Herman engages with uninteresting topic

Michelle Herman negotiates a tightrope in “Dream Life,” the first of two essays in her new book “Stories We Tell Ourselves” (University of Iowa Press, 150 pages, $18). Forty pages into the 96 page essay, she writes, “Here is a paradox ... that our dreams are so interesting to us — those who dream them — and yet nobody wants to hear them. And we know this; and still we can’t resist telling them.”

I had been thinking much the same thing: Ms. Herman, I’m not sure I’m that interested in your dream life or, by extension, your thoughts about the role dreaming might play in our lives. But Herman’s approach to the personal essay — and particularly her tendency to call attention to the fact that she is writing a personal essay — carried me through. Much of the book reads as though Herman is thinking aloud, a technique that might camouflage her craft, which is considerable.

In the opening passage of “Seeing Things,” the book’s second essay, she takes a moment to reflect on fiction and non-fiction as she considers a years-old memory: “If I were writing fiction, as I used to only do, I would be able to tell you. Not being able to say ... is part of why I never used to be interested in writing non-fiction. The other part — not unrelated — has to do with what I once thought of as being ‘constrained by’ what actually happened: stuck with and tied down by — weighed down by — the inartfulness of ‘real’ life.”

As we learn Herman’s thoughts — developing and subject to change on the page — about her topics, we also learn her thoughts about writing about those topics. That, like writing an engaging essay about one’s dreams, is a difficult trick, but Herman has the skill to carry it off.