Jordan's Blog - Letter of recommendation: personal history

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Letter of recommendation: personal history

Jordan 2019-03-13
#culture

My favorite column on The New Yorker (p.s. did I mention I read the New Yorker) is “Personal History.” The articles there are mini-memoirs and they read kind of like polished blog posts. Some recent favorites in my memory include a piece about not being Asian enough as a second generation immigrant called “Crying in H-Mart” by Michelle Zauner, and the intimate and revelatory story of a gay teen’s first love, “How I learned to Dive” by Victor Lodato. These stories do a really good job of relating inner life without being rambling, something I’m mostly aware of because of how bad I am at it.

Sometimes I think of my blog posts in two categories. The first category is explanatory. These posts are written to be read. I work as hard as I can to be concise and pare out extra details unless they really help me get my point across. The second category is expository. In these posts I’m doing my best to put my exact thoughts on the page. I try to describe things in ways that are so specific that they pin-down immediately recognizable feelings, but sometimes my descriptions miss completely and I’m left with a bunch of weird and unrelated metaphors.

My explanatory blog posts cluster around a particular tone. A lot of them are about distinguishing between two things that I feel like are often mixed up. Like one from 2013 where I try to explain the difference between being passive and being tolerant. Or this one from 2017 where I try to distinguish between the practical need to split up household responsibilities and the desire to fulfill socially-defined femininity (a.k.a. that post in which I mansplain emotional labor). Many of them hope to provide useful tools for thinking, like this one which talks about what it means when you act against your stated goals. All of them are made up. All of them sort of imply that I think I’m providing valuable insight, otherwise I wouldn’t have written them.

My expository posts are supposed to expose me. They’re supposed to be about things I’m ashamed about, or capture weird universal moments like arguments, or a feeling that you are looking for something but you’re not sure what. Sometimes they become somewhat fictional, but only in the “artists use lies to tell the truth” sort of way. Sometimes they wander around because they were written when my thoughts were kind of everywhere and I just wanted to write anything. When I write these posts I have to imagine that my secret thoughts are interesting enough that their honesty and authenticity is enough to keep the reader interested. I want the reader to feel like they’re snooping on my public diary, like maybe they weren’t supposed to see this.

Viewed through this lens, I think one way to express what I like so much about “Personal History” is that it is both explanatory and expository. And in fact, it doesn’t accomplish this by switching tones, rather the explanation is embodied within the whole story, through the thoughts the characters think during the narrative and upon reflection. A lot of the time there is no explicit moral, but still something is clearly captured and communicated and I feel like I have learned a lesson, or been taught to think a new thought which I’ve never had myself.