Up Close and Personal: A Personality Expose of the Personal Essay

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What is a Personal Essay?

You probably have a pretty good idea of what an essay is, but if you want to get all technical about it, the word essay has a couple of meanings:

  1. to essay (verb): to attempt, to try, to put to a test, to make an experimental attempt at something
  2. essay (noun): an attempt, a trial, an effort, a test, or the result of a trial/attempt/effort
  3. essay (noun): an analytic or interpretative literary composition usually dealing with its subject from a limited or personal point of view, a non-written composition (e.g. photo essay.)

*Note: I adapted these definitions from Merriam-Webster.com.

According to M-W, it was Michel de Montaigne (a minor French nobleman who lived from 1533 to 1592) who assigned the term “essai” to highlight the fact that he considered his writings to be attempts at expressing his ideas. Lopate calls Montaigne the “the great innovator and patron saint of personal essayists,” not because he was the first to attempt ( or should I say essay) to write short form, nonfiction compositions that are informal and introspective, but because he mastered the style.

The Personal Essay is more succinct than the memoir... and goes much deeper. The style allows exposure of the inner conflicts that make us... capable of recording the myriad mental deficiencies that guide us in our daily adventures.

Montaigne’s works were mostly informal, which is interesting because when we think of the word “essay”, I’m betting many of us are reminded of our school days during which we learned to write structured, formal essays that tested a thesis through a series of analytical paragraphs. (I wrote so many essays in preparation for the AP English exam, I can recite the format in my head: 5 to 7 paragraphs: intro (with thesis), body, body, body, conclusion…DONE!) If you are like me, you learned to write essays in a formalized, and formularized, way.

The personal essay takes the essence of that formularized essay of your grade school days, but it discards the boring structure and insistence on coming to an airtight conclusion at the end of a series of statements. It’s much more flexible than that, and much more personal. In this article I will discuss the ways that a Personal Essay differs from a traditional essay. Please note that much of what I discuss in this article comes from the introduction written by Phillip Lopate in the book, The Art of the Personal Essay, which compiles some of the best essays ever written. Lopate is a “big name” in the world of creative nonfiction writing, and he does a thorough job explaining a genre that is hard to define. So if you want to learn more, I highly recommend this title.

Get to Know the Personal Essay

The Personal Essay has an intriguing set of characteristics. Below are just a few of the traits that makes the Personal Essay so unique. The Personal Essay is:

Chatty

Like a crazy person on the street, the Personal Essay loves to talk to itself. This conversational tone sets up intimacy with the reader. It does this by posing questions and then trying to answer them on the page. Montaigne, Seneca and others would posit the reader’s response with some sort of “well you might say x, but have you considered y?” This chatty give and take is different from the lecturing tone of the formal essay, which prefers that the reader sit still and just listen. The Personal Essay, on the other hand, asks questions and invites the reader to play along.

For example, in “An Apology for Idlers,” Robert Louis Stevenson discusses the virtues of lessons learned outside of the classroom. In the beginning of the essay, he makes the point that while important, reading and books should not provide the whole of a person’s education. He states that books are “a mighty bloodless substitute for life.” Before he goes on to explain why he feels this way, he assumes that his reader is complicit in this opinion.

 If you look back on your own education, I am sure it will not be the full, vivid, instructive hours of truantry that you regret; you would rather cancel some lack-lustre periods between sleep and waking in the class.

Of course the assumption is really Stevenson talking about himself, but instead of saying “I don’t regret the hours I spent truant from the classroom”, he includes the reader by using a conversational style and bringing the reader in as a friend and fellow idler.

Self-Centered

Let’s face it, the Personal Essay is all about “me, me, me.” I mean, it’s all “I did this and I think that…”—you’d think it’d have no friends at all with that attitude! Not so. Unlike the formal essay, which eschews the use of “I” as subject/speaker in order to affect a more universal air, a sort of “this is the way it is, don’t question it” tone, the personal essay has no problem taking the credit, or the flak, for its ideas. According the Lopate, this method works because the Personal Essay functions on the “supposition that there is a certain unity to human experience.”

Consider this example from the essay “The Crack-Up” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. In it, Fitzgerald describes his “crack-up,” or what could tritely be called a “mid-life crisis.”

I realized that in those two years, in order to preserve something—an inner hush maybe, maybe not—I had weaned myself from all the things I used to love—that every act of life from the morning tooth brush to the friend at dinner had become an effort. I saw that for a long time I had not liked people and things, but only followed the rickety old pretense of liking.

