by Sonya Huber

I was warned that angry writing would drive readers away. I first heard this in graduate school, where we read Jamaica Kincaid’s essay “On Seeing England for the First Time.” The short essay struck me then, as now, as intellectually challenging, observant and detailed, as well as reflective and controlled. I came to class prepared to talk about the language, but the conversation turned to the hazards of anger on the page. My fellow students felt repelled by Kincaid’s tone and her single-minded pursuit of the slippery topics of race and colonialism in the Caribbean. It was not the topic, they said, but her method, which seemed to make some of them feel as though they had been blasted by a dense and sailing cannonball   of history, place, experience, family, grief, and anger. In a sense, if they had no knowledge of the conversation about colonialism and race, they had been blasted, though I’d argue this was the effect of a subway rushing past suddenly from a tunnel, offering an invitation to get on board. But they felt, first, the rush of a conversation in which they could not get their bearings, and they read this as “angry.”

I can’t remember what I contributed to the discussion, but I know it was no cogent manifesto in support of anger as a multifaceted wellspring of vitality and insight. I left the workshop table that night vaguely troubled with my own prospects and potential subject matter. My first reaction was selfish. Oh no, I thought, yet another example of why I shouldn’t be in graduate school. I was writing about the debacle of the U.S. health insurance system, among other topics, and generating Word documents narrated by a spitting frothing banshee. I knew I wasn’t getting beyond myself on that topic. But Kincaid had done it, in my view: transcended her own experience to get to meaning.

Yet she hadn’t reached some of the readers in that room. What did that mean? In one sense, I believe her essay had succeeded in bothering, in lodging an unavoidable burr in the psyche of those who engaged with her essay, an itch with an impact that might unfold over time to bridge the very different social worlds of that writer and those reader. Some authors claim to not care about reaching readers, but I do, and I’m interested in writing not as salesmanship at the one extreme or creation of art in a vacuum on the other but as human communication. The readers’ reactions in that workshop point to a larger gap, a point of trouble, when an author presents experiences that are both unfamiliar to the reader and that make the narrator angry. This gap is not something to be bridged over with an easy prohibition of “don’t go there.” It is rich and instructive but offers no simple answers.

The complication embodied by Kincaid and her work is that anger is not neutral. Each reader sitting around the table had a different ability to be present for Kincaid’s writing, and each reaction was a snapshot, a portrait of the reader and the writer together, a continuation and elaboration of the essay’s theme. In the worst case scenario, difference can trigger stereotypes that subconsciously influenced readers’ judgment about the motives and the intellectual ability of an author to make meaning from an experience. But while there was no malice in resisting Kincaid’s work, there was a gap    in experience. And readers bring their emotional baggage to the reading of a text, especially when the text itself contains identifying details about the life of the writer. Difference and anger combined to make the topic and the author seemed too “intense.”

Does that mean her task—or ours, if we take on a similar challenge—is so difficult as to not be attempted? At my moment of pessimism, it seemed to me that a writer might despair of reaching any reader who couldn’t relate to one’s subject matter. Or, instead of despair, the writer might dust herself off and then have to perform such amazing pyrotechnics to scale the wall of the reader’s resistance to anything with “heat” that the writing chops would have to doubly compensate for the hints of emotion on the page.   It seemed sad that literature, while such an able container, had not evolved more carrying capacity—or that we had not.

After that conversation in workshop, I was particularly attuned to matters of form and craft that might allow me to introduce shades of emotion without triggering the reader’s judgment of me as angry. (I also didn’t want to overtax the reader, of course, or present a rant with no emotional modulation.) Maybe I could slip my readers a bitter pill with humor, use analogies and deadpan presentation, experiment with artful formal presentation or sidelong glances. Maybe I would just use white space to dodge all the hard stuff. In between bouts of discouragement, I began with the help of lots of coffee to become excited by the fantastic challenge.

