Over the next few months, the glorious Liana Silva (@lianamsilva) and I are writing to each other about personal essays. We’ll pivot from her site to mine. It is a conversation in letter form. We hope you’ll read along with us. Here’s my response to her inaugural post.
I first read your post as I was making dinner, after I had picked up the Legos strewn across the floor for the third time, after I found an Olivia book tucked in a pile of research in my office, and after I tripped over a cat and then a toddler. Both kids were home from preschool and school, and I’d already warned them both about squabbling over toys and assigned 3.5 time outs. This day, like many others, is one, in which writing feels like it is only occasionally in my grasp. I’m a mother who writes, a writer who mothers.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how in the world I ended up as a writer. This appears a strange twist of fate. As my beloved Chris enjoys pointing out, I am an intensely private introvert and yet I write for audiences of strangers (and friends) about topics so personal to me: grief, motherhood, quitting, and my body.
The question is not how did I come to write essays. I think and dream in essays, but rather how did I ever come to write personal essays? I’m the person who actively avoids conversations on the topics that I write about. I smile and nod and look for an exit. I offer up a shallow example of my own or speak in monosyllables. I try to redirect attention back to the speaker away from me. I don’t talk openly. I don’t share.
How in the hell did I come to write personal essays at all? I lay bare my experiences of the world. I dwell in my heartbreaks. I try to find joy. I write openly. Or do I?
The “personal” in personal essay is not as straightforward as it seems. The personal essay, as you note, is not a diary entry. It is not a this-happened-today-to-me-can-you-believe-it essay. (These essays exist and are quite prevalent, but I’m not sure they should count as key examples of the form.)
Cheryl Strayed reminds us: “Art isn’t anecdote.” You urge us, “[T]here has to be a narrative, a reason.”
Like you, I have a trusty journal with a catalog of feelings and events. These jottings sometimes become essays, but not always. They are fragments of everyday life bound together by my pen. They are not essays by themselves. Writing in my journal is a way to process the world. Writing has always helped me analyze and interrogate. I write things down to understand them. I write essays to live.
Essays have craft and form and style and tone. The subject matter might originate in my life, but the essay makes sense of what has happened in a coherent way after writing, revisions, edits, deletions, rewriting, and more editing. The essay is constructed to capture the moment. It is only finished after I have a sense of an event and why this event could become something more.
I found the personal essay by accident. I was an academic who wrote as a byproduct of research and analysis (though I loved writing up my arguments and findings more than I tended to admit). When I decided to take a break from academia, I began to write as a method to orient myself in a new life and to mourn the loss of dreams that were never meant to come true. My early essays are raw and visceral. My hurt seems to vibrate on the page demanding to be seen and recognized. Yet, these essays are not my hurt and anger: they perform those feelings. They are not my feelings, but resonances of what I felt.
Recently, Chris and I were talking about writing as we are apt to do. He confessed that he didn’t like reading my essays when I first started writing. More curious than bothered, I asked why. The essays, he explained, seemed unlike me. They felt artificial. This writing voice felt distinct from the voice of his long-time partner and mother of our children. The essays were not me. It took him a few years to admit his disquiet because he didn’t want to hurt my feelings.
I smiled at him as I explained that those essays aren’t me. They are performance and narrative based in my life, but also crafted to be readable and clear. There’s a small kernel of who I am, who he knows me to be, in every essay, but there’s also the way in which I tell a particular story.
You can’t know me, all of me, through an essay. You just get a polished glimpse.
I “do bleed out so we can see.” The wounds I illuminate no longer bleed, but seep. I’ve processed them. I’ve (mostly) moved on. The wounds that still bleed, sting, or fester remain with me until I can write about them with clarity and distance.
The self on the page is often a distant echo. She’s what I let you all see. Don’t mistake her for me, and I won’t mistake your essays for you.
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