1. I’m reading a printout of a 20-year-old piece of writing, one that I consider my first real, mature essay. Written on my friend Kevin’s word processor which was really a typewriter with a floppy disk drive, the pages came from a dot matrix printer that issued dolphin call sounds, the paper perfumed with the fusty potpourri of all the basements I’ve lived.
2. How difficult it was, the physical act of producing printed pages then! How did we manage without computer labs or scanners or spellcheck!
3. The class was called “Writing the Personal Essay.” I don’t think I knew what a personal essay was, not really. There were no parameters or guidelines that I can recall, no page counts or word limits. We were, I remember, reading examples of short, occasional pieces from people like Max Apple and Nora Ephron.
4. What I handed in was called “Some Words on My Hatred of Cheese.” I look at these pages and I can say I’m proud of it, in a way one is proud after doing a song justice on a karaoke night. I can’t say that for much of the writing I did from when I was 22; most of it would charitably be called apprentice work. But this one essay is different. Here’s how it starts:
Before I get started, I just want to say that I do like yogurt. I especially like it with cherries, strawberries, or blueberries. That’s because, I’m told, yogurt isn’t actually what it appears to be: the bacteria changes the chemical make-up of the milk product, making it a completely different substance. Different, say, than cheese.
5. I can see now that this is an attempt at what is called an apology, or apologia. I picked it up in the Greek plays I was forced to read in a big auditorium class called Intellectual Heritage, nicknamed “Intel Hell.” I didn’t know it’s something one might traditionally do in an essay, but I did it anyway. Here’s the “thesis paragraph”:
I hate cheese. I hate how it smells, how it tastes. I hate how it goes down my digestive tract. It more than doesn’t agree with me—I disagree with cheese. It alienates me at the dinner table. Cheese is my kryptonite, my garlic clove; melted cheese is the goop that ruins my meals, smelling up the room, the dreaded killer ingredient that demarcates me from all that is cheese-loving.
6. The essay was an assignment for a graduate class I took the summer after I graduated college. I treated myself to two graduate classes at the Rutgers campus in Camden, NJ as a non-matriculated student in Fall 1991. I had won a product liability settlement from a lawnmower manufacturer, after one its models drove off by itself and sliced off my Achilles tendon. It was the summer after my freshman year of college. Five years later, I cleared $40,000. Not a lot of money, as these things go, but it did give me some time to think and not work.
6a. I nicknamed the check my “ticket to the middle class.”
7. Paying for these classes was my way of forcing the question of whether I was cut out to be a writer. I knew I was going to keep writing anyway, whether I didn’t know if I sucked or not. To do so, I had to ignore the white noise of discouragement from my teachers, the same ones I had in my undergraduate classes, the same people I sought to be my mentors and failed miserably.
8. Mentor, according to dictionary.com, is a “wise and trusted counselor or teacher” and “an influential senior sponsor or supporter.” In those days, I wanted someone to support me or at least counsel me. Wisdom and trust were optional. What I learned in the first round of mentor-seeking was a willful naiveté, to not listen to teachers who refused to be mentors was perhaps the most important asset. If a writer actually listens to what others say, he or she is liable to quitting altogether.
9. Writers crave approval. No surprise there. Younger writers more so than adults. When I remember coming up with things to write for these classes, what I remember is a desire to impress my teachers. My ultimate dream that I would be taken aside and told that I was potentially a great writer, if not one already, and that he or she wanted to be my mentor. I wanted to rest under someone’s wing. I wanted someone to promote me and validate me not only as a writer, but as a human being.
10. This is less about cheese and talent, I guess and more about imitation. It’s more about how writing, or learning to write, is really about manners or pedigree as well as learning to write a sentence.
11. I read my cheese essay now and am frankly amazed how I could mimic the style of 40-year-old middle class essayists, how grumpy and old-sounding I sound.
12. There are a lot twentysomethings who say they write essays, but what they really are writing are little memoir pieces. Which is fine. To write an essay, however, is to have accumulated both a frame of reference and not a small amount of world-weariness. To accomplish both takes time and age. One earns the right to be an essayist; the essay is a bar stool monologue that reserves the right to go nowhere in its point and comes from a singular voice.
