By definition, a personal essay is a self-portrait of the writer. Who can be trusted to draw the real self? I only suspect that, those who have tried their best to see who they really are – that is, those who have tried to see themselves without hiding or delusion, and therefore, those who write without design is unconscious to the reader (that is, their prose doesn’t helplessly exclaim, “Like me! Jealous of me! Pity me! Love me!”).
Therefore, his personal essay is not necessarily the ideal modality for young writers, who often have unconscious designs on their readers. Besides, getting to know who you are takes time. To write about yourself convincingly, you need to do longitudinal research.
All of them ask the question: why write the personal essay in the first place? Why read them? Well, gossip is always fun; and there is never a shortage of hounds willing to confess the worst about themselves. But when one reads the personal essay – Plato’s ideal – one feels strangely like the recipient of a gift. You read someone else’s account of an experience and you see yourself; understand yourself better. The confessional’s urging is cheap. But the urge towards honest communion with the reader is very close to the artistic urge – in fact it can be.
These thoughts occurred to me because I read Show your workan anthology of essays from Dublin Reviews – the magazine is responsible, if alone, for kicking off the Irish personal essay renaissance. For 22 years now, Dublin Reviews appeared four times a year in pastel-covered quarto-sized volumes. It is designed austere. No illustrations, in or out. No editorial issues appear anywhere in its pages. No ads, nor. Just essays and short stories, no decoration.
Short stories are usually good. But, with apologies to some extraordinary writers, no one reads Dublin Reviews for its short stories. You read it for its personal and journalistic essays. I don’t remember the last time I got a problem about Dublin Reviews and did not find at least a prominent part of what MFA courses now call “creative non-fiction”.
A short list of writers that have appeared in the publication tells you how important it has become to the 21st-century Irish sense of writing: Sally Rooney (her first essay) appeared there and collected here), Mark O’Connell, Kevin Barry, Anne Enright, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Rob Doyle, Roisin Kiberd, Caelainn Hogan, Patrick Freyne, Arnold Thomas Fanning, Adrian Duncan, Sara Baume, Nicole Flattery… more. (For the sake of full disclosure, let me say that I have published an essay in Dublin Reviews myself, although my contribution for some reason was not included in this “best essays” collection.)
Brendan Barrington, editor Dublin Reviews, is the best kind of editor. He has an aesthetic sense. He is very patient, often helping writers through multiple manuscripts for months or years until the work is right. And he is humble. The magazine is not about its editor. It’s not even about the writers it publishes. It’s about work.
Therefore, writers like to write for Dublin Reviews. And readers love reading it. It is hoped that Show your work found the magazine some new readers (and some new subscribers – the literary magazines always stick to their finances). It should; It’s a book full of gifts.
Essay by Arnold Thomas Fanning rough bed, from the winter 2016 issue, is one. The work goes on to become part of his excellent book Mind on fire (2018); it’s the account of some of the months he spent homeless in London in a series of decades-long psychotic episodes, and it’s both compassionately cool and dramatic.
Brian Dillon’s RB and mefrom the Winter 2010 publication, is another gift: a portrait of the literary critic in his youth (orphaned in his teens, frantically pursuing an academic career at the expense of mental health). god – “RB” of the title is Roland Barthes), it achieves a remarkable fidelity.
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Kevin Barry’s Skin of anxiety (Winter 2012) is an internet autobiography; Barry belongs to that generation, who can clearly remember the time before you didn’t have to check your notifications every 5 seconds. This is what makes him wonder if the Internet is “an anxious skin stretched over the entire surface of the world.” […] and what if we can never, ever get out of it? “
Sally Rooney’s Even if you beat me (Spring 2015), about her pre-writing career as a champion competitive debater, often adroit; it’s also clearly a self-determined work by a young writer (in 2015 Rooney is 24), and compellingly reveals: “I did it. I had everything I set out to get.”
Show your work also contains some special reportage segments. Let Susan McKay’s Easter in Ardoyne (Summer 2014) represents it all – it is the exact account observed of the suicide epidemic that has affected the working-class Catholic North Belfast area since the signing of the Fridays Agreement St. It is the kind of journalism that takes time, patience and integrity; it shows us something that we wouldn’t see.
But in these pages, McKay is merely the leader among the equivalents. Show your worklike the magazine it celebrates, showing you how it’s done.
Essay: Show your work. Editing by Brendan Barrington
Dublin Review Book, 274 pages, hardcover € 20
https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/books/book-reviews/show-your-work-a-book-full-of-gifts-from-our-finest-writers-42006491.html Show Your Work: A book filled with gifts from our best writers