Using the “I” as subject actually opens the passage up for the reader to relate to Fitzgerald and to take part in his experience. This may seem counterintuitive, but saying “this is what happened to me” is a friendlier way to voice an opinion than saying “this is what happens.” The “I” is actually a way of saying “we.” It’s an invitation to the reader to share in what the speaker is feeling.  It is also a way of trying to make the reader feel a little less lonely in his or her own experience.

Honest

The Personal Essay is all about TMI (too much information). It tells you its deepest fears, most disgusting habits, and most loathsome opinions. It picks its nose in public, tells you about its bowel movements, and walks around without pants on—even when your friends are over. In fact, the whole point of the Personal Essay is to embarrass itself. Lopate puts it eloquently when he says that, “the ‘plot’ of a personal essay…consists in watching how far the essayist can drop past his or her psychic defenses toward deeper levels of honesty.”

In order to accomplish this, the Personal Essay must be willing to question itself, to dissect and analyze even its most tightly held convictions in order to convince the reader of its sincerity.  In her essay “He and I”, Natalia Ginzburg writes about her husband in a series of contrasts which highlight both her feelings of inadequacy and her love for a man who is in sometimes very unlike her.

I am very untidy. But as I have got older I have come to miss tidiness, and I sometimes furiously tidy up all the cupboards. I think this is because I remember my mother’s tidiness. I rearrange the linen and blanket cupboards and in the summer I reline every drawer with strips of white cloth. I rarely rearrange my papers because my mother didn’t write and had no papers. My tidiness and untidiness are full of complicated feelings of regret and sadness. His untidiness is triumphant. He has decided that it is proper and legitimate for a studious person like himself to have an untidy desk.

Through clear language and frankness, Ginzburg endears herself to the reader by stating the truth about her attitude toward “tidiness.” The admission that she is “untidy” and the sequence of details about her occasional cleaning benders are believable, even funny.  Followed with the final analysis that both neatness and a lack of are a function of emotion, even ego, Ginzburg tries to get to the heart of why she is untidy which is different entirely from the reasons her husband is untidy.

Contradictory

The Personal Essay likes to argue for the sake of arguing. It will disagree with you just to see what you will say, just to see what is really at the root of a commonly held attitude. To quote Lopate: “There is no quicker way to demonstrate idiosyncrasy and independence than to stand a platitude on its head.” The Personal Essay is a great venue for writers to try on a new hat, to investigate a theory they have held without question in order to see what is really means. It’s a way for the writers to test themselves by examining their prejudices and the prejudices of their readers.

In his essay “On Being an American”, H.L. Mencken, a journalist in the first half of the 20th century, takes issue with an article with the heading “Is America Fit to Live In?”

Let me confess at once that his elegy filled me with great astonishment. I had labored under the impression that this Republic was wholly satisfactory to all 100% Americans—that any proposal to fumigate and improve it was as personally offensive to them as a proposal to improve the looks of their wives. Yet here was a 100% American ranting against it like a Bolshevik on a soap box. And here was I, less than ½ of 1% American by volume, standing aghast.

The essay goes on to explain the different ways that Mencken finds living in America to be pleasurable, calling America a “show” full of amusing contradictions. In America, for instance, “one always gets plenty to eat, even in the midst of war, and, despite Prohibition, quite enough to drink.” Mencken takes the naysayer to task with humor by pointing out the ways in which Americans have a leg up on other countries because of the way it at once regulates its citizens’ lives with “Puritan” laws that limit consumption of malt liquor while allowing them full freedoms to do things like attend burlesque shows and consume “100 proof Scotch.” In this way Mencken takes an attitude of complaint and dissatisfaction and turns it on its head in a way that both pokes fun at the “100% American” and shows appreciation for him as well, for where else can someone write a scathing article about their own country and get away with it?  

Distractible

The Personal Essay changes its mind at will. It also changes topics. It starts by talking about one thing, then veers in another direction, then tells you a story about its childhood (happy or not), and it endlessly explains things that probably don’t need explanation. But, being the most human of writing genres, it can get away with breaking all the rules. The format for the personal essay is flexible, and it can take almost any form the essayist feels is appropriate. It can appear as a long, wordy ramble, or a bulleted list. The rules on the personal essay are loose and easy—it’s about content not control. In the personal essay, it’s completely acceptable to tell and not show. It’s ok to digress often and without restraint. You can talk at length about something completely unrelated to your supposed theme.

