As you know, men be writin’.
Men have been writing all over the place, even on this particular website, which you probably gathered from the logo at the top of the page. Given that the aim of this site is to help men become more adequate, we’ve taken a keen interest in how men choose to write about themselves on the internet. Mostly, they are bad at it, and an exercise that is supposed to bring self-improvement through the unpacking and critical examination of feelings instead becomes a practice of crafting vague hypotheticals and stringing them together. Perhaps this is because most men’s lives are inherently uninteresting, or maybe it is because they consider their problems to be too precious and heavy to be addressed head-on.
If you read enough essays written by men, you are guaranteed to come across passages like this:
I flew to Roswell in early spring, the day before Easter. That whole winter I’d been thinking about the desert. Partly this was because of everything that had gone wrong in my own mind. For months, I’d found myself driving too fast and sleeping too little and lying too much, lying almost all the time, really, and mostly to people I loved. I’ve never been great at communication. Now the gradual disaster of my own choices had left me without even the illusion that I understood myself; I seemed to look out at the world from the other side of a large, bright blank, a space I could navigate only by means of symbols and codes and gestures that made no sense to anyone else. I hurt people I cared about. I cut myself off from the person who best understood me. I was a secret league of one, only with no sense of how to read the directions on whatever inner map was supposed to be my guide to the conspiracy.
There’s a word that shows up in old country songs: astray. That was how I felt. Not just lost. Like I’d fallen out of my real life and into some eccentric parallel from which I couldn’t find a way back.
This comes near the beginning of Grantland alum and current MTV News writer Brian Phillips’s first longform feature for the site—it’s a story about aliens, belief systems, and the peculiar history of the American southwest. It’s a good story that I enjoyed reading, filled with the kind of writing that has made Phillips a successful feature writer on the internet.
But there is that passage, a piece of bad writing—not bad because it is a bit purple or self-absorbed, but because it is dishonest and obscurantist. It uses the forms of confession and introspection to do the opposite, to gesture vaguely at something even as it labors to conceal it. The passage spreads a fog over all the rest of Phillips’s ocean of observational storytelling: He is on a journey to find answers, but he cannot even bring himself to think about the questions. An editor could have tossed that bit, which purports to be the heart of the story, into the trash can and the reader would have been none the wiser.
As he enters his journey into the desert, Phillips tells us that he did A Bad Thing, but doesn’t bother to tell us exactly what that Thing is. “Now the gradual disaster of my own choices had left me without even the illusion that I understood myself,” he says, managing to evade addressing those “choices” while mirroring an abstract sense of self, or a man in crisis. This is a neat trick, as it allows him to project all the earnest sizzle of confessional writing without having to suffer from any of the potential burns. By presenting us with the shambles of his personal life in only the vaguest possible terms, he muscles writerly heft into the story—our writer is now a broken man looking for answers in the desert, like so many who have come before him—without having to spend any time in the story wrestling with the transgression itself. It’s the literary equivalent of the bad boy in the leather jacket locking his smoldering eyes on a beautiful woman and growling, “Run away from me, doll. I’m bad news.” And then they kiss.
This is a common tactic deployed by prominently positioned male writers who want to try their hand at the personal essay. As it turns out, calling down the gods on your squalid and banal fuckups is an easy way to give your story unearned command. Here is a piece of writing that appeared on New York Magazine’s short-lived pop-up blog, Beta Male, under the headline “What We Mean When We Say, ‘I Love You Man’”:
This fear was initially pinned to the sudden appearance of significant others, but that was a smokescreen. What really happened was everyone was in various stages of experimenting with being a subpar man. Being a shitty guy has a way of warping the understanding of what it means to be manly. As in, the worse you are — rude, dishonest, uncaring, downright scoundrelly — the more of a real man you are. Our friendship had been the reason we’d been able to get back up when we fell, stay afloat, even to learn how to grow up, for so many years. But here, both geographically and figuratively, separation within the group was at its high point, communication at an all-time low. No one seemed to trust themselves in relationships, and for good reason. You begin to feel like an impostor when people know you, but only the good side of you. We were designated as “good guys,” but we were no longer as good as it seemed. There’s an extent to which you know your leash is longer, that more chances are available, less trouble awaits you, when people think you’re one of the good ones.
