Here is a brief piece of video I took on the Hadlock Pond Loop last evening at 6 p.m. It is at the top of a several mile uphill climb--a climb that had had me thinking the whole way, at least on one channel of mind (on another, I was enjoying the scent of the different firs, noticing how autumnal the air has become suddenly, admiring how flexible the shadows are--they can stretch, even at the end of the day, repeating over and over, during the whole walk down all alone, past not one other person, how beautiful, beautiful, beautiful) that what I really love most in writing is when I feel I'm behind the mask with an author, and having an encounter with the personal--the real person who is doing the writing.
But thinking this raised so many questions. What does that even mean? Why do I feel it with certain authors and not others who are just as good? Where is the locus of my interest? In the sentence? The subject? The meaning? The voice? What exactly am I responding to when I feel I am experiencing a person naked on the page?
I know, I can say for sure, it has nothing to do with confession. Most people have secrets, and some pretty intense experiences that can be expressed in the form of a headline. I have nothing against this, and am a supporter of the addiction/incest/illness memoir. These stories should be told, for many reasons, the most basic of which is that people must be allowed to say what happened to them--and what they did about it--if they choose to. Yet these stories don't automatically lead to a revelation of the personal, in the sense I mean it. A person can be detached from his own secrets, his own experiences, his own confessions, and deliver them as headlines, offerings, enticements, one upsmanships, shocks--mask upon mask. It isn't necessarily brave to tell what happened, or to state one's opinions; it's actually pretty cinchy to do, just a collection of words blurted.
So it's not that.
Nor is it care with language, or beautiful writing. It is possible to write beautifully but impersonally. A writer can choose a style, or hear a voice, and be true to it while not exposing himself. Some very good books are written this way. It isn't at all a flaw, or a withholding--an injecting of the personal isn't necessary. Yet it is what excites me. What does it look like? It may be the farthest subject from an author's own life. It may be the simplest style. What it is, it seems to me, is an author matching the shape of his sentences to his own deepest thinking, or deepest feeling, or most potent daydream. These all appear in the body as rhythms before they become language--so it is picking over one's sentences to correspond to those personal and unique rhythms rather than working on them to make them read well that makes something personal.
I have observed that writing in a state of emotion can effect this. Somehow being upset can circumvent the censors that make one judge oneself too soon. When a student says to me he wants to quit a story because he feels it's too corny, I become optimistic.
Yet thought can be in touch with rhythm, too. Henry James comes to mind--a very personal writer.
I have recently being reading Mavis Gallant. Personal to the core. I love her.
Is the voice of a waterfall personal? It sounds that way to me.