Sam Anderson: How The Art of the Personal Essay Changed My Life
In Conversation With Will Schwalbe On But That's Another Story
Will Schwalbe: Hi, I’m Will Schwalbe, and you’re listening to But That’s Another Story. It’s probably obvious by now that I’m obsessed with all different kinds of books. I like to vary my reading—a Scandinavian thriller one day, an anthology of short stories the next. But every now and then, I get totally hooked on one particular author. One book will be my gateway drug and then I’ll want to read another and another and another until I’ve ever everything she or he has ever written. And when I go on these epic single author reading jags, it’s often because the books themselves are literally that—epics. I’ll never forget the experience of reading Mary Renault for the first time. As I was finishing The King Must Die, her massive novel about Theseus and ancient Greece, I knew I wasn’t going to stop for a second before starting the sequel. And even before I had finished that book, I was already itching the read her trilogy about Alexander the Great. And don’t get me started on J.R.R. Tolkien. The first time I picked up The Hobbit, I knew almost instantly the next three books I would be reading—The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The same thing with George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series. I got hooked only recently, but read all five in a row. I’m now waiting, impatiently, for him to finish. People talk now of binge-watching television shows on Netflix, but I’ve been bingeing for as long as I can remember—on books. And recently, I got to talking about how easy it to lose—and find—yourself in a literary
obsession with today’s guest.
Sam Anderson: My name is Sam Anderson. I wrote a book called Boom Town. It’s about Oklahoma City, which I like to argue is the most secretly interesting place in America.
WS: Sam Anderson is a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine, and has written for Slate, New York Magazine, and many, many more. He’s also won the National Magazine Award for Essays and Criticism. He’s been doing this a long time. And Sam has known from the start that this is exactly what he was meant to do.
SA: I was born in Eugene, Oregon, and I grew up between there and northern California. It’s a little town called Lodi, famous only from a Creedence Clearwater Revival song called, “Oh Lord, Stuck In Lodi Again.”
I didn’t grow up in a really literary place. We didn’t have a house full of books or anything.
WS: A lack of books, maybe, but an abundance of stories.
SA: My mother was a great storyteller. She’s super creative, and we’d beg her to tell us bedtime stories and she would just make them up. She’d do this thing called “Hand Stories” where she would actually take our hands and move them around like characters in a story. You know, it was an adventure. It’d be like two bunnies or something hopping up a hill, and your hands would become the bunnies and then they would run into some other creature. And her hand would be that creature, or one of your hands would turn into it or something like that. So I don’t remember any of them, they were all improvised. So she was incredibly fun and creative, and our dad would read us Hans Christian Andersen stories or Grimm’s fairy tales every night.
Both of my parents were single parents after the divorce, and so we’d be crashing in my dad’s apartment on sleeping bags on the floor, and he would just be sitting near us with the lights out or dimmed—he has this great, deep voice. So, just hearing my father’s voice and drifting off to sleep as these fantastical stories are kind of floating around the room, it’s a really nice memory.
WS: But before long, Sam found himself searching for more stories—this time, in the pages of books.
SA: As a kid, I was a very good reader. That was my main skill in school, and I was a real introvert. I was shy, I had a lot of anxiety. And I think books were a safe world for me to disappear into. I think a lot of adolescents do this. You kind of decide what kind of person you’re going to be, and there’s a little bit of a rebellious streak in that. And I decided that I wanted to be a great writer. I wanted to just be this impressive, famous author.
WS: And Sam remembers the authors from that time period who he considered great.
SA: I remember reading Ralph Waldo Emerson and the power of his voice. Just this incredible cosmic certainty about what he was talking about, and these sentences that were just so vivid and arresting. I don’t know. I’d never really heard a voice like that before, I think. So, that spoke to me deeply and I thought, I want to sound like this. I want to have this kind of power.
I started in a very kind of pretentious, adolescent way reading feverishly all the time, everything. And that’s when I first became conscious of the great classics and wanting to become one of those. And I got really into Dostoevsky for several years. I’m still very into Dostoevsky, he’s one of my formative influences.
I remember walking around Lodi, California, walking to school in the morning and walking home after school, reading The Brothers Karamazov as I walked. So you know, there’s a bit of intellectual theater going on there, but at the same time, I was also just deeply moved and amazed by what I was reading.
WS: That reading began to have an impact on Sam’s writing—but not necessarily in a good way.