(13. This is partly why the current vogue for impersonality in essays enrages me so: the essay is the last bastion of solipsism in a world of above-it-all discourses. To retrofit the essay and its traditions into the same audience-less wormholes as the aesthetic novel or lexico-technic twee poem makes me think nothing’s really changed or will change.)
14. Anyway, back then, the attempts at hijacking the essay form into some out-of-body aesthetic experience were yet to happen. It was 1991; the Best American Essays series had started five years previous. To write an essay, to me, was to write an editorial, an opinion piece, or some researched five-pager for a literature class. I was a poet; I wasn’t particularly jazzed about writing essays. As I look at the cheese-hatred essay now, I see that I am imitating the turns and dips of the what is classic wandering essay.
15. My papers in college were enthusiastic outbursts, and only if I was interested in the literature at hand, which wasn’t often. I wanted to be given free rein over everything I wrote, to write in my own voice and talk about anything I wanted to. A lot of writers buckle under the wealth of possibilities, and as it turned out, I was one of them. Call it attention deficit syndrome or being fickle, but I needed form. To that 22-year-old poet, to write meant talking about the Big Issues of the day. This is precisely what 22-year-olds should not write about, since most 22-year-olds do not know shit. I was no exception. Instead, writing should start small, with infinitesimal topics. Montaigne teaches us this when he writes about books, friends, meals. These are the things that essay should start from; when I wrote about cheese it was the first time I wrote from something small to try to talk about something big.
16. I arrived at all this without any help from teachers. I cannot overstate the lack of mentorship I received as an undergraduate student. Phillip Lopate once wrote about his fear and hatred of mentorship; how it was a pain, a terror even, to have students want to learn how to write from him. I read that piece at the precise moment I wanted to have a mentor.
17. Instead, I got whatever the opposite of mentorship is. On the way from the student center to our classroom one afternoon, my teacher said to me that my prose “hangs like wet laundry on the line.” Now, I wouldn’t dispute that my writing was not good and that, if I knew what she meant by wet laundry-line hanging-prose, I would not disagree with her. But as I look at my cheese-hating essay, I see promise in my younger self. I see an enthusiasm I read now in some of my best, even some of my average students. I wanted to learn; I wanted to imitate; I wanted to try on different personas.
18. When I replay the remark scene with my teacher, I am surprised how I wasn’t crushed, right then and there, and stopped writing. I remember being hurt a little and laughing it off. Maybe the teacher was trying to toughen me up. Maybe we were all buzzed on wine from after the reading. There were other people there. Maybe she was kidding. Either way, I want to go back in time and defend myself or at least offer a comeback. I didn’t even have the wit of the staircase; I knew I was unsophisticated. I knew I was not well read. I just knew that I wanted to be a writer. Back to the essay.
At restaurants, from the golden arches to Greenwich Village, from South Philly to South Street, from Greek to Italian to Mexican, from Vegetarian to down home, I’ve had to request my dishes, from appetizers to dessert, sans cheese. The waiters seem to acknowledge my predicament, even if they—and I really hate this—get the order wrong, but those I am eating with always have to bring it up. Not only that, but just as people add new twists or just plain invent untruths just to bring something up, those I sup with always have to raise the Big Cheese Question. “Why don’t you like cheese” is followed by particularized Q & A—“You really don’t eat cheese steaks” or “What about pizza? You don’t like pizza?”
19. In this paragraph, I am trying to establish some world-weariness as well as worldliness. The Philadelphia-centric ness of “South Philly to South Street” embarrasses me, as does “sans cheese”; it occurs to me I should have either written “without cheese” or went all in with sans fromage. But I didn’t know French, although Ms. Godin in third grade taught us the Our Father and the sign of the cross in French, well before we found out she was a lesbian and would live in Paris with her female lover. I knew sans, that was it. I did initial-cap the Important Idea, which was then a new stylized tick. I must have picked it up in rock magazines like Record or Creem or Spin. I don’t know why I wrote “particularized.” That’s just awful. But the em-dash-set off phrase—“and I really hate this”—could find a home in any magazine article or blog post. It’s arch and grumpy and indicates this has happened many times before. A few lines down:
I do hate mayonnaise, white milky sauces and creamy dips. They’re all akin to cheese, however, in their ambience, there [sic] reason for existence; that is, to lull and creamify the palate, oozing down awful bacteria enzymes and rotten milk, passing it off with the fancy rubric of curds and whey; or, the most painful, smelly, gooey, cataclysmic version of cheesedom, fondue.
