In defence of the personal essay
When I started writing personal essays on the internet, I was half embarrassed, half proud. Even though I grew up in a generation that’s supposedly all about oversharing and facebooking and nonstop blabby social connectedness, I’d still learned that privacy is a virtue, modesty is preferable, and you shouldn’t air your dirty laundry. But I also wanted to talk about things that felt relevant but had been kept quiet. And I wanted to share those things with other women, because I had a sneaking suspicion that I might be facing some of the same challenges that girls and women all over the world deal with, even if those challenges at times felt intensely, well, personal. Even if they felt too small and mundane for the news. I came into personal essay writing open-minded, scared, and determined.
And then I read the comments.
But it wasn’t just the comments. Someone (who kept him or herself anonymous) tried to get me fired from my synagogue job after reading an essay I’d written about a complicated romantic situation. The message was clear: no one who works at a religious institution should write about her love life. I was a whore, wrote commenters. I was never going to be happy. Never going to find love. I was going to ruin every man who came near me. Personal attacks were the result of personal writing. Afraid and humiliated, I apologized to the synagogue president and cried all night.
That was years ago. Since then, I’ve watched critics and commenters alike chastise personal essayists for their vulnerability, their supposed self-centeredness, their apparent fame-mongering. Even as the personal essay as an art form becomes more popular, its detractors are ready with scathing criticisms that suggest it is worthless, superficial, and, god forbid, easy. And it’s interesting that most of the criticism is lobbed at women. Often young women. Because more often than not, it is young women who write personal essays.
I would like to point out that this is the first time in history that women, especially young women, have had the ability to comment with relative freedom about our lives. We are finally able to publicly, honestly, share our experiences and opinions—and the world is paying attention. It’s a huge victory, but it also comes at a price. There is a dark side to personal essay writing, and there is a superficial side.
That dark side is, unsurprisingly, exploitative. Publishers constantly buy essays about young women’s sex lives, encouraging them to reveal more and more, and more graphically. A popular American women’s site is currently hosting a contest for the most raw, dramatic personal essay. The winner will be paid, the others are writing for free, even as they bare their souls and share their most painful moments. There is a glut of essays by young women about their sexual experiences. Not exactly a huge shock: people like to read titillating rehashes about young women having sex.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing (graphically or otherwise) about sex. This type of writing can be incredibly useful and interesting. What’s problematic is how sometimes, especially without credentials, it can feel like the only way to get your foot in the door to a writing career is to show some (detailed descriptions of) skin.
Despite some critics’ insistence that you can always publish something else instead, sexually revealing essays are the ones that tend to get a positive response from editors. And we can get moralistic and rant about patience and diligence and blah blah blah, but let’s be real: when you’re trying to make it as a writer and no one knows your name yet, you just need to get some clips and some checks. I remember when, with an inbox full of form rejections and a sense of impending failure and desperation, I finally pitched a piece, just one piece, about something both mundane and provocative. I heard back immediately. I asked if I could use a pseudonym, but the editor edited to make it sexier and published it under my real name before checking his email. And yes, that’s when the anonymous person attempted to get me fired.
And just as there is an exploitative side of personal essay writing, of course there’s a superficial side. The way there is a superficial side of journalism that involves endless fluff pieces about celebrities and makeup, lists of things that people can read on the toilet or in the five seconds their shriveled, tiny attention span will allow. There are many, many ways to write about things other than yourself in a completely meaningless, empty way. And there are also ways to write about yourself without getting into anything deeper than “Oh my god, my hair is SO BAD TODAY.” Yes. There are plenty of personal essays like that. But they are not reason enough to dismiss the entire genre, just as Glamour magazine does not negate long-form investigative journalism.
And the more I think about it, the more passionately I want to defend personal essay writing as a genre. And the more oblivious I find the half-baked criticisms that begin with “You’re full of yourself!”
We are all full of ourselves. Let’s just set this aside for a moment. Let’s talk about what personal essays so often, and at least always have the potential to do well:
They give us insight into the parts of life that don’t coincide with the news or fit into a major publisher’s agenda. They allow people to tell their own stories, instead of waiting for someone else to show up and record and edit them. In doing so, they give the writer control. They place inherent value in the human experience, in every shape it takes. They emphasize small, meaningful moments. They connect us with other people by exposing the similarities that exist even in our very different lives. Because of this, they create community, because honesty surrounding particular experiences draws other people who also want to be honest about the same issues. They give people who have been silenced a platform to speak. They celebrate non-famous individuals, investigate mundane but serious problems, and reveal meaning in everyday life. They allow us to learn from the mistakes of people we’ve never met. They tell us the truth about experiences we’re curious about but can’t ask about in polite conversation. They make it clear that there are many, many truths, and help keep our perspectives diverse and more tolerant as a result. They encourage openness and vulnerability in a world that can feel impersonal, cold, and disinterested. They acknowledge that people’s experiences, as well as reported facts, are innately interesting and relevant. They reassure us that we’re normal just when we were worried that we were weird and unacceptable; there’s someone else out there going through something similar. And so much more.
Personal essays provide us with historically relevant and valuable accounts of what people’s lives are actually like. They are an amazing opportunity to learn about other people and ourselves, and in doing so, to delve deeper into the human condition.
When I read about a duty officer at a Russian nuclear command center who saved the world from nuclear destruction and never received much credit, I immediately thought, “I wish he’d written a personal essay about this!” There is something uniquely inspiring about reading someone’s story in their own words. I’ve been moved and educated by personal essays I’ve read, and I’ve felt relieved that I have access to so many of them.
A woman I’d just met and was having a casual conversation with about reading said, “I love the idea of a blog. I love reading stuff that doesn’t feel like it has an agenda, that isn’t backed by a corporation. It’s just cool that someone is willing to share their life with others like this. It’s generous.”
Most of my female friends follow bloggers and essayists whose voices and stories they enjoy and like learning from. When I nervously, finally wrote about the crushing sense of my own unattractiveness that motivated me after years of struggling to get cosmetic surgery, emails from girls and women all around the world poured into my inbox, sharing their own stories, commiserating, encouraging me, thanking me for sharing. Something beyond writing and publishing had happened: I felt as though new lines of communication had opened up.
I felt then, and I still feel lucky that I live in a time when I can write about my life—my struggles, hopes, the process of my efforts—and share it with other women. No one has to read it, certainly. For some people, it might seem boring or annoyingly self-involved, and that’s completely fine. But for me, and for many others, personal essay writing is a wide-open new frontier, where it’s OK to be vulnerable, and where we can find strength in our honesty. Let’s keep it going!