SA: I think I’ve always been kind of a mimic and so I try to write like what I’m reading, and I produced a lot of short stories and fiction that kind of went nowhere, but just reproduced this Dostoevsky voice. It sounded like it had been written in Russian and then translated by Constance Garnett in like 1910, or whenever she did those translations. It sounded so stilted and unlike my own voice, but I thought it was impressive as a 16 year old, 17 year old, and I was trying to impress people.
I was really sealing myself off into this world of books, and then you know, I’d lay around and I’d write feverishly in my journal and write poems or stories or whatever in my journal, probably about how misunderstood I was. There were—oh, gosh—five or ten years where I was probably very insufferable and had this feeling of superiority that I cringe looking back at.
WS: Yet that seriousness wasn’t all bad—one of Sam’s literary rituals from college would prove invaluable.
SA: I just spent a ton of time hanging out in the library, and I would always, when I could, get a work study job in the library, and then when I was supposed to be shelving books, I would mostly be pulling books out semi-randomly and just reading the first page and seeing if a voice caught me. I was just looking for voices to catch me, and help me feel out who I was and what kind of writer I wanted to be. And so I just spent so many hundreds of hours in the library just looking for voices.
WS: Do you still do that?
SA: I do, yeah. I love libraries. Libraries are kind of where I feel most at home and most safe, I think. There will always be some portion of time when I’m at a library where I’m just wandering around and grabbing things off a shelf and being like, I’ve never read this author. What does he or she sound like? And then sometimes you get lucky and that sparks something and you take the book and you read it and then you read every other book that author wrote.
I always felt like the best way to be a great writer would be to read everything.
WS: When we come back from the break, Sam comes across a book filled with voices that excite him—and help him discover his own.
WS: Sam Anderson knew early that he wanted to be a great writer. By college, it was a full on obsession. He was spending almost all of his time reading and in libraries. And that’s exactly where he found one of the books that’s had the greatest impact on him.
SA: I think I must’ve found this collection in the library, The Art of the Personal Essay. Which, it’s funny looking at it, it’s this giant white book with a quill pen on the front and it just looks, with its title and everything, like the least exciting, most generic book of all time.
WS: The book, an anthology of personal essays compiled by Phillip Lopate, was far from that for Sam.
SA: To me it was like this revolutionary thing because it’s just stuffed with all of these voices. I mean, the kinds of voices I was talking about searching out in the library. It’s like, here is a book that is just 100 percent voices like that and so I just consumed it and I remember reading it and thinking, well, I need to own this. So I actually ordered it from our local bookstore and then I just carried it around with me everywhere and read that as I walked up and down the streets, going to college and back, and then trying out writing about different parts of my own life and exploring my own mind.
I think the first author in it is Seneca. So it starts back at first century AD in ancient Rome and then it goes all the way up through the 20th century. And you’ve got African American writers, and Asian writers, and Hispanic writers, so it really tries to cover this huge sweep of human history, and of human experience. It’s just this incredible party of voices. You won’t like every voice in there, but the ones that you connect with are going to be very, very exciting. They were for me.
WS: New to Sam, the personal essay quickly became a favorite form of writing.
SA: I think the most interesting thing about any of us is the voice that just plays in our heads all the time. And if you can manage to get that voice onto the page, it’s so powerful. Someone can connect with it in the space of a phrase or a sentence. Someone can be like, oh my gosh, it’s another human. And I think there’s a great paradox in personal writing, which is that the best way to connect, to actually really deeply connect with another person is to put yourself, as strange and idiosyncratic as you are, down on the page. So, it’s not to try to be general and to try to be a kind of everyman. It’s to be absolutely yourself, to be embarrassing, to be ridiculous, to be funny. If you can get it down honestly on the page, then I think another human will pick it up. And that’s the most exciting thing to me, is that transaction. So, it really starts with voice, and then I guess that’s the great opportunity of the genre is that voice is like a little electric current that you can shoot through anything, anything. So, I mean, you can talk about what you had for breakfast this morning. You could talk about your commute to work. You could talk about an interesting pair of shoes that you noticed. I mean, really, anything becomes a vehicle for that electric current, which is like whatever the living essence of being human.
WS: The anthology gave Sam the opportunity to experience a diverse array of writers, and the wide range of their styles and experiences encouraged him to develop his own voice.
SA: I feel like we tend to look past anthologies a little bit, you know, I mean, American culture is so kind of individualistic and star driven and all that. It’s kind of cool to say that you love a specific author. It’s much less cool to say, uh, I really liked this collection, this anthology, not even a short story collection or something by one writer, but this anthology. But they were hugely important to me growing up and learning how to write and finding the voices I was looking for. I would like to encourage everybody to pick up anthologies because it’s like the difference between sitting down for coffee with one person for two hours versus like going to a party and wandering around and seeing who you want to talk to. You just have a better chance of like finding your future best friend. It was Phillip Lopate. I think we should give people more credit for compiling these kinds of things. I can only imagine how much work went into reading through all of these different authors. And yeah, it’s something I’ve been reading now for decades.