In his essay “I Bought a Bed”, Donald Antrim describes the process of trying to choose a new bed in the months after his mother passed away after a long, slow death by cancer complicated by mental illness. To start off the essay, he explains the circumstances of his mother’s death, but then he tells the reader that he will frame the sordid details of the relationship he had with his mother by telling a different story--his quest to purchase the perfect mattress:

With this in mind-the story of my mother and me, my mother in me-I will try to tell another story, the story of my attempt, during the weeks and months following her death, to buy a bed.

I should say to keep a bed. I bought several. The first was a big fat Stearns & Foster queen from Bloomingdale's at Fifty-ninth Street and Lexington Avenue. My then girlfriend, R., came along to the store, and together we lay down and compared. Shifman? Sealy? Stearns & Foster? Soft? Firm? Pillow top? I watched R. crawl across a mattress; she bounced up and down with her ass in the air, and I found myself thinking, delusionally, about myself in relation to my mother, who had died the week before, At last, I'm free of that woman! Now I'm going to buy a great bed and do some fucking and live my life.

The rest of the essay jumps back and forth between the writer’s feelings about his mother’s death and the many, many mattresses he bought and returned, tested and researched. By the end of the essay, the reader is as educated about the process of buying a mattress as the writer became. But of course, the essay is not about the bed, but what a perfect bed meant to the writer, and how, in the end, he could not buy his way out of his grief.

Get to Know Your Self

The Personal Essay is more succinct than the memoir, and in my opinion, the personal essay goes much deeper. The style allows for exposure of the inner conflicts that make us, the upright species, capable of recording the myriad mental deficiencies (and sometimes efficiencies) that guide us in our daily adventures. Without the controls of plot and form, the personal essay has the freedom to shed light on the darkest corners of the human psyche. At some point, all writers should attempt this form. It is at once a challenge of your talent but also a bearing of soul that is much more difficult to get right than novels or scripts or poems. I would challenge any writer to try it at least once.

In the comments: have you ever written a personal essay? What prompted it? What was the experience like? Please share.

Image via proficientwriters.com

Taylor Houston

Column by Taylor Houston

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer and volunteers on the marketing committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education. She has a BA in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College and attended Penn State's MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. She has taught writing at all levels from middle school to college to adult, and she is the creator of Writer’s Cramp, a class for adults who just want to write!

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Comments

Anabelle Bernard Fournier's picture
Anabelle Bernar... from Montréal is reading Robopocalypse October 23, 2012 - 8:24am

How interesting. I love to write about myself to understand my state of mind, so maybe I should start writing those...

CCM-LA's picture
CCM-LA from Los Angeles is reading The Lawgiver, Herman Wouk October 23, 2012 - 12:23pm

Chatty, self-centered, honest, contradictory, and distractible--my kind of writing! Love this piece--great info. // My first personal essay was in college for a class entitled "Personal Essay." The assignment was to select a smiling family photograph and then use the space of the essay to explain the dichotomy between what you see and what you don't. At that point I honestly didn't have enough age-wisdom to really call it the way it was. At 17, I was still well-trained to say nothing negative. Several years later in another class at 27, however, I was ready. A assignment for a class entitled, "The Psychology of Emotion" asked me to select an object or environmental feature from childhood and to explain its symbolic emotional effect. I chose the rain; my favorite weather at four years old for all of the intense lightning and frightening thunder and cool water deluge and sea mist that I loved. The world could be falling to sh*t around me, the present scary, and the future uncertain, but when the rain came I became a superhero who could ride the lightning and throw my bulwark chest against the strong, icy gusts of wind, holding it back and taking the best of it. Upon the first hint of a storm, I would don my uniform, a royal blue bathing suit emblazoned with a stitched-in kelly green frog whose face wore a knowing smile, and run outside, barefoot. I think that frog was my secret power animal. Rolling thunder echoed the sounds of my inner roar, and my mighty little feet splashed in mud puddles, sending wet, chocolate milk dirt happily all over me. When the rain really poured down and the smell of the pavement rose up into the air, I looked above into expansive gray sky and threw my little hands into the air. I knew I was alive, I knew that God was really there, and I knew that there were a million better places to be than the house I ran out of, starting with the space between the raindrops that told me I was OK.//<--God, that felt good to write., and funny: now at 37, that essay topic seem to get even better! I'm definitely going to check out Phillip Lopate's book and see what I can do with it. Super fun. Thanks!

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading absolutely nothing October 23, 2012 - 12:39pm

Great piece! Yes, I've written personal essays; nothing beats writing about myself, that's what I always say. The most unexpected thing about my own self-revelations was that I necessarily couldn't tell the full truth. I tried, but in every instance there was something that was just too damn personal to reveal. I never lied. But I didn't spill everything - not by any means.

--Ed