montaigne, recently wrote in the Paris Review that “bloggers might be surprised to hear that they are keeping alive a tradition created more than four centuries ago” by Montaigne.  I think you get much closer to the truth in your essay on Montaigne when you write that he “openly espouses a policy not of naturalness but of studied casualness or, to be more exact, artful artlessness.”  Would you agree with me that it’s wrong to equate most bloggers today with Montaigne’s “artful artlessness?”

CK: Well listen, the differences between Montaigne and bloggers are so manifold that I find it surprising that anyone would even think of comparing them – because they have different agendas and completely different ways of going about writing.  For example, Montaigne’s freewheeling style is grounded in an overriding concern with echoing the flow of his thought.  Now the bloggers aren’t concerned with that kind of interiority.  Their writing is largely concerned with topical subjects of the moment, and they have no consciousness of consciousness.  That’s not what they’re after.  Even more importantly, bloggers’ pieces are one-shot affairs, whereas Montaigne took his essays through three separate revisions.  And the revisions were made by additions, by accretion.  He never dropped anything.

TM: It was an evolutionary process.

CK: Exactly.  And as they were evolving by accretion, they developed that freewheeling quality.  The truth of the matter is that in the first book of essays, Montaigne is often very highly focused and not the freewheeling person he’s perceived to be.  His concern with consciousness is a concern with representing interiority – that was the overwhelming concern of Montaigne.  “I am myself the subject of my book,” he says.  His writing about the consciousness of consciousness makes his essays like a nest of Russian dolls.  You don’t get that profound concern with thought in bloggers.

TM: Montaigne’s “artful artlessness” leads to one of the central points of your book – namely that for all its apparent transparency, the personal essay is built on a series of illusions.  The illusion of spontaneity.  The illusion that the essayist’s voice is a match for the essayist’s true self.  The illusion that the essayist has just one voice.  From reading your book I get the feeling that your discovery of this web of illusions was a gradual, almost life-long process.  Tell me more about that process.

CK: It’s an interesting story because my discovery of those illusions began, believe it or not, in a graduate seminar on the 17th-century poet John Donne.  We also read his prose.  He wrote a number of different kinds of prose – sermons, very oratorical prose, philosophical disquisitions, and also in a more logical and analytical mode.  So I discovered that there were at least three John Donnes, and possibly even more.  In studying his styles in connection with 16th- and 17th-century prose, I came away feeling dazzled by how one’s voice could change – a seeming personality change.  It was there that my awareness of the shifting of writers’ voices began.  Then it gradually became the overriding concern of my teaching and writing.  So this process has been going on for about fifty-three years, but I didn’t start writing essays about the essay until the late 1980s, when a colleague asked me to do a piece on the essay for a book he was doing on literary non-fiction.  So that’s what really launched me into producing The Made-Up Self.  The book itself evolved over about…what?

TM: Twenty-five years, or even more?

CK: Yes.

TM: Do you view this book as the culmination of your life’s writing and thinking?

CK: It is indeed the culmination of my professional life.

TM: Talking about voice brings to mind Virginia Woolf.  In discussing this paradoxical relationship between essayists and their essayistic personae, she delivers what I think is one of your book’s most unforgettable lines: “Never to be yourself and yet always – that is the problem.”  And she follows that up with another gem: “To write like oneself and call it not writing is a much harder exercise than to write like Addison and Steele and call it writing well.”  I love that!  Now you dissect this notion at some length and you conclude: “How strange, I thought, to engage in such an activity, as if one’s self could be embodied in writing only by a bizarre kind of imitation, not of someone else but of oneself.”  So do you agree with Virginia Woolf?

CK: Well, I do think there’s some double-edged quality in writing personal essays – because despite the fluid nature of the self, we do in the long run develop a conception of our selves that we aspire to be true to in our own writing.  And yet I know that such a thing is impossible.  To think that I could in fact create a style that was an echo of such a multi-sided thing as the self – that’s simply a cuckoo notion.  So what can I say?  We do, in fact, aspire to write like ourselves even though we know that in some sense this is an impossibility – much as it’s a difficult notion to imagine never being yourself and yet always being yourself.  It’s a paradoxical thing.

TM: That brings us to something I think a lot about, and that is the difference between a memoir and an essay.  I think a lot of people confuse them.  Aleksandar Hemon has called the current memoir craze “a crisis of the imagination,” which is something I happen to agree with.  Could you talk a little bit about the difference between the memoir and the essay?

coverCK: To tell you the truth, I haven’t ever written a memoir.  None of my earlier books are memoirs, they’re all journals.  Each entry in the journal is a little essay.  When I kept a journal called My Vegetable Love, I wired myself to write a 500-word piece every day.  I was writing personal essays over time in what I would call the short form.  I wanted to see if I could do personal essays that had a brevity that’s in defiance of what we think of as an essay – something much lengthier…

TM: Open-ended.

CK: Yes, and freewheeling.  Probably the question you want to ask me is: Is there a difference between writing essays in that short form and writings essays in the much longer form that make up The Made-Up Self?

TM: Is there?

