page 2
     In writing the pieces in this collection I have been guided by distinctions between the profile, personal essay, and memoir.  I say “guided by” because, while these terms do help to distinguish one type of work from another, the stories sometimes assume, like that which they represent, an unruly life of their own.  At some point each story seems to define itself, and not always in strictly systematic fashion.  Philip Gerard’s Creative Nonfiction, widely recognized as a seminal guide for students in this field, defines these categories fairly succinctly.  The profile is “narrated in anecdotes and scenes . . . making extensive use of the subject’s own words” (104).  Like a good photograph, a profile portrays a person—or place or event, the way I think of it—so that readers feel as though they’ve met the subject, and “that the meeting mattered” (104).  The best profiles, in my view, aim for a balanced or objective presentation, a virtual photograph, and leave judgment, as much as possible, to the reader.2  The personal essay is a “story with a point”; it begins with the raw material of firsthand experience and finds something in it that “transcends” the personal: again, to make the experience “matter to the reader” (105, 137).  Memoir differs only a little from the personal essay; it is better contrasted with autobiography.  While autobiography usually refers to a lengthy, perhaps all-inclusive, life-story, memoir concentrates on certain formative experience, especially if the writer’s experience illuminates an historical moment (105, 137).  The terms are helpful, but strict classification in writing, just as in criticism, can lead to its undoing.
     Melissa Fay Greene’s Praying for Sheetrock is a nonfiction novel.  Like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, it is historical.  Like John Hersey’s Hiroshima, it has elements of the epic.  It works like a profile, depending heavily on anecdotes and scenes, and especially on its subjects’ voices.  Jonathan Raban’s work seems a mix of travel writing and profile.  And John McPhee—other than damn good, nobody knows how to classify McPhee.  Joseph Mitchell’s stories in Up in the Old Hotel, a New York Times best-seller in 1992, epitomize the profile.  On the surface these stories are disarmingly simple, yet they reveal subtleties of character, irony, incongruity, and more.  They are fodder for the curious mind.  In “The Gypsy Women,” Mitchell profiles NYC detective Captain Daniel Campion—retired from over twenty-five years in the Pickpocket and Confidence Squad—and his fascination with the gypsy rackets.  Even in retirement he keeps files and maintains genealogy charts.  It is apparent that—through prolonged, intimate contact, multiple arrests and such—Campion’s feelings for these people are complex.  Considering their thievery, preying unmercifully on poor widows and such, his affection is striking.  He recites names and describes grave sites in a New Jersey cemetery:
"There’s women lying over there that I stood in doorways across the street . . . waiting and watching for the moment to go in and nail them, and they despised me and I despised them, but I knew them very well . . . and when I look at their tombstones and read their names and dates, after all they’re dead and gone, I must admit it makes me sad." (199)
 Mitchell, the consummate New Yorker writer, grew up as a North Carolina country boy.
 ******
____________
     2 Of course a profile must choose a thematic slant of some sort; its view must cohere through some dominant impression of its topic.  And I’m well aware that objectivity is an elusive goal, if not pure illusion.
continue to page 3
Back to my home page