Some thoughts on why I write personal essays

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Leftover candleholders from my wedding, and weeds.

Here’s a statement I wrote last week for a grant application. I’m new-ish to personal essay, so it feels weird to proclaim anything about it (because I keep learning what it is!) but this piece describes some of my process and reasons for writing personal essay, so I thought it was worth posting here. It’s slightly edited toward blogginess. Cheers!

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My essays grow from lived experiences (transitions and grief), but I wait to write them until I find a way to transcend my life and connect to something larger, something that might resonate for readers. Writing stories about life can be very therapeutic, but must stretch beyond the writer’s singular experience and have meaning to others.

In my experience, the process of writing personal essay is murky and chaotic. Sometimes I use the metaphor of an onion, as layer after layer I peel away to reveal what I really mean, to move toward something that feels true. (Some layers are just rotten, bound for the compost heap.) From there, I discover a shape, rendering that central image or idea in the stuff of lyrical essay. As I craft each essay, draft after draft, I interrogate myself repeatedly about what is relevant. When a story involves others, I ask myself which parts are mine to tell. I am careful in what I include, and what I protect. Writing personal essay means navigating these boundaries. Writing from life demands constant vigilance and integrity, lest the exercise and the writing itself collapse into mere therapy, or worse, narcissism.

With these essays, I intend to connect to others. Beyond that, I am interested in language, how to refine until even the vowel sounds help the reader feel what I mean to impart. It is life affirming when a reader tells me that something I wrote moved them, and it is satisfying as a creator when someone compliments the way I tell a story. It is these twin aims (reaching others, and artful storytelling) that keep me writing personal essay.

Specifically, in “The Bit Jar,” I wasn’t sure I was going to write about this topic for the public, but I felt called to encourage others who might be going through trauma. When the opening scene presented itself, I realized it could be the right frame to approach the material.

Sometimes finding a tight container is the way in.

In a similar way, “Love Letter (an avalanche)” arose when I sat and listened to a poetry reading. First I thought, “I have to write my ex a letter.” As the event continued, I thought, “Maybe this is a blog post.” Then finally I thought, “Maybe this is an essay.” The work-in-progress (“Hot Thing”) emerged because I wanted to capture in prose what it felt like to have a hot flash. The first draft began as a list, and eventually I kept the list form, steeping the essay in rumination about the tension between the facts and how it felt to me.

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