Then, as well as now, I understood that a whiny rant ripped out of a journal didn’t satisfy a reader. Then, as well as now, I felt the dripping condescension of the finger-wagging against “writing as therapy.” I wasn’t angry at those who expressed revulsion at  this “writing as therapy” because I saw how neatly this resistance to reading “emotionalism” on the page mapped to the author’s status as an outsider of some sort in society. James Frey could formlessly gush and emote all over the page and lie and still sell books, because he was a white guy. The “angry woman” and the “angry black man” and the “angry black woman” among many other possible permutations of identity immediately trigger stereotypes that can lead to a piece of life writing being read as more or less angry and more or less thoughtful. These stereotypes reinforce the dismissal and categorization of memoir into its place in the literary landscape, a place in which the identities of the authors themselves allow for easy sorting and judgment based less on the writing than on the life.

But anger itself—not its misunderstandings—is fascinating, a territory as vast and vague as love. I am always surprised there aren’t more angry essays, more essays and memoirs transported  by moments of road rage and petty envy and bitterness massive righteous pissed-offedness. Essayist Philip Lopate advised essayists to write about the “mind at work.” Everything is connected from the brain stem on down. But it is of course much easier and more marketable to go to Guatemala or Tuscany and write about the colorful produce and the sunsets than to tour inside one’s own less attractive neighborhoods.

Many writers don’t want to go into their own anger, because it’s a mess in there and they worry they’ll never make it out alive. And even if a writer is in touch with his or her anger, writing it presents the danger that a writer might be tagged as “angry.” I honestly also don’t want to read an “angry” writer, though nobody in practice sustains rage for very long. Instead I’m hungry to  read people whose work dives into their own moments of anger to see it, to pick it apart, to offer a taxonomy and a field guide and an owner’s manual.

What is anger, anyway? Is it the image of a cartoon man with steam coming out of his ears? He’s so revved up he’s lost the ability to think, and he’s liable to commit a crime of passion in a fit of insanity. If he is a woman—and only then—he becomes a she who is “hysterical” (and not in the funny sense). Assumptions about anger run neatly into tracks laid by the fear of emotionalism and the suspicion that strong emotions of necessity switch off the intellectual circuit in the mind and body. These days, research (along with first-hand experience of those using their brains) reveals that the brain and the body don’t have a simple two-channel switch like a train track. Instead, emotion is seen as the precursor to all cognition. But that old train-track idea stigmatizes emotion. And   if you’ve experienced something that makes you really upset, then you might be a permanent whack job. Crazy.

These retrograde notions of emotion as a kind of battery acid hide the distinction between anger and rage. In an interview with Tricycle Magazine, the Dalai Lama said, “anger that is motivated by compassion or a desire to correct social injustice, and does not seek to harm the other person, is a good anger that is worth having.” For a writer, the question is how to convey and use that anger to pin down and transform, to communicate with the reader, about the things that Piss One Off. In the field guide of anger, documenting the movements of any anger in one’s mind can leads to a greater understanding of how anger works and what it means, which is a benefit for the reader and the writer.

Perspective on anger comes in the form of a cooling off period in which reflection delivers insights and meaning. Vivian Gornick advises writers in The Situation and The Story to make story from the raw materials of one’s situation and finding the meaning through reflection, looking again and again at the trouble. Really, everyone is struggling in life with some version of a crappy day, so the writer should have a goal beyond merely venting on a reader by simply adding to that reader’s stress level without giving some insight or wisdom. We know this.

But there’s the problem of what Really Pisses Us Off. I  have found inspiration and consternation in equal measure from William Wordworth’s description of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Tranquility might be too strong a word for those topics that continue to pique us no matter how often we feel them. Wordsworth implies that there’s a trigger in the writer’s present life for the “spontaneous overflow” which impels pen to paper as the writer re-feels the initial event. What if one’s present life continues to fuel that continued anger—say, at colonialism? That isn’t the same challenge as reflecting back at a landscape seen once at a certain moment in time. More and more experiences are heaped on every day. This would be as if some demon had shackled Wordsworth to a stout stake in front of his “steep and lofty cliffs” so that he had to stare at Tintern Abbey for all time.