Here is another bit from Beta Male, under the headline “Epilogue: I’m Not In Love”:
Hi, it’s me again. I promise I’m not angry.
There are things you wish you didn’t love in life because of what they do to you. But if you really love these things you’ll take them as-is. A cheeseburger comes with lettuce, tomato, and onions. If you want ketchup or mayonnaise or relish, add it yourself. It’s not the cheeseburger’s job to know the condiments you fancy. You ordered a cheeseburger, not Susan Miller on a sesame-seed bun.
We should have known from the beginning it was going to end like this. We didn’t care because we figured one of us would stop. One of us was supposed to love the other enough to change so that one of us could stay the same, and in the end the only thing I can say for certain is that we’re both fucking assholes.
One wonders what this form of writing is meant to accomplish. It certainly doesn’t give readers any better understanding of who these men are, and those who have been wronged are reduced to faceless abstractions—perhaps even a literal cheeseburger. The closest this stuff gets to honest-to-God confession is performative, targeted guilt disguised as self-flagellation.
Some men go even further than wispy writing that only looks heavy, and graft their personal transgressions onto an imaginary stand-in. The New York Times’ David Brooks is a master of this form. Remember this column?
Instant communication creates a new sort of challenge. How do you gracefully change your communication patterns when one person legitimately wants to step back or is entering another life phase?
The paradox is that the person doing the leaving controls the situation, but greater heroism is demanded of the one being left behind. The person left in the vapor trail is hurt and probably craves contact. It’s amazing how much pain there is when what was once intimate conversation turns into unnaturally casual banter, emotional distance or just a void.
The person left behind also probably thinks that the leaver is making a big mistake. She probably thinks that it’s stupid to leave or change the bond; that the other person is driven by selfishness, shortsightedness or popularity.
Who is David Brooks talking about in this column? It could be anyone, you see! Anyone at all. That’s what makes the ideas in it so profound.
The problem with all of the examples cited above is that the profundity and writerly mystique tends to evaporate once the actual truth is pulled out into the light. It’s easy to imagine the pensive twists in those MTV News and Beta Male paragraphs being replaced with flat declarations of what exactly these men did. But it’s much harder to imagine “I [did a specifically detailed bad thing]” achieving the result that interests men who write this way. That is, a personal essay that manages to be simultaneously revealing and obscuring; just enough of the former to convey the outline of a meaning and earn the author a badge for honesty, and just enough of the latter to protect his reputation from any real scrutiny.
As Genius editor Leah Finnegan points out, this is a specifically male phenomenon. The personal essay format demands that women reveal everything, often to the point of absurdity, while also allowing men to get away with vague metaphors and platitudes. On one end of the spectrum you have “I’m Glad My Friend Killed Herself,” and on the other end you have “I Did Some Bad Shit, But All You Need To Know Is That I’m Dealing With It, Manfully”
The irony is that the gendered moral values—those that ask women writers to speak out to the extreme and men writers to be discreet—eventually lead both to a place in which their work is actively undermined by the contortions that went into producing it. It’s possible to write about the bad things you have done in a useful and thought-provoking way. Throwing every selfish and self-absorbed thought you’ve ever had onto the page isn’t the way to do it, and neither writing about your life as if it takes place in a fragrance commercial. Those approaches don’t leave much room for honest self-reflection, which is, you know, kind of the point of a personal essay.
Of course, there is and always will be one big difference separating the female personal essay and male personal essay. The women who misstep while writing about the gory details of their personal lives will continue to face unceasing and often deserved criticism when they do so. As for the men who mine their fuckups for literary effect while actively keeping the details of those fuckups hidden? They’re in line for some slaps on the back.