Skip to content

Me and The Art of the Personal Essay, or What I Did On My Summer Vacation Ten Years Ago

July 2, 2010

When I was a smaller, more angst-ridden Greer, I attended a summer program for freaks smart kids called CTY (which stands for Center for Talented Youth, or, as some of my wittier friends so cleverly put it, Center for Traumatized Yaks. Those poor yaks…). My first summer at CTY, I took a class on the personal essay, which was a prerequisite for all sorts of other writing classes. I thought it would be a breeze, but then, I didn’t realize that I actually had no clue what a personal essay was.

My professor was a bit of an odd bird. He wore bow ties every day, spoke with an affected English accent even though he was quite thoroughly American, entertained the class by playing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” on his acoustic guitar, and became deeply offended if one used the term “crazy” to describe anything that was not actually a mental illness. I felt pretty alienated by him, which didn’t really help with the whole “not completely understanding what the class was about” problem.

I received a giant volume entitled “The Art of The Personal Essay” on the first day of class. I still have the book. It doesn’t actually explain what a personal essay is, but it does give lots of examples. Imagine, if you will,  that you have no idea what Mediterranean cooking is, and instead of actually explaining it to you I cook you a nice moussaka, some falafel, a plate of paella, and some bagna cauda. Now, I’m sure your pants would be about to burst after eating all that, but could you concisely define “Mediterranean cooking” based on that dining experience? “Well,” says you, “it’s kind of Greekish, Middle Easternish, Spanishish, Italianish. Starch, meat, seafood, dairy, and vegetables were definitely involved.” (I just made lamb burgers for dinner so I guess I have food on the brain.)

My principal problem with understanding what a personal essay was, was that it had been hammered into my head that essays are not written in the first person.  Despite the fact that academic essays demand that a writer provide personal opinions, a degree of personal detachment is also required. Readers tend to assume that OF COURSE the opinions in the essay are those of the writer, and therefore the writer talking about herself is redundant and also sounds kind of weird while desperately trying to avoid personal pronouns. Hence the very name, “personal essay,” seemed like a hideous contradiction in terms to me, or otherwise, a hideous redundancy. Many times in class, I asked the question, “Aren’t all essays kind of personal essays?” only to have my bow-tie-wearing, Stones-loving, fake-English professor roll his eyes at me, much like a REAL Englishman might roll his eyes at a plate of BAKED fish and chips. (There we go with the food metaphors again.)

Now, of course, I understand that a personal essay is just an essay that uses personal anecdotes and experiences to make its point instead of quoting academic texts. This blog, for example, is a personal essay about personal essays, a personal meta-text, if you will. I learned this not based on my class experience that summer, but from an experience I had a few summers later involving Winnie the Pooh.

Good ol’ Winnie. I sure loved those stories growing up (sometimes I still find myself thinking the words, “Heff, heff, a hellible Horralump,” for no real reason except that Piglet is awesome.  Well, actually, he’s diminutive, but he’s pretty cool). I loved them enough that when I got older, I HAD to read “The Tao of Pooh,” and “The Te of Piglet.” I loved those books enough that when I saw a new book had come out, entitled “Pooh and the Philosophers,” I had to read that too.

I hated it.  After enjoying so much of the “Pooh” canon, I was kind of confused by my feelings of hatred towards this particular book. I decided to work out WHY I hated the book on paper. Completely by accident, I found that I had written a personal essay. It had a thesis and everything. Sure, the thesis was a belligerent cry of “This book stinks and should be pulped immediately!”, but it was a thesis nonetheless. Suddenly, the personal essay was demystified.

My reaction was one of disbelief, mingled with anger, mingled with the sudden realization that academia was really not for me. “That’s it?” I remember thinking. “Wow, what a colossal waste of time!” Due to my experiences with the personal essay, I left behind any dreams I might have had of becoming a professorial type who analyzes everything to death. I decided it was better to create than to analyze.

So…I guess, thank you, personal essay, for being a huge pain in the ass. You made me realize that I don’t belong in a place where I am required to write you constantly. Now I write about robots and scary clowns, and the world is a much happier place.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: