The prose playbook of Phillip Lopate

The author and professor shares wisdom for all writers.

Phillip Lopate
Phillip Lopate and his cat, Tacey. Photo by Barbara Mensch

In grad school, when I picked my instructors, I often did so on the basis of their bios. That’s how I wound up in Phil Lopate’s nonfiction workshop in 2010.

Back then, his credits included three personal essay collections, two novels and two novellas, three poetry collections, a memoir, a compilation of his movie criticism, and “an urbanist meditation,” Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan. Princeton University had just published his critical study Notes on Sontag in 2009.

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His essays had been widely anthologized and awarded. He’d edited several anthologies, and one of them, The Art of the Personal Essay, was calling my name.

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In the workshop, Lopate impressed me, not because of what he said but what he didn’t. He listened more than he talked. When he wrote comments on my work, it seemed that he listened then, too, between the lines, and heard what I was trying to say. 

He often gave verbal comments and suggestions to a student weeks after their piece had been workshopped. He seemed more concerned with the internal development of a writer rather than an immediate goal of getting published.  

He was in it for the long game.

Eight years later, he’s still on the field.

A Mother’s Tale, published in 2017, is a story unearthed from a recorded interview with his late mother. In addition to a reconstruction of her life, the book is a dialogue between him and her. 

“Well, it’s actually – if you want to use a word that doesn’t exist – a ‘trialogue,’” Lopate says, “because it’s my mother and I talking, and then it’s me, now, talking to the two of them and sort of analyzing, 30 years later…how it [all] strikes me.”

Lopate, who’s written about relatives before, says the writer is always in danger of exploiting the family member or co-opting their story. When he listened to the recording, he immediately knew that it was good material: “hairy, raw, messy stuff” that didn’t need to be altered through an authorial narrative.

So for just over the first half of A Mother’s Tale, the prose is mostly in her voice.

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“Instead of treating my mother as a character, I was going to let her have her say,” Lopate says. 

In this book, as well as in much of his other work, Lopate uses the second person point-of-view, a direct address to the reader. He says this approach stemmed from reading and liking 18th– and 19th-century literature in which authors expressed an “off-the-cuff quality of establishing a relationship with the reader.”

“I thought that it was a way of being playful. And one of the things that I relied on again and again in my writing is to be mischievous or to be playful in some way,” Lopate says. “So the direct address to the reader – partly because it was seen as something that was antiquated and you couldn’t do it anymore – provoked me into thinking, ‘Well, I’d like to try it again.’”

Lopate says he came to the conclusion that the tradition of the essay was a conversation between the writer and the reader…and one between the writer and their own mind. 

“You’re trying to track your thoughts,” Lopate says. “You’re trying to figure out what you think about something.”

While talking to the reader, Lopate says, the conversation exhibits a “stop-start quality.”

“Just as you’re going along, you pull yourself up short, and you anticipate the reader’s objections, like, ‘I know you’re probably thinking that I’m an asshole now,’ or whatever,” he says.

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The game of anticipating, addressing, and “cutting the reader off at the pass” drew Lopate further into the technique.

“Showing that you’re aware of the dangers you’re in and the game you’re playing – it’s taking the reader into the process and making the reader complicit with you, in a way,” he says.

I want some of those words that will jump out. I don’t want everything to be flattened out. I want some words that will snag the reader’s eye.”

In A Mother’s Tale, Lopate writes: “I am well aware that I am not succeeding in making my father come alive on the page, turning him into a three-dimensional character, or simply giving a proper account of the man.”

Lopate says by asking questions like “I wonder what this all means?” or “That may be very well and good but how does it connect to my original thesis?” a writer is really challenging themselves to fail in front of the reader’s eyes, which creates suspense and engages the reader more directly.

“It’s not the same as fiction, where you encourage the reader sometimes to enter a dream and to go along as if it’s really happening,” he says. “[In the essay] you’re tugging at the reader’s sleeves, and you’re jabbing the reader sometimes, and you’re waking him out of that dream, but you’re also making him be part of your conversation.”

One way Lopate draws readers into his conversation is by using a colloquial expression. 

He mixes the vernacular with more formal – or even obscure – language. In A Mother’s Tale, phrases like “being manipulatively mawkish,” “petty vituperations,” and “wonderfully schmaltzy tearjerkers” were my round-trip tickets to Dictionary.com.

Lopate calls the technique “playing on all 88 keys,” and it’s reflective of our own diction that changes when in conversation with different people, moving between the formal academic, the colloquial, and slang. 

