A Great Essay by Phillip Lopate

This is a wonderful piece written by Phillip Lopate, who is one of the premier essayist in the United States. It is very informative to anyone who writes memoir because Lopate encourages the writer to not only include scenes which showcase the child’s perspective of the world (or the less mature perspective), but also to include personal commentary from the more “mature” narrator to help the reader understand the writer’s analysis of that personal story. This is in direct contrast to many writing teachers who err on the side of complete “Show, Don’t Tell,” without any inclusion of narrative to explore what the story means to the writer.

Here is Lopate’s essay. It’s long, but well worth the time to read it if you are interested in the personal essay and/or memoir form.

Reflection and Retrospection: A Pedagogic Mystery Story
The Fourth Genre, Spring 2005

By Phillip Lopate

In writing memoir, the trick, it seems to me, is to establish a double perspective, that will allow the reader to participate vicariously in the experience as it was lived (the confusions and misapprehensions of the child one was, say), while conveying the sophisticated wisdom of one’s current self. This second perspective, the author’s retrospective employment of a more mature intelligence to interpret the past, is not merely an obligation but a privilege, an opportunity. In any autobiographical narrative, whether memoir or personal essay, the heart of the matter often shines through those passages where the writer analyzes the meaning of his or her experience. The quality of thinking, the depth of insight and the willingness to wrest as much understanding as the writer is humanly capable of arriving at—these are guarantees to the reader that a particular author’s sensibility is trustworthy and simpatico. With me, it goes further: I have always been deeply attracted to just those passages where the writing takes an analytical, interpretative turn, and which seem to me the dessert, the reward of prose.

Here’s the link to the rest of the essay:


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