CK: Absolutely.  There’s a really profound difference because when I was writing those short pieces for each one of the preceding books, I was writing on the day itself as soon as I had an incident or an episode or an image or an associated memory – so that I could get my thoughts down swiftly, in one sweep.  I wanted to see if I could create literary non-fiction out of short-term memory.  Whereas when I wrote the essays for The Made-Up Self, every one of them developed over time.  Every one of them took me at least six months to a year.  They may have been revised and revised over several years.  So they’re a much more calculated and crafted kind of piece.  For that reason, the play of voice is much, much more complex – the shifting personalities.  There’s a preference for long-term memory among people who write non-fiction because it’s so much more bound up with the imagination.  Long-term memory involves all the kinds of distortions that the mind is capable of.  And I discovered, for example, that even over the course of a day I might actually distort things because my memory was already beginning to work on the actual facts of the experience.  I discovered this from my late wife Kate’s readings of my drafts.  She was a fabulous writer and she would read the pieces and she would often say, “That’s not exactly what happened.  It happened this way.”  Or: “That’s not what I said.  This is what I said and the way I said it.”  And every time she said that to me I instinctively and immediately knew that she was right and I was wrong!  So distortion sets in so quickly.  It’s really surprising how imagination works.

TM: Distortion is an essayist’s best friend, isn’t it?

CK: Of course it is.  I couldn’t agree with you more.  But I wanted to see if I could get things as accurately as possible and still produce a piece that had the qualities of literary non-fiction.

TM: To go back to Aleksandar Hemon, do you agree with him that the memoirs that keep pouring out are a crisis of the imagination?  Or do you think they’re just a natural thing for our times?

coverCK: Well, I find myself concerned with the way so many current memoirs have become confessional, very intensely oriented towards one kind of personal crisis or another, whether the crisis is medical, addictive, parental abuse or spousal abuse.  I think what’s happened is that memoir has turned into something that’s obsessively crisis-oriented.  Patricia Hampl and I collaborated on a series of non-fiction for the University of Iowa Press.  Trisha’s one of the leading memoirists of our time.  But for her, memoir is never really separate from history and culture.  For example, her first and most distinguished memoir, A Romantic Education, is about her Czech heritage – but that takes her into a whole story about Czechoslovakian history and culture. So for her, memoir is always more spacious and consequential than what you might call me-moir (laughs).

TM: Yeah, I like that word too.

CK: So I’m increasingly uncomfortable about what’s become of memoir.  But it’s obvious that that’s where the publishers find the sales and the readers because memoir in the past twenty or thirty years has turned sensationalist.  So that’s a concern for me.

TM: You had mentioned to me earlier that you’re undergoing chemotherapy.  Are you planning on writing any essays about your experience with cancer?

CK: No I’m not, for the very reason that I just told you.  I don’t want to contribute to a phenomenon that troubles me.  And moreover, there have been so many pieces – and good ones – written about cancer that I don’t think we need another one.  Beyond that, I have more I want to do with the essay.

TM: Are you working on a new book?

CK: The next book of mine, which will be coming out about a year from now, is a collection that I’m co-editing with one of my former graduate students, Ned Stuckey-French.  He’s on the faculty at Florida State.  The title of this collection is Essayists on the Essay: Four Centuries of Commentary.  These are pieces about the essay by essayists themselves, from Montaigne to the present.  They’re not only by English and Americans, but by Latin Americans, Europeans and Australians.  Many have never been translated into English before.  But what’s really fascinating is the unanimity of the thinking about the nature of the personal essay and of the essayist’s persona.  In a way the book is meant to lead to something like a poetics of the essay.  And I have a long introductory essay on that subject.

TM: Are you working on any other essays besides the introductory one for this book?

CK: Well, I have about three or four essays that I wrote while working on The Made-Up Self, but they didn’t get into the book because I didn’t feel they quite belonged in it.  One of the pieces is on the whole notion of show-and-tell.  You know, the familiar maxim of writing teachers –

TM: Show, don’t tell.

CK: Right, and this is a piece arguing against that.  Because when you say “Show, don’t tell,” then you can’t really bear witness to anything but the facts of an experience.  You can’t go into what I call the story of thought.  I think that in every essay of consequence there are two stories – there’s the story of experience, and there’s the story of thought, what you might call the outer story and the inner story.  The real masters of the essay are masters at weaving those two stories together.  So I’m all for show-and-tell, show-and-tell.

TM: Here’s another terrible maxim of writing teachers: Write what you know.  That’s the worst advice anybody ever gave to a writer.

CK: That’s what I would call profoundly common-sensical wisdom.  Write from your experience, by all means – but let it be known that your experience includes not only what happened but also what you’ve thought about it over time.

TM: I recently read Henry James’s great essay, “The Art of Fiction,” which I’d never read before.  He had a piece of advice that’s the best advice I’ve ever heard for a writer.  And that was: “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.”

CK: I think what he always wants to do is get into the consciousness of his characters and immerse the reader in that.  Which is why his style is so intricate and convoluted – because he’s actually trying to replicate the movement of their minds.

TM: Much like Virginia Woolf.

CK: Yes, exactly.

TM: Let me ask you a personal question.  How old are you now?

CK: I’m 78 years old.

TM: And still writing every day?

CK: I’m not writing every day now, not since the onset of cancer.  I’ve really been quite weakened and hobbled by it.  So mostly what I’ve been doing is to try to keep up with people by e-mail, and to keep myself in writing practice.

TM: Well, I’d like to thank you for talking with us, Carl, and for writing this wonderful book.  It’s one of the best books I ever read.

CK: I’m flattered, and really very grateful for your attention to the book and your admiration.  That, of course, is what every writer craves.

is a staff writer for The Millions. He is the author of the novels Motor City Burning, All Souls’ Day, and Motor City, and the nonfiction book American Berserk and The Age of Astonishment: John Morris in the Miracle Century, From the Civil War to the Cold War. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Granta, The New York Times, The (London) Independent, L.A. Weekly, Popular Mechanics, and The Daily Beast. He lives in New York City.