I’ve been keeping track of what made me mad since I could hold a pen, but it’s only since I started meditating that I began to get a limited ability to write about anger. Meditation is for me less like sipping green tea and more like plunging a toilet. If there’s peace it’s mostly in being stunned by the Mac Trucks of my emotions barreling along my internal highways. I get to watch my moments of insanity like the light above Tintern Abbey. Then I have to feel the anger all over again (and again) as I sit at my computer, which is kind of overwhelming at first and then an invigorating wrestling match that demands precision.

I’ve looked hard at and learned from some of my favorite authors who explore moments and lifetimes of anger at injustice and at the petty suffering doled out by life, including Joy Williams, Sonali Deraniyagala, Richard Wright, Philip Lopate, Marita Golden, Emily Rapp, Harriet Jacobs, Scott Russell Sanders, Dorothy Allison,

  • DuBois, James Baldwin, Tobias Wolff, and bell hooks, and my list is ever-growing. Many of these authors, coincidentally or not, are African-American, and/or women. What concerns me is that some of these authors (though not all) continue to be described as “angry” first, as if those emotions and the experiences that provoke them are peripheral and special interest rather than central to the human

Those authors have also taught me to find an “objective correlative,” some outside thing that is real, more than a symbol, an embodied element of the universe I can look at deeply, a thing outside myself that could stand in as a hook for larger ideas. Dick Cheney served very nicely for me as a hook in my essay for the anger I had carried and grown up in around the U.S. engagement in the Persian Gulf region. Of course, what I don’t touch in the essay is what else I made me angry at that point in my life, and the answer is: many things, and I’m still writing to figure it out. But Cheney was a way in. Thanks, Cheney.

Politics is a hard subject to write about, and in the face of that steep challenge, many essays decline and instead take on other matters, turning to an aesthetic or formal puzzle with a construction as delicate as a needlepoint pillow. When I read such constructions, I am forced to admire the skill displayed in their execution. I peer into them as I would a beautifully constructed bonsai tree or a Faberge egg. I have tried this careful form, mostly to see if I could do it, to feel like I was smart and part of the club, and I don’t think I do it well. “Go big” (or “go sloppy”) is my aesthetic, and I find myself drawn to essays with rough edges, a wabi-sabi that revels in the brokenness and wear created by time and life.

It is good to have a density and range of forms in our work to inspire each other to experiment and to  express  everything  that nonfiction has to offer the world. Yet I worry that such fine- threaded constructions are coming to define “the essay,” which is in the process of reifying itself as an academic and literary genre.   I wholeheartedly support this consolidation as nonfiction takes its rightful place as literature, but I worry that the future canon will be those in which the white space and references to definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary carefully conceal all the freak outs and deepest sadness that will be cordoned off into memoir’s messy basement. Those emotions, too, are equally worthy of essaying, as they contain the most vulnerable points of our lives, the moments when the soul itself makes broad leaps, either forward toward justice or revenge or backward in fear.

A shorter version of this piece appears in True Stories, Well Told: From the First Twenty Years of Creative Nonfiction (In Fact Books, 2014) and on the Creative Nonfiction website.


Sonya Huber is the author of two books of creative nonfiction, Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir and Opa Nobody,  and  a textbook, The Backwards Research Guide for Writers:  Using  Your Life for Reflection, Connection, and Inspiration. Her work  has been published in The New York Times, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Fourth  Genre,  The  Chronicle  of   Higher   Education, the Washington Post Magazine, and other journals. She  received the 2013 Creative Nonfiction Award from Terrain and her work appears True Stories, Well Told: From the First 20 Years of Creative Nonfiction. She teaches in the Department of English at Fairfield University and in the Fairfield Low-Residency MFA Program.