WS: The Art of the Personal Essay not only affected what Sam was reading as he began to discover new authors, but also his own writing.
SA: It was kind of like this rocket fuel blasting me out of my adolescence and that feeling of being trapped and wanting to become something. I had been kind of trying to emulate this Dostoevskian sort of writing mode and imagined myself writing 800 page novels, and I just had none of the life experience. I didn’t have the temperament for it, it just wasn’t a fit. So my writing was awful and this immediately felt like a new door opening up that would lead me to writing that really connected with who I was and that I could sustain. And after I discovered the writers in this book, I started writing personal essays.
I wrote a personal essay, it was called “The Unexamined Life.” And it was about my fear that I had been, as an adolescent, dying of cancer, and I wouldn’t tell anybody. I have a lot of moles, and I had one removed at one point when I was probably 11 or something. And the doctor asked me, uh, do you have any other moles this large? It’s really important that you tell me. And at that moment I lied and I said, no, I don’t, because I had this giant mole right next to my penis.
So, I had this mole on my crotch that I could not bring myself to confess to having. And it became this thing that I worried about and obsessed over for years and years and years. And I was sure because he had been so adamant that I had to tell him, I was sure. And I remember flipping through medical books at my high school library, reading about melanoma and thinking, oh my God, I’ve got it, and I’m dying of cancer and I just can’t tell anyone. And it became this whole, internal melodrama for probably ten years. It turned out to be nothing.
WS: That piece went on to be Sam’s first published essay.
SA: So, that was like my first real writing victory and I think that grew directly out of marinating and all these voices in The Art of the Personal Essay.
WS: Sam went on to have many, many, many more essays published, working his way up the publishing ladder as a freelancer and eventually becoming the book critic at New York Magazine and now, a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine. Earlier this year, he published Boom Town, a history of Oklahoma City that grew out of one of his pieces for magazine.
SA: I started doing research on the history of Oklahoma and immediately my mind was blown and I could not believe what I was reading. It’s just the most bizarre American history that I had no idea existed. And so I kind of braided that together with the basketball and with other things I found on the ground and with all these characters. And I just had this deep kind of personal feeling of connection to the place and that I had to write about it. And I had been waiting for a subject to force me to write a book about it forever. I’ve always wanted to write a book, but I didn’t want to write a book about just anything and this was the subject that made me do it. Boom Town is actually a tad less personal than I would have imagined it being in the beginning. But there’s still, for all the reporting in it, a lot of personal inflection.
WS: The personal inflection that he began developing so many years ago, the moment he picked The Art of the Personal Essay off the shelf.
WS: You said that the book helped you find your voice. How would you describe your voice?
SA: That’s a great question. My voice and the personal essay…I would say it’s funny, I always try to be funny. I always load everything with jokes because I think that’s how I grew up with my friends. Again, it turned out to be a real strength not to grow up in a literary family, not to go to these elite schools and all this stuff because there was never any presumption for me that anyone else would be interested in what I was writing. And so I learned to use every tool that I had to make people interested in what I was writing. And so, a sense of humor is big there. I think I’m very curious, I love to go out in the world and just mine the most interesting facts I can find and do a lot of research. And so, I think it’s stuffed with interesting facts. Hopefully in a way that’s not lectury or dry. It’s like me-plus.
I think the personal essay does have an advantage in that connection I was talking about before, that kind of primal human connection with another voice, between the voice in your head and the voice of someone else’s head. I think it’s stronger than our connection to Twitter or our connection to our email or something like that—if you can make that connection. A lot of what I was doing was trying to be as enticing as the stuff I grew up watching and listening to, you know, Saturday night live or something. So you’ve got it. You’ve got to be creative like hand stories. You got to be as strange and weird as Hans Christian Andersen. You’ve got to sort of use every tool in that tool kit.
WS: But That’s Another Story is produced by Katie Ferguson, with editing help from Alyssa Martino, Alex Abnos, and Becky Celestina. Thanks to Sam Anderson and Gwyneth Stansfield. If you’d like to learn more about the books we’ve mentioned in this week’s episode, you can find out more in our show notes. You can also find a transcript of this episode and past ones on Lit Hub. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please be sure to rate and review on iTunes—it really helps others discover the program. And subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll be back with our next episode in two weeks.