Some thoughts on why I write personal essays

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!


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.

Echoes of a burned cornea

Actually, this is a helpful caution, but not for the reason you might think.

When I was thirteen, I burned my cornea with a curling iron. (No, I wasn’t trying to curl my eyelashes.) I was attempting that 70s flip thing, always striving toward Farrah or whoever created that look (and thereby dominated our dawning awareness of having to look a certain way). I curled the hair near my face, and then opened the hot flipper thingy (controlled by what is apparently called something like a “curl release button”). My eyes open, waiting for Farrah to magically emerge, the hot flipper thingy touched my cornea. I went to school, and my eye began to throb, so I guess someone called my mom, and we went to the eye doctor, who put some ointment in my eye. I remember it was winter, and how the sunshine reflected from the snow, that blinding brightness. (My cornea healed; my vision was soon fine, etc.)

The funny thing (to me) was that when I saw this caution note in the curling iron I bought last week to trick myself out for a 70s-themed adult prom, I thought, “hmm…how many people seeing this notice have actually burned their eyes with curling irons?”

I’m not sure how to end this blog post; I have nothing profound to say except maybe that vanity can be dangerous. And the human body can heal.

What we can control

(An old wheel, Casa Loma, Toronto.  Summer 2014.)
An old wheel, Casa Loma, Toronto. Summer 2014.

(Not much!)

But in reflecting on some of the work of my students, I wrote this in a narrative evaluation about gaining a deeper understanding of what it is to write and be a writer. I thought it was worth posting here:

It’s crucial to realize that if a piece of writing doesn’t come out perfect (and rarely does it come out perfect), it can always be improved. Knowing this (and living it) is much more important than any sort of inherent talent or inspiration. Doing the work is really the only thing a writer can control.

Step into the unknown

(Answer: A note and some foil that hid a banana cream pie.)
(Answer: A note and some foil that hid a banana cream pie.)

It seems I’ve been spending a lot of time lately in the unknown. Or maybe I’ve been here all along, and I’m just now realizing (or accepting) the way my feet feel on that cold, clammy ground.

Anyway, a couple of things I’ve read lately got me thinking that it would be okay to impose this idea on the students in my advanced creative writing class at Antioch College. (As with most of my teaching, I always feel like I’m learning more than my students, and certainly I risked imposing my shit onto my students in this case.) Last night, we tried this prompt, and I thought it would be fun to likewise impose my shit onto anyone reading this blog post. (If you try it, please post here about how or whether it works for you!) Here it is:

Writing prompt: Step into the Unknown

(inspired by Nick Flynn and Lynda Barry, February 2015)

Lynda Barry writes about the two questions that plague her: “Is this good?” and “Does this suck?” “To be able to stand not knowing long enough to let something alive take shape! Without the two questions so much is possible. To all the kids who quit drawing…Come back!” –Lynda Barry, What It Is, Drawn and Quarterly, 2008, p. 135

Nick Flynn, in his memoir The Reenactments, writes, “It was easier, when high, to take photographs than to write—photography requires focused attention, and I could focus when high, my world in fact was nothing but focused, reduced to a pinpoint, to a chunk of hash impaled on a pin. But writing requires both clarity and a willingness to step into the unknown, and there was nothing clear about my days, not then. Getting fucked up every day is about maintaining the status quo‑it has nothing to do with change, or the unknown.” (Nick Flynn, The Reenactments, p. 77)

If these ideas resonate, then writers must “step into the unknown,” and “stand not knowing long enough to let something alive take shape.”

Let’s try.

Start with a situation that you have in mind, one that is unknown to you. It might be something you are facing, a new phase of life. Or start with the phrase, “I don’t know” and do a freewrite.

Feet don’t fail me now…

from Lynda Barry, One! Hundred! Demons!
from Lynda Barry, One! Hundred! Demons!

Imagine that!  Again I am thinking about self-doubt as fuel for writing. (I blogged about that idea here.)

In that way that interdisciplinary aesthetics happens inside a (my) human body, I was thinking of self-doubt as seemingly insurmountable…music came to me…as Funkadelic used to say, “so high, you can’t get over it…so low, you can’t get under it…” and here I go, dreaming up some funk to play for the dance breaks I’m planning for the advanced creative writing course I’ll teach next term at Antioch College…and thinking about Lynda Barry’s Two Questions (“Is this good?” “Does this suck?”) thinking about all the things we must surmount to be the “keepers of the groove”:

The groove is so mysterious. We’re born with it and we lose it and the world seems to split apart before our eyes into stupid and cool. When we get it back, the world unifies around us, and both stupid and cool fall away.
I am grateful to those who are keepers of the groove. The babies and the grandmas who hang on to it and help us remember when we forget that any kind of dancing is better than no dancing at all. —Lynda Barry, One! Hundred! Demons!

(…she’s not me…)

Dear Lanky One: Let me show you the stairs...
Dear Lanky One: Let me show you the stairs…

(I wrote the following in response to a prompt about describing your inner critic, from Bonni Goldberg’s book, Room To Write.)  