19. Hooray for me is what I think when I read this. Hooray for “cataclysmic version of cheesedom.” Hooray for “fancy rubric,” whatever I meant there. I could look at it that way, or think about the millionth monkey who wrote a boilerplate personal essay. When I read “reason for existence,” I think that maybe I did in fact know some French phrases, and maybe I am using the English transliteration of raison d’être to an ironic end, which would have been kinda masterful for me at the time. I doubt it. I don’t know why I put “however” in the middle of the second sentence; my best guess is that I just learned that you should place this conjunctive adverb inside commas and place it mid-sentence. The same applies to the rather random use of a semicolon there after “whey.” I am sure I committing the usual undergraduate sin of using semicolons to sound smart and accomplishing the opposite.
19a. If I wrote that now, I would have placed another verb after the semicolon or just broke off into a new sentence fragment entirely to avoid drawing more attention.
20. I regarded professors as very sophisticated Martians who didn’t let on that they were real human beings, didn’t tell tales from their own lives or even their own personal connection, didn’t let on their investment in anything we were reading or writing. I’d ask them personal questions or make ridiculous comments to see if they would react differently. Maybe that’s why I sensed they kept a distance from me.
21. I remember trying really hard to make them break kayfabe, as professional wrestlers call it, to break character, to say “ouch! that metal chair you bashed on my head really hurt.” They never did.
22. Unlike poetry, where the innocence or obliviousness of youth mixes well with raw intelligence and love of language, the essay is an older person’s game. An essay’s speaker is crotchety or witty, sometimes both; the only witty young person is a beautiful woman in the company of ugly, older men. There’s also the idea that the essay is a sophisticated way of expressing a grumpy world-weariness. The only thing I could be weary of in the world at that time was cheese.
22a. There is a way of thinking that an essay best exemplifies, that an essay offers us hope that we can find answers to problems big and small by writing about it through ourselves. One quality of experimental writing is how it makes its primary endeavor of getting rid of the self, as if we would be liberated if we get rid of ourselves of our bodies.
22b. Which, is of course complete and utter bullshit.
23. We should build even more into ourselves to solve our problems or to talk about particular aspects of our experience.
25. In the essay, I say that I hate all of cheese.
26. My roommate at the time suggested that there was a connection between my hatred of certain types of smelly cheese with my aversion to committed relationships. From the original:
The sexual theory [of why I hate cheese] started when I admitted to my old roommate that I had not yet had a satisfactory experience giving a woman oral sex. In another brilliant equation by people appalled that I would not each cheese, I now had to deal with a feminist theory that held I was selfish agent of male patriarchy for not liking cheese because I did not want to gratify women by eating them.
27. I remember debating whether or not to include this in my personal essay, when this is obviously the best part of the essay, at least to me know. It’s the most audacious and ridiculous.
28. It’s also the only paragraph that was crossed out by my teacher. “A little too much personal revelation,” my teacher wrote in the margins.
29. In another part, I quoted a co-worker at the Rutgers library, a fellow work study book-shelver. It ends the essay:
Perhaps the best theory occurred [sic] in fiction. A Russian friend told me of a novella he read by sci-fi author Alexander Belyaev from the ‘20s, “Food for Everyone.” It’s about a futuristic cheese that expands, creative more food, that is, cheese for everyone. For a while, the cheese seems like manna from heaven. But growing out of all the post of housewives in the Ukraine, it – that is, the cheese – eventually turns sinister and threatens to eat all of Russia and beyond. In other words, it was my ultimate nightmare: The Cheese That Ate The World.
I didn’t ask him is it was melted Parmesan.
30. If I were to have 22-year-old me in my graduate essay writing class I would give me a “B.” I would encourage this writer, for what else can you do but encourage a writer to write?
31. I would also tell him to try manchego with quince paste or maybe stilton after having some ballsy Oregon red.
 I know I said “no scrapbooking” in my original rules, but it’s essential to the piece that I quote from my own writing.