“When you start out writing, you think, ‘Maybe I’ll become one of the great writers, like Dostoevsky or Goethe, Tolstoy.’ Then you quickly realize that that’s never going to happen. But I’ve been writing now for close to 50 years, and I’ve never really had writer’s block. I think success has been esteem in this particular world of the essay and nonfiction. When I go to conferences for the Association of Writing Programs, I’m treated like a demigod. But when I’m in the real world, I’m anonymous.”
Phillip Lopate, the finest personal essayist of our time, joins us to talk about finding his voice, the difference between memoir and essay, teaching students to use the self to fetch the world, why blogs remind him of Sei Shonagon’s pillow books, what’s too personal for a personal essay, and more!
“I had learned from the great essayists — Montaigne and Hazlitt and Lamb — that it wasn’t so much the subject matter as it was the voice and the display of consciousness that was intriguing. If you liked the essayist, you would read anything that they wrote.”
We discuss his five-decade-plus-long career (spanning 20 books and collections, including 2013’s Portrait Inside My Head and To Show and to Tell), the author who started him on his path, his balance between writing fiction and essays, how readers read and misread his work, his methods for fusing the personal and the critical, why students should read some of his essays before taking his classes, whether he considered going Hollywood, why and how he assembled The Art of the Personal Essay anthology, and who his favorite New York Met is. (I was surprised by his answer to that last one.)
“An editor once told me, ‘Phillip, your idea of a perfect assignment is one where you never have to leave the house.'”
About our Guest
Phillip Lopate is the author of numerous collections of personal and critical essays, including Bachelorhood, Notes on Sontag, Portrait of My Body, Against Joie de Vivre, and Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan,, as well as several novels and novellas, and three poetry collections, and has edited several anthologies, including The Art of the Personal Essay and Writing New York. His essays, fiction, poetry, film and architectural criticism have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Essays, several Pushcart Prize annuals, The Paris Review, Harper’s, Vogue, Esquire, Film Comment, Threepenny Review, Double Take, New York Times, Harvard Educational Review, Preservation, Cite, 7 Days, Metropolis, Conde Nast Traveler, and many other periodicals and anthologies. He is the director of the nonfiction graduate program at Columbia University, where he also teaches writing. His two most recent books are the personal essay collection Portrait Inside My Head and To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction.
Credits: This episode’s music is Sometimes The Truth Is All You Get by The Low and Sweet Orchestra. The conversation was recorded at Mr. Lopate’s home in Brooklyn on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 mics feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded in my home office on a Blue Yeti USB microphone. File-splitting is done on a Mac Mini using Audacity. All editing and processing was done in Garage Band. Top photo by me. Bottom photo by Cheryl Cipriani.
As someone whose focus of study in college was the evolution of the encyclopedic novel, I was fascinated by this brief article by Randall Stross on the birth and death of Encarta, Microsoft’s encyclopedia:
Gary Alt, who joined Microsoft in 1995 after working as an editor at World Book and at Encyclopedia Britannica, spoke with pride of the editorial work that he and his Encarta team had done. Fifty people â€” editors, fact-checkers and indexers â€” were on the team in 2000, at the peak of Microsoftâ€™s editorial investment in Encarta, he said.
That investment, however, seems to have gone unnoticed by Encartaâ€™s users. Tom Corddry, a senior manager at Microsoft from 1989 to 1996 who headed up its multimedia publishing unit, said, â€œThe editors overestimated the way students would say, â€˜This has been carefully edited! And is very authoritative!â€™â€
I liked the way Stross avoids the easy out of “encyclopedias are rendered worthless by Wikipedia” and instead focuses on Google’s indexing process as a meta-encyclopedia of human knowledge. One of my greatest advantages in this world is my ability to come up with the right combination of words to find information.
I’m not being facetious; there’s a skill to figuring out what words or phrases someone else would have written in a web-page or blog-post about a certain topic. I should put “Internet gumshoe” on my non-existent business cards.
(Bonus! I didn’t do much research on Diderot and the encyclopedia’s roots in the Enlightenment during my college project, largely because I knew almost nothing about the history of philosophy and knowledge. On the plus side, I’m now painfully aware of how ignorant I was, so that means I’m on the path to, um, something!)