I would like to say that my inner critic is a hellhound with five heads, full of bile and venom, but I am not so sure. I think, instead, she’s a better version of me. She’s taller, more lanky; I’m not lanky at all, I have no lank. But I wish I did. In this way, she taunts me. She’s nearly perfect; I’m sure there’s something about her that isn’t, and certainly she would be able to spot the flaw. She’s good at spotting flaws. But she’s the Barbie-me, she’s the one with the glamorous life, she’s the one I was supposed to want to be, and still do, because of all the lies we’re fed about how we are not enough. (This soapbox, did she build it?) I think I can see her off in the corner, she’s smirking, she looks much more LA than I do (whatever that means!). Stick with it, stay, look at her. In a self-defense class I took in Seattle, the teacher talked about maximizing resources: If you are walking down the street at night and hear footsteps behind you, don’t simply speed up. Instead, turn around and look at who it is, see the person, make sure the person sees you seeing them, knowledge is a resource, “Who’s following me?” It’s good to know these things. That self-defense class was put on by an organization called Alternatives To Fear. A great organization. I still recall so much of what I learned there, but I haven’t been practicing my kicks and punches, I haven’t used my body that way in a long time. In class, we were encouraged to keep practicing even after the class was finished, so we wouldn’t get rusty. I am rusty at kicking ass. I am rusty at kicking the ass of inner critics. I don’t know if I could take her, that lanky critic. She probably took the same class, but was better at it.

What does she look like, my critic? She has no ink stains on her hands, she never needs to fill a pen. What she does is cleaner, and she needs no tools. When I get out my pen and start writing, I kick her penless ass with my rusty self-defense, my alternatives to fear. I maximize my resources. I do the work.

I feel ten feet tall, and sometimes I am.

Unknowing is the way

IMG_6128That moment when the new novel (new romance, how sweet, anything might happen!) unfolds in its wild way (organic, no map, messy and raw) and I must  dig into worlds I know nothing about, must fortify the quivering green shoot of story that comes to me with facts about parts of the world and times in history I have not experienced…tether it down, tether it down…I’m so, so lost.

And this, apparently, is the process. Apparently this is the way.

On self-doubt (fuel for writing?)

Peregrine falcon babies. Do they have self-doubt?
Do peregrine falcon babies experience self-doubt?

I got an email from a writer friend who is working on a complicated memoir. She is stuck in the process. In her email, she described the self-doubt that crept in after witnessing a commercial agent dispensing what I consider toxic advice at a workshop. When another writer at the workshop described her own work-in-progress to the agent, because the described work falls outside the expected form for a self-help book, the agent said it was a bad idea and it would never sell.

To repeat: The agent said it was a bad idea and it would never sell.

When I think of this, a cliché tingles the back of my neck (clichés are based in truth, right?): the hair at the nape prickles, a shortcut for anger. Thanks, Agent. Way to shut a writer down! Here’s an adaptation of what I wrote back to my friend:

DISBELIEVE WHAT THAT AGENT SAID! WHATEVER MESHUGAS THE AGENT SAID, WRITE THE AGENT’S WORDS ON A PIECE OF PAPER AND THEN BURN IT!!!!!! KISS THAT ADVICE GOODBYE! That agent only has experience with commercial, old school, traditional publishing, and there is room for SO MUCH MORE in the world of writing. That agent doesn’t know everything! NO ONE knows everything!

From all I understand about writing a complicated memoir, you are in exactly the right spot—excavating the words, memories, feelings, and then shaping and giving it form is a messy and idiosyncratic experience. I know it’s incredibly rough. (I have sprawling, passionate fragments that I might some day shape into a whole memoir, but I’m not yet ready. Even the questions I have to uncover and ask in that process are too intimidating for now.) One message that emerged from all the writers at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop this summer is that EVERYONE operates in the world of self-doubt. EVEN keynoter Andre Dubus III said as much, and so did everyone else presenting. (“The faster I write, the more I’m able to outrun my self-doubt,” said writer Gayle Brandeis. I want to tattoo that line inside my eyelids.)

I’m coming to understand that self-doubt is our fuel.

Self-doubt keeps us honest and also helps us do the work. A paradox, because self-doubt can also cripple the writer. Many writers (more seasoned and articulate than I am) write about the plague of self-doubt. My advice (which I give freely to myself, yet have a hard time taking) is to acknowledge the self-doubt, realize that it’s part of the process, whether you’re writing work based on your direct experiences, or creating fictional worlds. Tie it up in a bundle, give it a name, and then laugh at it. Let it be your fuel.

Trudge through the snowstorm of self-doubt, and do the work (she tells herself).

Things are starting to make sense…

Now everything (about me and why I care about sentences) starts to make sense…

“Writers who are sticklers for control find the agreeable rigor that punctuation, sentence and paragraph construction impose on unruly thoughts and words.”

–Annie Proulx, AWP Keynote, Seattle 2014


Sufjan Stevens, wearing them well
Sufjan Stevens, wearing them well

When I watch this video of Sufjan Stevens doing his song “Chicago” on Austin City Limits, so many things coalesce for me…semi-obvious things that my friends would recognize as important to me (theatrical performance, my recent interest in wearing wings in public) and also things that no one knows, things that float and soar in the interior of my psyche, blind, nameless things, unnamable things, things that make me do the creative work I do, things that keep my heart beating.

(Sufjan Stevens, young wispy man, young crackle-voice, young echo of Clive Owen…oh, how you would have had me swooning back in those younger years, oh, how you now have me swooning for other reasons, less stirred, more steady…)

Oh, you dark dreams of adolescence that soured as you were neglected, decades later return on such iridescent wings, wings made silently in the caves of my heart, refined and fortified over time, now landing you dreams effortlessly, carrying (still!) you old larval friends, now winged on impossibly transparent magic.  Bad metaphors don’t stand up but are somehow sustained by the sound of that old laughter, that trickster, Time.  And Breath.  And Sufjan Stevens sings:

I made a lot of mistakes

I made a lot of mistakes

I made a lot of mistakes

I made a lot of mistakes

“I love that song,” says my six-year-old daughter, who asked to watch the video on youtube, again.

(Me too, sweetie, thinks her mama, caught, deliciously, between the push and the pull of that trickster, Time.)