February 26, 2022 | 4:43pm EST
I fear that the personal essay is a far-too-often overlooked form of creative writing. It is not as long as the memoir, nor as abstract as the poem, nor as fantastical as fiction. Yet, for me, personal essays are the most impactful form of writing.
The personal essay offers a small glimpse into the mind of the author. They put themselves on a little plate and serve it right up to their readers. You feel their worry, their disappointment, their love, their loss, and most importantly: their journey to come to terms with life. It is an art of linguistics and meaning that no other form of writing can properly convey.
If you are just starting with personal essays, I might suggest Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That”. Her essay explores a young adult living a life that is not quite real and not quite what she expected. She is in a transitory eight-year period of her life, which might seem like a contradiction, but in fact, encapsulates life in New York. As a college-aged kid reading Didion’s work, I could not help but draw the parallels to my own life. Didion explores how life did not feel real in New York, which mirrors how I feel having moved across the country for a mere four years. Personal essays explore universal feelings while remaining deeply individual. There is no question that any essay you read will teach you something about yourself.
However, these essays are also a vehicle for learning outside of yourself. In Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin explores the racism prevalent in 1940s Harlem through his feelings surrounding his father’s death. Baldwin’s vulnerability and elegance give the reader a window into his head and the environment he grew up in. Through this narrative-esque form of writing, personal essays are able to give insight that fiction often lacks and poetry often only hints at.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I took a creative writing class. When my teacher, Ms. Salvi, introduced personal essays, I believed they would be the bane of my existence. They did not feel as creative as fiction nor quick as poetry. She described the essays as a string. One thread is the tangible–the story, the scene–and the other thread is the bigger picture–your feelings, your passions, your worries, your reflections. I was fascinated by this intertwined picture of storytelling. Because that is what a personal essay is: a story mixed with reflection. I found that the personal essay was a form of self-expression that I had not found before. I was able to push myself into words on the paper and was fascinated by how the words seemed to flow out.
The personal essay may not be for everyone, but this style of writing provides unique insight into ourselves and an in-depth way to connect to others and the world around us. I urge you to step outside of your high-school hate for personal essays and instead read to learn and read to enjoy.