Basic research on the self

lopate-your-audience-is-your-friendThe name of this blog, Basic research on the self, comes from an essay by Phillip Lopate. The essay is an introduction to his edited collection of essays, The Art of the Personal Essay.

A number of qualities characterize the personal essay, according to Lopate. These include the author’s willingness to write in the first person and to speak directly to the reader, allowing the reader to identify with what the author reveals. The personal essayist conducts a dialogue with herself in which she drops her psychic defenses, reaches a deeper level of honesty, and – ideally — arrives at a tentative truth.

There is something heroic in the essayist’s gesture of striking out toward the unknown, not only without a map but without certainty that there is anything worthy to be found. One would like to think that the personal essay represents a kind of basic research on the self, in ways that are allied with science and philosophy. … [T]he writing of personal essays not only monitors the self but helps it gel. The essay is an enactment of the creation of the self. [emphasis added]

Are blog posts personal essays? Occasionally, but not usually (certainly not when following the advice of Andrew Sullivan and the Huffington Post). When they are, however, they can have an impact on the author’s ongoing self-understanding.

Although I didn’t arrive at any tentative truths by writing about my Chinese horoscope in the last post, I now have a more open attitude towards the advice I received: to live my life as if I’m on vacation. The process of choosing what to do — accompanied by the lack of “motive force” I feel when making a choice — remains a mystery to me, but I see now that’s not the real issue. The more interesting question is what prevents me from adopting a “being on vacation” attitude.

A psychological approach to this question might be to examine the cognitive process of decision making or the mechanisms of motivation. I’m more interested in the cultural influences that simultaneously tell me I am free to choose and what that choice should be.

(Philip Lopate, by the way, has two new books out this year — To Show and to Tell: the Craft of Literary Nonfiction and Portrait Inside My Head.)

Related posts:
Can we think outside our culture: My Chinese horoscope
Learning in public
My so-called writing life

Image source: WRT 303.01: The Personal Essay


Phillip Lopate, The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present


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