In Defense of Navel Gazing…

Posted: July 16, 2008 in creative nonfiction, Sarah Einstein, writing
Tags: , , , ,

Gary Presley has recently been wondering about the state of Creative Nonfiction over at Brevity’s Creative Nonfiction Blog.  He asks, “Is too much of our genre too centered on navel-gazing?” 

First, let me confess that I am not well-versed in the exact definition of navel-gazing.  It is, in my personal lexicon, a vague slur that was hurled at Feminists back in our early the-personal-is-political days; a way of suggesting that we were self-absorbed and pointless and that, as a result, we would never be effectual. 

Where did all that navel-gazing get us?  Into the workplace, into a world in which our reproductive freedom is (precariously) guaranteed through access to birth control and abortion, through the glass ceiling, and onto the list of serious candidates for the Presidency.  Don’t dismiss the power of beginning with personal as a way to understand the universal. 

 But maybe Presley’s issue isn’t that so much memoir starts with the personal, but that it ends there.  What, if anything, is the difference between memoir and reportage?  I have heard many wonderful books (“The Glass Castle” comes immediately to mind) both praised and damned for giving the reader the events of life outside the experience of most readers without either “pre-digesting” or “reflecting on” those experiences, depending on which side of the debate you have taken.  And that, I think, is the truly interesting question.  Does the effective memoir present the individual experience to the reader and then leave her to form her own understanding, or does it look to also provide an understanding of this experience?

It’s a question I am currently struggling with in my own reading and writing.  And I am afraid the answer will have more to do with “literary fashion” than with true merit; I suspect an editor might answer this question very differently than a Creative Writing professor. 

How would you answer it?

  1. Gary Presley says:

    I wasn’t married back then, and so I wasn’t a feminist. But even at that, I didn’t think of feminism as navel-gazing. It was a rights movement. Then came the gay rights movement. And next (and most applicable to me) the disability rights movement, which citizens remain the most segregated element of society currently.

    But that’s not relevant, really. My navel-gazing lament occurred because I participate online with a group of writers who discuss creative nonfiction. I’m in the minority regarding the navel-gazing, actually, but my point is that there’s gotta be something *more* that Self within a memoir or an essay. One more sad or interesting or bizarre story is simply One More unless there is an universalist reflection — a greater truth that offers an insight into the human condition.

    Thanks for commenting.

    And I like the blog name — I’m located in Springfield, Missouri, “The Queen City of the Ozarks,” the largest metropolis in the country where tornadoes attack trailers and Bass Pro one-size-fits-all caps are formal fashion.

  2. inktarsia says:

    This is a key question for CN, I think. Appreciated Gary addressing the issue of “trauma literature,” especially as being a ranking definition of memoir. The thing about folks like McPhee and Theroux is they’re writing about subjects (like the Hershey chocolate plant, loved that) with a personal slant, rather than the personal with a slant.

    And yet, in my most recent online memoir class (level 1), I was in the minority not writing about wrenching trauma, and getting feedback that folks weren’t that interested in my topic (travel in Israel), but in how I changed through that journey. They weren’t really that interested in my perspective of the subject. Have ahd decent writing groups derailed because folks writing about trauma suggested there was a hierarchy of importance in writing, with pain being the rubric.

    I’d like to think that, as a genre like creative nonfiction continues to mature, it would branch into many glorious subsets. Right now to me the main categories strain their suspenders. They need to be subdivided some. I’m interested in hearing how people survived tough things, but think I’m even more interested in hearing how intelligent writers interact with the world around them. Like Sarah’s project with Mot.

    Gary – I went to college in Springfield. Miss the cashew chicken & McSalty’s, but not the ice or twisters.

  3. sarahemc2 says:


    Yo, fellow Ed Roberts-ite! I worked for several years at a CIL, and I agree absolutely that persons with disabilities remain the most segregated and disenfranchised. I’m very much looking forward to your book.

    I’m glad to see you come down on the side of connecting the events of an individual life back to the universal truths about being human. I think there IS something to be gained by letting the reader draw conclusions of their own, but I don’t think that means that narrative voice has to give up all insight and reflection. I think that can be done well by leaving questions hanging, as you did in your excellent piece about the words of the Apostle Paul.


  4. sarahemc2 says:


    If pain is the rubric, I should give up now. My childhood was all ponies and birthday cakes (and I meant that). My adulthood is unusual but also unusually happy. Do you think this means I should take up something useful instead–like, say, bootlegging?

  5. inktarsia says:

    Only if you can 1) spur a horrific, rending divorce over said bootlegging to write”I Love You, Still…” or 2) create a socko-good explosion and then write about your experience of rehab after skin graft for “Burning for Branch Water.” If you’re hoping to earn a living by something other than writing, I’d recommend tax accounting. Which is also about evading the revenuer.

    P.S. Please use an outdoor-rated extension cord if running electrical power to the chicken coop.

  6. Kathy says:

    Much creative nonfiction does involve trauma, unfortunate experiences, awful things that the writer has gone through and is still perhaps affected by. Things the writer didn’t seek, but things that happened to him/her. My thought all along has been, Well, I don’t have anything like that. My childhood wasn’t all ponies and birthday cakes, but it was happy and uneventful. I agree with Sherry — I like to read about how intelligent writers interact with the world around them…even how they go through everyday experiences or describe things common to us all. It’s the writer who can make something common and mundane come alive that is a good writer. I want to experience that with him, view it through his eyes, identify, feel it, add my own experience to it, and make it mine.

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