The Power of the Personal Essay

In her piece for, “The Personal-Essay Boom is Over,” Jia Tolentino laments the death […]

David Peterson / 8.16.17

In her piece for, “The Personal-Essay Boom is Over,” Jia Tolentino laments the death of a genre of writing that was, for a spell, ubiquitous. “A genre that partially defined the last decade of the Internet has essentially disappeared,” she writes. The Toast, Hairpin, Gawker, and other sites showcasing the noble attempts of young writers to mine their experiences and explore what they had to say have since disbanded or stopped receiving first-person pitches. The audience has shrunk for these essays, and Tolentino is sad to see them go.

The online personal essay has its faults. The form’s popularity contributed to the growth of what Elif Batuman called the “wound culture,” in which writers capitalized on painful pasts in ways that were cleansing at first but sometimes proved alienating in the long run. Unknowns wrote deeply confessional pieces for little compensation and were hung “out to dry on the most-emailed list,” as Emily Gould puts it to Tolentino. Discussion of feelings reigned, and, Tolentino notes, when they started disconnecting from the facts on the ground, the genre’s relevance came into question. She cites November 2016 as the real reckoning point for personal essays. In the age of Donald Trump, she continues, “Writers seem less interested in mustering their own centrality than they were, and readers seem less excited at the prospect of being irritated by individual civilian personalities.”

One of the effects of this season for me has been the ever-present hunch that I inhabit one big echo chamber. And, of course in many respects I do. I consistently seek out only familiar faces at a social event, news outlets with the tone I like, restaurants where I know how to order. Sometimes reading can draw me out of this privileged space, but lots of times it simply reinforces preconceived notions, like-minded people assuring me I’m right to shun and discount others.

Even if the genre doesn’t always encourage a perfect dialogue, personal essays can still do a lot of good. As a site that often traffics in the personal, we certainly believe this here. Taking special care to particularize experience and reveal one’s heart, which is the invaluable work of the personal essay (and, one might argue, of Christ’s ministry), has a vital role to play today. Durga Chew-Bose, a product of the online space that Tolentino documents, takes cues from sources well beyond the Internet in her essay collection, Too Much and Not the Mood. Many of the pieces in her book appeared first online, which is a great testament to the abiding strength of the genre. Chew-Bose’s writing proves that tending to the self is never a secondary concern.

Tony Tulathimutte put the urge to pen a personal essay humorously in Private Citizens. “‘You never wanted a kid,’ Henrik said. ‘You said that to raise a kid was to get PTSD after catering to some helpless idiot for eighteen years in the hope that he wouldn’t eventually blame you for his miserable life on some blog.’” Tulathimutte’s characters are of course touching on the real trend among young people to air grievances online, and I have to admit some identification with his “helpless idiot.” Yet, writing about one’s experiences is an excellent way to gain perspective on them. To rehash the terms of an unpleasant encounter or sidestep the critiques of a friend or professor can lead to, in a successful essay, gaining a new hold on the past.

The other project of the personal essay, then, is that of becoming something else. There’s potential for maturation and discovery in drawing a portrait. But we usually don’t stand still long enough to paint an accurate picture. For young writers employing youthful terms to reflect on the not-so-distant past, revisiting those words in a few years can be awkward and painful. I cover my head with a blanket and peer out with one eyeball when I look back at tweets from high school.

If earning a fresh perspective on the past and growing into something new are the goals of the personal essay, Durga Chew-Bose achieves them both with grace in Too Much and Not the Mood. One of my favorite essays, “Since Living Alone,” was first published on Hairpin, a website that Tolentino references in her piece, and it stands out as an exemplar of the form. To make her aims clear, Chew-Bose quotes from an essay on Marguerite Duras by Edmund White in the New York Review of Books. “Her work was fueled by her obsessive interest in her own story and her knack for improving on the facts with every new version of the same event,” White writes. Chew-Bose then points out the number of times White uses “her.” “In less than thirty words, a tally of four hers.” I was unsure at first what she meant to gain by noting this, dropping the clause in at the end of a paragraph with an ambivalent tone. But she’s criticizing him for gendering her so coarsely and for implying that a knack for improving the facts has to be a bad thing.

Chew-Bose confronts painful and ugly facts with a grace and beauty that make reading her a joy. The essays are brimming with sad, blissful moments of recognition. Bliss, she writes in another essay, being “a measure of prosperity I can only feel in its truest form, privately.” Edmund White’s critique connects to an instinct shared with the many detractors of the personal essay whose anger at its frivolity borders on moralizing. Some of Chew-Bose’s lines are intentionally grating to this sensibility. She writes in “Since Living Alone” about how being on her own has given her the strength to start looking out for number one. This isn’t the territory of serious writing, White might grumble; however, Chew-Bose’s skirmishes with sentences on her screen yield an essay of fully grasped ideas. She seizes herself back from its other entanglements, turning her half figments into complete images, the forest and its trees, and it’s exactly the vital project of the personal essay that must be kept alive today. To connect this thread with the gospel, there’s a true story whose consequences free us from guilt and shame over the past and our tendency to mess things up. In writing about these ugly elements of ourselves, we can secure distance because we truly are absolved by Christ’s death on the cross.

One especially artful aspect of “Since Living Alone” is the fruit that mark its beginning and end. She uses a banana to trick an avocado into ripening in the beginning, and she concludes by slicing into a juicy pear. Other images play off of the fruit. She describes herself as a fetal position sleeper, like the avocado playing little spoon with the banana. “Being Someone’s Someone is cozy in theory—a snug image like two letter Ss fitting where the convex meets its concave,” she writes, evoking the tender fruit again. Recalling her words now, I think of curling up in bed with a book or falling back into the couch of my childhood home, knowing those cushions that bear the imprint of my growing body will catch me. Her images are so warm and bodily that they take me there. But the pear in the essay’s final image has a different connotation. Her friend leaves a pear in her fridge after a party, and, to make it feel more like a gift, she “sliced Katherine’s pear in four fat slices that I then halved so as to begin the year with a sense of plenty.” This is Chew-Bose giving us a gift. By living alone, she was able to gain distance, to become an authority on the things that were taking up her time and to grow into something else, to be fruitful. I’m glad the online personal essay gave her to us, but I trust her voice would come through no matter the outlet.