Phillip Lopate is an essayist, novelist and poet. He has written four personal essay collections — Bachelorhood, Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body and Portrait Inside My Head, as well as a pair of novellas, a memoir of his teaching experiences, three poetry collections, a collection of his movie criticism, an urbanist meditation, a critical study, and a biographical monograph. He is currently a professor at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, where he teaches nonfiction writing.
In his revealing collection of personal essays, Portrait Inside My Head, the renowned essayist shares his unique view on the big subjects of parenthood, marriage, sex, friendship, and ‘the nail parings of daily life’. At turns funny, tender, and searingly honest, he searches with a cool eye for that elusive truth about himself and the world.
1. What did you discover about yourself through writing personal essay collections?
I discovered that it was possible to regard myself in a detached way and to turn myself into a character, often one comic and erring, but forgivable. I also saw there was a way to take my experiences and to shape them into narratives that had a life of their own.
2. Have you learned to live with your limitations?
I have no choice but to live with my limitations. I am glad that I am not so porous and malleable as to be all things to all people, and the consistency of my limitations gives me comfort.
3. How is a personal essay collection different from a memoir?
Most memoirs have a built-in redemptive arc, but a collection of personal essays can circle around problems without necessarily triumphing over them. Also, in a memoir you can set up your autobiographical facts and go from there, whereas each time you start a new personal essay you can never assume the reader knows anything about you.
4. Which other essayists have greatly influenced your creative process?
Montaigne, Hazlitt, Lamb, Baldwin, Woolf, Sontag, Beerbohm, Benjamin, Barthes, Joseph Roth.
5. Are you currently working on anything that you wish to share with your readers?
I am currently completing two books: a new collection of personal essays, and a collection of my film criticism.
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