On Thursday, Sep. 21, the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts welcomed acclaimed essayist, Emily Bernard. Entitled “The Art of the Personal Essay,” this lecture, in conversation with the MFA Program’s Phil Klay, walked audience members through some of Bernard’s works and experiences as an essayist.
Winner of the 2020 “Los Angeles Times” Christopher Isherwood Prize of autobiographical prose, Bernard has written countless works that explore complex topics such as the repercussions of a stabbing she experienced as a young woman, America’s Racial injustices and how they have affected her life, marriage, teachings, etc. and the complex nature of being an adoptive parent. She is the author of “Black is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine” and her work has been reprinted in “Best American Essays,” “Best African American Essays” and “Best of Creative Nonfiction”.
The event began with Bernard reading an excerpt from her new essay, “What is Touching,” which will be published in “Image” next month. When asked how she gains inspiration and ideas for stories such as “What is Touching,” she replies, “certain stories just pursue you. If you are asking yourself what you should write about, just listen to the voices in the room.”
In just this short passage, it is clear that Bernard’s writing is something special. Rather than stick to a chronological form of narrative, her work feels more like a series of images that associate with one another, demonstrating that all her thoughts, all her images, and all her experiences are bound to each other.
“As humans, we can’t help but try to control and create meaning in nature,” Bernard says. But we do not always understand the world around us or what is happening to us. According to Bernard, where there is uncertainty in nature there is also trust. She claims that a lot of the time, in her writing, she pursues ideas deeply that she does not necessarily understand herself. But she recognizes that this is okay, and demonstrates trust in the writing process as well as the reader to help her through these complicated thoughts.
As such an accomplished essayist, it is natural to wonder what exactly drew Bernard to the essay as opposed to other forms of writing. When Klay asks her what attracts her to the essay and how she is able to be so deeply personal in each piece she writes, she replies, “I love the sentence.”
Contrary to a novel, an essay gives one the opportunity to focus on the sentence; to dissect each sentence carefully and fully, extracting meaning from each word, each sentence structure, each punctuation mark, etc. While a novelist can write long, flowery sentences, an essayist is forced to “practice modesty” as Bernard puts it. The essayist needs to work within a certain word count and must cut out any excess words that do not contribute to the meaning. Bernard further explains that there is a responsibility to teach in an essay and that to write an essay, one must have something to say.
The attention to detail in each sentence is especially present in Bernard’s essay, “Scar Tissue,” a recount of a stabbing she survived when she was a graduate student. She recounts, in great detail, the quiet and the stillness of the cafe she was in right before it happened. Then there is a shift in syntax as the stabbing commences–her sentences turn short and impactful.
When Klay asks Bernard toward the end of the conversation whether or not there are limits to memory in writing a personal essay, Bernard replies that she only really remembers the details before the stabbing. It was almost as if her story was not her story anymore, her memory challenged by police reports and media coverage of the event. With this idea of distorted memory in mind, Klay asks Bernard if there can ever be such a thing as a personal story.
To this Bernard replies, “Good stories are meaningful only insofar as people can understand them.” She explains that she loves it when people tell her a story that intersects with their own lives and experiences.
Writing is meant to be shared. It is meant to evoke emotions and create meaningful connections between authors and readers. And this is exactly what Bernard’s work in the genre of personal essay does so beautifully.