(Im)personal Statements

Last week I was asked to do one of my least favorite things in the world, which is to write a personal statement.

Most of us are familiar with this struggle. The personal statement (also known as a Statement of Goals, an Artist’s Statement, or an Addendum Which the Application Board Will Only Review if the Rest of the Application Process Comes Down to a Tie and a Coinflip is Simply Too Embarrassing), which started in academia, has now become a central part of so many kinds of applications that I can only imagine that soon people who are looking to buy a car will be expected to outline not only how they first became interested in driving but what driving means to them, personally, and how ownership of a new car will help them improve their life, reach their goals, and develop as a human being.

At least — one might be forgiven for suggesting — there’s some utility in asking for a personal statement from an artist, as opposed to a prospective driver. After all, an artist should be expected to be able to converse about their chosen field, and explain how, why, and what they create — otherwise, how is anybody supposed to understand what they’re doing, considering how maddeningly obscure artistic production can be?

(In fact, now that we’re mentioning it, it might be better for artists to write their statements first, and then produce their art, so as to be sure that what they create follows the correct blueprint. But I digress.)

Can’t say I agree, but I understand where the idea comes from. People who sit on review boards can’t be expected to pay supreme close attention to every single applicant; that would take weeks, and anyway many of the applicants are clearly unhinged or otherwise unsuitable, so it’s important to find some way to weed these people out before the serious work is done. How satisfying it must be to scan a personal statement, discover a reference comparing the artist to Joan of Arc, and immediately move the applicant into the discard pile!

(Hence the preference among writers of personal statement for “safe” essays. Just prove you’re a reasonable person, and you’ll be fine – though that’s much harder than it looks, considering how fundamentally unreasonable most of us are, and how similar to Joan of Arc most of us have felt, at least once in our lives.)

So I always find myself, against my better instincts, taking the personal statement very seriously. I do my best to let the judges know my attitude towards fiction writing (friendly, but ambivalent), my personal history (relatively free of major crimes), and my goals (hazy, yet unrealistic). But the question remains in the back of my mind, even as I labor: is this really the best way to judge a fiction writer?

It seems to me that one of the fundamental tensions inherent in fiction writing is the sublimation of the ego, the construction of alternate personalities and worlds that may be based in reality but which are judged purely on their own merits. If I write a building, and you can’t see it in your mind’s eye, it doesn’t matter that I can show you a picture of my childhood home and say “there it is, you idiot: it’s real!” Except in the case of historical fiction (which is its own thorny puzzle, discussed elsewhere on this blog), literature doesn’t take on its power from being an annex onto someone’s existence; it has to function as its own reality, by its own rules. Part of what makes a book beautiful is the way, provided it’s successful, that it exists independently of the person who created it.

Which is why I’d like to present an alternate form of personal statement, only for fiction writers. Instead of writing anything about oneself, the writer is expected to compile a list of sentences from their books and stories that are drawn entirely from their own experience. Then, once they’ve extracted every sentence from every one of their works which represents a memory or example from their lived reality, they will be expected to place each of these lines in chronological order, biographically, until everything is in its proper place.

No editing for style is allowed. Humor and pathos should be mixed uncomfortably. Ideally, the document should be unwieldy, difficult to read — nearly incomprehensible, in fact. Characters should come and go at awkward times. Images should recur more often than is convenient. There should be an infuriating persistence of childish memories. Closure should be maddeningly elusive.

I can see how the length of time it would take to compile such a document might be a disadvantage, but once it’s completed the author can at least be secure in the knowledge of having produced an authentic record of the interaction between fiction and life, as well as of the impossibility of their ever being awarded another residency, fellowship, or literary prize for as long as they live.

It could also, with some modification, serve as the fiction sample, which would cut down on printing costs. These days it’s more important than ever to keep your overhead low. After all, applications cost money.

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