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.
Back to my home page