“I feel like you should be able to use all of these tonalities, not just speak in one register,” he says. “So it’s, again, it’s fun to be able to shift gears from one register to another.”

The move makes a writer more trustworthy as a narrator, he believes.

“They see there’s a human being there,” Lopate says, “not just a kind of a ‘stuffed shirt,’ let’s say.”

He does offer a piece of advice for writers who want to try code switching: Don’t force it. 

“[When writing,] I’m relaxed enough to invite my thoughts, and sometimes those thoughts speak to me colloquially and sometimes they speak formally,” he says.

He even uses words “that are a little bit out of reach.”

“Every once in a while, I’ll put in a word that I myself am not quite sure the definition [of],” he says, “but I’ve always wanted to use it or have seen it.”

He believes the vocab variety gives the prose “texture.”

“If you were to look at a page of prose without reading it, but just let your eye drift across the surface of the page, you would see certain words that would jump out at you,” Lopate says. “And so I want some of those words that will jump out. I don’t want everything to be flattened out. I want some words that will snag the reader’s eye.”

Lopate explains that he’s writing for an array of readers. 

“One reader I’m writing for is somebody that is more intelligent than I am,” he says, “but I hope forgiving and will understand what I’m trying to do.”

He jokes that “it’s like writing for the great dead. They’re watching me.”

Some of those smarter and hopefully more understanding souls are writers he calls ancestors, like Montaigne or Virginia Woolf.

“I do think that one of the aspects of essay writing that I’ve noticed is it’s kind of imprinted with writing from the past,” Lopate says. “One of the ways that you show that you’re a real essayist is that you exhibit traces of the tradition. You show that you’ve read all the stuff. That you’re not inventing the wheel.”

Another reader who he writes for is closer to home.

“In part [I’m] writing for myself, to amuse myself,” he says. “So if I read something that I’ve written and I can laugh or chuckle afterward, then I think, ‘Okay, it’s good.’”

Using diction that’s “archaic or anachronistic, as well as contemporary” is a way that Lopate speaks to a reader from the past and a contemporary one, remaining aware that certain contemporary readers might have ethical concerns, especially if he’s saying something provoking. 

“It’s not that I always have to stay within the so-called politically correct range, but I have to know when I’m going outside of it,” he says. “Because that’s where the address to the reader really comes in, is when you’re moving outside of a conventional position and trying to be a contrarian. Or trying to bring something new to the discussion.”

Essayists hoping to be more adept at poking the bear with a purpose should start with reading great essays, then turn their focus inward, learning to distinguish their own opinions from others’.

“So you have to be able to listen to your inner voice and intuitions, your inclinations, your prejudices, and work with them,” Lopate says. “So that you’re not just spouting the conventional lie. And what it really comes down to is being attentive to your own ambivalences.”

But voice is often elusive for newer writers, who may feel disadvantaged because they haven’t found “the one.”

The search, he implies, may be the problem. 

“I don’t think that a writer has a voice; I think a writer has voices,” Lopate says. “And different projects will solicit different voices.” 

In fact, he faced the challenge of wrangling a new voice when he switched from primarily writing essays to working on Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan, a research-heavy project.

“I was overwhelmed by the voices of the experts who knew so much more than I did,” Lopate said. “And I would quote them at great length, and people who read it would say, ‘No, we’ve got to get back to your voice. Regardless of how much they know, you’re going to have to put this through a filter and make it your own.’ So I had to learn a) how to do a tremendous amount of research, and b) how to transmute it into something of my own voice.”

And though he’s grown as a writer since his early days, he wouldn’t change any of his work, rejecting Yeats’ notion that he would rewrite some of his letters and poems. 

“My idea is that, essentially, my work is additive, which is that every one of them is imperfect, but they all add up to something that’s larger than the sum of its parts,” he says. “I thought, ‘Let them understand that this is what I wrote when I was 26. This is what I wrote when I was 36.’ I don’t want to pretend that I always had the same level of understanding.”

He’s learned something from all of his books, such as his first commercial one, Being with Children. He thought he was just writing about his experiences working with kids as a writer in schools; he then realized he was really writing a collection of essays. 

“I had to develop a plausible voice on the page that people could trust,” Lopate says. “I certainly learned a lot from that. And I’m still learning. 

“Now, I’m doing an anthology, again, of the American essay, and I’m reading everything I can, reading through whole libraries, and it’s thrilling to be able to learn much more than I knew in the form.” 

 

Keysha Whitaker’s work has appeared in The Writer, the New York Times, and The New Yorker. She has an MFA from The New School.