The Personal in "Personal Essay"

Sometimes it’s like O, CNF Nation, will I ever get on board?

I’m on board with the exercise memoirist Jill Talbot sketches out —forcing students to write a segmented autobiographical essay so as to then force them to fill in the spaces between segments they felt initially impelled to overlook. But either my stomach rolls or my eyes do at this:

While they wait, we read personal essays—artful renderings of vulnerability and honesty that create an intimate connection between a writer and the reader—essays that give us permission to be who we are…

Maybe artful renderings of vulnerability and honesty aren’t the last things I look for when reading a personal essay, but they rank somewhere after semicolons and defenses of Taylor Swift’s career. In CNF Nation, personal means emotionally raw and psychically vulnerable. We’ve got Lopate (quoted in Talbot’s thing) to thank:

The spectacle of baring the naked soul is meant to awaken the sympathy of the reader, who is asked to forgive the essayist’s self-absorption in return for the warmth of his or her candor. Some vulnerability is essential to the personal essay. Unproblematically self-assured, self-contained, self-satisfied types, will not make good essayists.

That’s from The Art of the Personal Essay, and no one else’s introduced so exhaustive an anthology. What I hear: “Because it is honest and because it is personal, I will expect your sympathy while I write in a self-absorbed fashion.” It does way more to win me over.

In what environments are our students not being given permission to be who they are? Who is unable these days to find the time and space for writing about the self? There’s a urgent world out there of other more interesting people. Once, yes, we were connected to others via our navel, but we’re grown-ups now. How else?

One thought on “The Personal in "Personal Essay"”

  1. I love your pushing back on this issue. The Talbot view on personal revelation in essays reminds me of the debate I’ve been having lately about nudity in movies. There’s a way-past-antiquated notion still lingering in the film world that nudity in mainstream movies is somehow brave or groundbreaking or shocking. That was true decades ago, but the opposite is true now. Some filmmakers and critics just haven’t caught up.

    The idea that a nonfiction writer somehow needs to be excused or protected for writing about herself, that putting one’s vulnerabilities on display is a brave choice, is equally way past antiquated. Intensely personal revelation is rampant throughout both fiction and nonfiction and has become immensely popular among readers. Writers focused on their own personal vulnerabilities are much more likely to be given a pass for bad writing than writers who write about something other than themselves. Talbot et al. need to catch up.

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