Last fall I heard from a medical student who was trying to get a personal essay published in a prestigious journal that has a section devoted to first-person musings. The writer thought I might be able to help him with his revisions, since that journal had run a couple of my pieces.
His essay had already been rejected by the editor, who said his writing was "one-dimensional and dull" and lacked "soul." The student told me he had begged for a second chance and the editor had granted it, provided he revise the essay. He had completely rewritten it and now needed help putting, he said, the "final touches" on it.
When I read the revised piece I found it earnest and generic.
The draft I saw—dialogue-boosted and exclamation-point-riddled—smelled of effort, of trying to do right, of wanting to make a contribution. The genre was sad but familiar: The beautiful-heroic-dying-patient-teaches-the-doctor-in-training-about-life. The essay was supposed to make me care but didn't. Not about the patient, and not about the writer. The journal editor was right. The piece had no soul.
How do you help someone learn to write with "soul"? What does that even mean? What does it look like on the page?
Pascal said, "When we see a natural style, we are astonished and delighted; for we expected to see an author, and we find a man." I think that's a fine definition of writing with soul, except, of course, for those times when we see a woman. Soulful writing is human—essential, authentic, honest, flawed, contradictory, messy. We see a person with ideas and emotions who claims our attention not because she has all the answers, but because she is struggling with vexing questions and trying to figure something out.
We get the tradition from Montaigne, who attempted to understand in his work who he was and what he knew. What struck me as I read the medical student's essay was that he seemed to have it all figured out: life, death, art, the practice of medicine. He wrote things like, "Compassion is integral to healing." Who would disagree with that? From what perch did he get to proclaim that kind of conversation stopper? He wasn't inviting the reader to do any thinking or even to engage. It was a better-written, somewhat more sophisticated version of the "in society today" essays that should make teaching first-year composition warrant hazard pay.
I understood that this young man had learned something from his slightly younger patient, but I didn't know who he was before he met her, and didn't see how he had changed—or more to the point, how she had changed him. He ended with a diatribe on how to alter medical education that made me smile. Many good students think they know better ways to learn than how they are being taught. I like critique. I like moxie.
But ultimately I am less interested in a finger-pointy harangue than I am in seeing the way in which the remaining fingers point back at the person who makes the accusations. My favorite pieces of advice and wisdom tend to come enclosed in stories about how the narrator messed up and learned what she's now telling me. How did you get there? That's what I want to know, and that's what I asked the medical student to think about.
Last month I wrote about how much I like reading the acknowledgments sections of books. But when I was an editor of scholarly books, I also loved to read the author's preface, where she told the story of her work: how she became interested in her subject and why it mattered to her, her struggles and challenges to get it done. I realize now that the preface was often the only part of the book with "soul." That's where I heard a human voice.
Academic research is often driven by real passion, but by the time it turns into scholarly prose, the heat has long since dissipated. Writing with soul doesn't have to be personal, confessional, or raw, but it can't be pretentious or inflated. Most of the great essayists knew that a plain style didn't hurt. Sit down with Montaigne, Addison and Steele, Hazlitt, Goldsmith, Bacon, and Lamb and you'll feel like you're in a tavern or a book-lined private study, chatting with a smart, wise, and often witty friend. Academics learn to dress their ideas in bulletproof, jargon-ridden suits, to parry attacks before they are launched, to make small and careful points rather than allowing themselves to be vulnerable by pitching big and strange ideas in direct and forceful sentences. But that is not the path to making yourself compelling as a writer.
Indeed, one of the problems with much scholarly writing it that we can't see the men and women—with sweaty hands and occasionally overfull stomachs or caffeine-buzzed nervous systems—who compose it. It seems, often, to come straight from central processors, with formatted bullet points, weak verbs, and multisyllabic Latinate phrases.
The moves that academics tend to make in their prose are often antithetical to "soulful" writing. Long, windy, semicolon-flecked sentences with recycled and ready-made phrases can create barriers that establish distance between writer and subject, author and reader. Often when I'm reading academic work not only do I feel like there's no soul, I feel like it's not even written by humans. Or for humans.
I hate pretension. That may be a lingering side-effect of having attended a fancy-pants college where I felt so strongly that someone had messed up by letting me in that I spent years trying to convince others—and myself—that I was worthy by using intellectually tarted-up language and tossing around ideas I didn't fully understand. It's taken me a long time and a lot of professional success to be able to sound this direct and unconcerned about being thought stupid.
It's also taken me a long time to realize that it's OK and even admirable to admit how much you don't know, and, when writing an essay, to put yourself in harm's way—to expose your own flank to whatever poison darts people want to fling at you. (Though I would like to point out, people, that anonymous and bilious comments still hurt.) It may be easier to attack someone who doesn't admit to flaws.
Recently I've been thinking about actress Anne Hathaway. Or really, about how many people seem to hate her. She strikes me as smart and accomplished but there's something about her bearing that has created a whole phenomenon: "Hathahaters." I think it has something to do with the fact that she seems too perfect, too much a construction of what she thinks she should be. At the Oscars she was poised and impeccable and even kind of smart and funny, but no one laughed at her jokes. When earthy Jennifer Lawrence tripped on her way to the podium, and then made a crack about it, everyone loved her.
That's what I realized was missing in the medical student's essay. He was too much Anne Hathaway and not enough Jennifer Lawrence. He was trying so hard to appear perfect and accomplished that all we saw was the effort and the desire to cover something up. Maybe that's what "writing with soul" is—falling over on your unaccustomed high heels on your way to being recognized for your accomplishment, and then laughing about it and accusing the audience of applauding only because they feel sorry for you. No one will ever feel sorry for someone brave enough to say something like that. It was, in that moment, impossible not to love Jennifer Lawrence.
There may not be much call to write with soul in many types of scholarly work. And bravery in academic writing may not be rewarded with a standing ovation; it may, in fact, cause some trouble. The personal essay may not "count" on an academic CV. But acquiring the skills required to write with soul—learning to be honest and vulnerable on the page so that the reader sees not an author but a person, will help you find more readers, make you a better writer whatever the genre, and may even help you discover bits of your own well-armored soul.