I talked on the Longform Podcast last month about how personal writing is like a cow with a hole in it, so I thought I’d write that up for posterity. So: personal writing is like a cow with a hole in it. Here is what that means.
The university where I went for my master’s (not in writing, by the way, which is probably why I had to get my craft tips from the ag school) did not have a lot of notable features, but it did have a cow with a hole. The cow was a point of interest with the flavor of both local trivia and urban legend; the way people at other colleges might talk about resident ghosts, we told visitors about the cow. It lived on a farm on campus, between the physics building and the School of Public Health. The hole—also called a fistula or cannula—was a neat, bloodless deal, plugged with a rubber-rimmed port. In many ways, the cow was absolutely cerebral: a scientific object, like one of those see-through plastic anatomy kits. In others, it was literally visceral. With permission from the researchers in the animal sciences department (though not, notably, from the cow), you could reach right into her guts.
(I don’t know the cow’s name, by the way. I also didn’t go to graduate school for journalism, where they teach you to always find out the name of the dog. A later cannulated cow was named Chai; this school had a series of cannulated cows.)
The point of this is to help understand cow digestion. The cannula offers access to the rumen, one of a cow’s four stomach compartments. You may be familiar with the quip “outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend, inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” Inside of a cow, it’s too dark to do science. If you want to know what’s going on in there, you have to guess. Cannulation is a relatively humane (which is to say, it’s come under plenty of fire but it’s better than vivisection) way of opening a literal window into an animal’s inner workings.
Anyway, I taught freshman writing around the corner from the cow (and across the street from the cow, and on the other side of campus from the cow—they basically stuck freshman writing in whatever classrooms were available), but at the time I didn’t think that these two concepts, writing and cows with holes in them, were especially connected. I only thought of it many years later, when a friend was working on her memoir and felt that her editor was pushing her to disclose more about her childhood than she wanted to disclose. “If I told someone to be more vulnerable in an essay or book, what I would mean is that not everything the reader needs is making it onto the page,” I wrote to her. “You want people to understand and relate to your story, not just intellectually but viscerally—but there are certain tools and information you have to give them to do that. Sort of like the peep-hole researchers put in the side of a cow, you know? Sorry, is that a normal metaphor?”
It is not a normal metaphor, but let’s press on:
The cow is fine and in no danger at all, but you can reach into its guts to understand it. Putting a cannula in a cow is not really making the cow vulnerable; it’s surgery-level safe, unlike all usual ways of putting a hole in a cow, and it only reveals what it needs to reveal. But it makes the cow penetrable, so that some things that might otherwise be mysteries can be investigated directly. By the same token, cannulated-cow writing involves opening yourself up in a way that doesn’t hurt you, so people can understand what you want them to understand. If someone is saying “there’s not enough vulnerability and revelation here,” what they mean is “why am I just looking at the solid, opaque side of a cow.” They do not (necessarily) mean “take a big cleaver and hack that heifer open.”
You do not, of course, need to put a hole in your cow. It is absolutely acceptable to leave your cow un-holed. But then what you have is not a research cow; it’s a cow for private use. You can perhaps ask people to admire it, but they will not benefit. They will have learned nothing except that you have a cow.
By the same token, there’s also a limited amount you can learn about cow digestion from (sorry, gruesome image follows) just cutting a cow open and letting its guts fall out. Even if you then proceed to look at those guts with a microscope! The structure is gone; they stand in no relationship to each other, or to the cow as a whole. Vulnerability in writing is a precision tool. The process of spilling your guts isn’t vulnerability—it’s purgation. (Still useful, from an emotional perspective! But not necessarily in the service of art.)
Then again, maybe what we need is a better word than “vulnerability” to describe the specific kind of peephole we open up in personal writing. “Vulnerable,” etymologically, means open to wounding, and a cannua is not a wound. What we ought to say, maybe, is something like permeable, porous, pervious. Not exposed to attack, but exposed to study. This is the best kind of personal writing: not flayed open, but fitted with a window in the guts.