All about Personal Essays

A recent New Yorker article announced that “The Personal Essay Boom Is Over.” Magazines aren’t publishing as many personal essays as they used to. Jia Tolentino – author of the piece – offered several reasons why. Many of the essays published during the boom were too personal. Sometimes the accounts were horrifically painful. And some topics were too big for the scope of a personal essay – a problem that Tolentino thinks became particularly troublesome during the last Presidential election.

I read Tolentino’s article with alarm – until I got to the end. I think personal essays are wonderful, and I wish more writers would experiment with them. They’re especially popular with the writing group I facilitate. In fact they’re some of the finest pieces I’ve read over the years that we’ve been meeting and critiquing one another’s work.

So I was relieved when Tolentino ended her article by saying that personal essays are “a valuable on-ramp” for writers – and that she enjoys “watching people try to figure out if they had something to say.” 

I read Tolentino’s article on the train to Savannah. (I had plenty of time to read and think during the eight-hour trip from Central Florida!) My brain kept circling back to a pair of personal essays I’d read in Woman’s Day long ago.  What was that all about? I finally decided that those essays hold an important clue to that “Do I have something to say?” question.

In 1971, Woman’s Day asked two readers to write about shopping for food for their families.  One woman spent lavishly, believing that mealtimes should be about pleasure. The other woman – wife of a minister – focused on economy.

It’s been a long time – but I was able to reread both of those articles online today. A Google search took me to a Seattle curriculum where they’ve been published (with lots of typos that probably crept in during the scanning process) for a course called Food: The Challenge to Manage. If you scroll down to part 13, you can read J.C. Boyd’s article about spending lavishly on wonderful meals for her family. Part 16 – by Jean Saffin – is all about thrift.

Both women wrote about shopping, cooking, and the everyday issues that come up when you’re cooking for a family. Mrs. Extravagant had picky children and a fussy husband whose definition of “vegetable” was limited to potatoes and green beans. Mrs. Thrifty had three children who’d been taught to eat what was on their plates and a husband who valued economy as much as she did.

Sounds dull.

But what shone through those essays were the personalities and lifestyles of the two women and their families. There were quirks. Despite her “money-is-no-object” philosophy, Mrs. Extravagant had to buy margarine because her husband and children didn’t like butter. Mrs. Thrifty’s kids wanted to be like their friends, so she had to buy snacks for their school lunches.

Mrs. Extravagant wrote about following in the footsteps of her mother, who once wore out a stove because she enjoyed cooking so much. Mrs. Thrifty learned authentic Chinese cooking from her mother-in-law, who had lived in China when she was a missionary. Mrs. Extravagant served liver once a year when her husband was away on business. Mrs. Thrifty never served it (“I flunked,” she confessed.)

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During that long train ride, I thought about Charlie and me and our love of trains. OK, we’re not very interesting people. Still, you could have learned a lot about us if you’d sat in a nearby seat in that train car. We boarded the train with a framed picture we’d bought in Savannah (a picture of a bluegill that Charlie spotted in an antique store.) We kept checking the time to find out when the dining car opened for lunch. Charlie helped another passenger put her suitcase on the luggage rack.

We did a lot of reading. We did a lot of talking. After lunch we both took cups of coffee back to our seats. Charlie went online several times to look for updates about the Las Vegas hockey expansion draft. Neither of us did any texting, and we didn’t make a single phone call.

Nothing exciting there! But those details about this-is-who-we-are and this-is-how-we-live are the raw materials for personal essays.

*  *  *  *  * 

Now I want to go back to Jia Tolentino’s comment about “watching people try to figure out if they had something to say.” I think Mrs. Extravagant and Mrs. Thrifty are two women who figured it out. It’s not just that they spent a lot of time thinking about feeding their families. They were also able to dig into their values, habits, and challenges; organize them; and write them up in readable personal essays. Mrs. Extravagant sometimes had the voice and style of a stand-up comedian! I’d love to know what her life was like after she published in Woman’s Day. Mrs. Thrifty’s writing is less polished, but she seemed more honest and real.

What’s important to you? Do you ever watch yourself living your life? Do you enjoy digging into your values, habits, and challenges? You might find yourself writing a personal essay that readers will remember years later.

It sounds like an experiment worth trying.

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4 thoughts on “All about Personal Essays

  1. Darrell Turner

    Some of the best contemporary personal essays I have read were written by Anne Fadiman. They can be found in two collections: Ex Libris, and At Large and At Small

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