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Writer and editor Khalid Warsame discusses personal essays and the divide between truth and fiction.
If we believe The New Yorker, then apparently the “personal-essay boom is over”. This piece by Jia Tolentino explores the idea that the internet was both dark and light for the form – allowing first time writers to explore their vulnerability, while also diluting the quality of the format.
It’s a strong and controversial stance, and one that, arguably, is inaccurate. We are constantly seeing the world though our own lens, taking in information and filtering it through our own experience and history in an attempt to make sense of things. Personal essays are surely then just the act of putting this process down on paper, albeit with some formal structure rules?
Khalid Warsame is firmly planted in the creative industries, but the variety of hats he wears pretty much requires a Venn diagram to illustrate. Currently he is a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow, where he is working on a novel. He is the Fiction Editor at The Lifted Brow, co-director of the National Young Writers Festival, and balances this with a job as Creative Producer at Footscray Arts. He is also a writer – most visibly of personal essays.
In the latest instalment of our ‘Antaomy Of’ series, Warsame talks to Writers Bloc about what goes into a personal essay, natural storytelling, and how nonfiction can actually be less of a vulnerable space to occupy than fiction.
Drawing From Real Life
The line between memoir and personal essay is thin and wobbly – a room full of ten people would probably all give you a slightly different definition of each. Tentatively, personal essays provide a starting point to discuss an issue, while grounding the topic in the writer's own experience or theories. As Warsame explains “it’s a good launching pad – it’s a good way to jump off and explore a lot of different topics outside of the self, if you start from the perspective of the self.”
For Warsame, the bulk of his work takes root from discussions he’s had. “I’ll have a conversation with somebody and I’ll just be thinking about that for the rest of the week” he explains. “Eventually I’ll start writing something about it, and where else to start but the actual start of that thought – which is the specific incident that occurred?”
To get to the finished product requires a distillation process of sorts. Warsame explains that what often happens is that he’ll start writing without a clear idea of where he wants to take that piece. He’ll then take a step back and see what idea stands out. “I’ll tease out basically one paragraph or one sentence from that initial burst of writing, and that will usually be an introduction or a thesis statement for the whole thing.” From there, he will discard the rest of the work, and start the essay from this point.
Are We Just Trying To Get To Know Ourselves Better?
All of us tell stories – about the weird thing that happened to us on the weekend, about childhood memories. Humans are born storytellers, and so the personal essay as a format for exploring ideas makes sense.
When asked if the personal essay is used as a way for writers to get to know themselves better, Warsame’s response is measured. “To some extent there is an element of wanting to know oneself” he replies. “As a writer you feel a responsibility to know the inner workings of characters or yourself because that’s where it all comes from. But in another sense…it’s just easier to tell a story from your own perspective because you’re constantly writing that story in your head. It’s an easier way to access writing, to begin from your own perspective and something that happened to you. Because that’s how we think.”
Making Form Reflect The Content
Our experience telling stories in our day to day lives makes it easier for us to frame ideas and experiences; unwittingly, we are constantly tweaking and perfecting our methods of communicating in this way.
“You’ll find the right beats at the right time” Warsame says. “In that way storytelling is a very natural thing. My style has always been conversational and informal, so writing the way I speak and speaking the way I write is something that I probably have more practice in.”
Warsame’s most recent personal essay was published on Scum Magazine. Sketches Towards A Theory of Existence tracks a moment in his life where he was grappling with a lot of difficulties. He explains how this essay took a lot longer than usual because he was experimenting with making the format of the essay reflect its content.
“I was trying to mirror the style of the actual essay in the way it’s constructed, with the thought processes that I was going through at the time”. Expanding on this, he explains: “The main idea of the essay was that I was stuck and I didn’t know what to do. Things were hard to deal with and I felt like everything in my life and the world around me was collapsing at the same time - and I tried to have the essay collapse that way as well.”
The Personal Can Be Surprisingly Impersonal
Tolentino’s piece touches on the “vulnerability” of the format – they’re called “personal” essays after all, is it possible that they are too personal? Like most things, it’s a spectrum. What is a vulnerable space for one person may not be for someone else. What one person is willing to share about themselves at a party might be, for someone else, a secret they would take to the grave. What is interesting about personal essays is the way in which they contrast with fiction in the way that the author can choose to place themselves within the piece.
When asked about the vulnerability aspect of this kind of writing, Warsame replies: “I don’t get too personal with personal essays. I talk about things that seem like I’m placing myself in a vulnerable space, it seems like I’m being really open or personal, but I’m not really doing it that much.”
As a writer, Warsame focuses more on fiction, but publishes more nonfiction work. It’s an interesting divide. He explains how “the most personal stuff comes out in my fiction because I can hide it behind a layer of abstraction.” Building on this idea he explains how “when I write personal essays, I don’t really get super personal - which is a weird thing to say, because they are personal essays. I think more of myself comes out in my fiction, because you can mix in five truths with ten lies. [For readers of fiction] there’s an implicit understanding that you are the author and this is your text and there’s a clear divide between the two. If it wasn’t for the clear divide between the author and the text I don’t think I could get as personal in my fiction as I do.”
Elizabeth Flux is a freelance writer and the editor in chief of Writers Bloc. Her nonfiction work has been widely published and includes essays on film, pop culture, feminism and identity as well as interviews and feature articles. Her most recent fiction publication is a short story in The Legend of Monga Khan. She previously edited Voiceworks and On Dit, and in 2016 she attended the Hong Kong International Festival funded by the UNESCO City of Literature Travel Fund. Twitter @ElizabethFlux