Why Personal Essays Are Still Important, But With a Twist

It’s that time of year.  College application season.  In every region of the country, folks are writing personal essays for college admission.  The essay prompts are uniformly similar: Tell us about yourself.  Give us a picture of the real you.  It’s also a standard job interview and first date question.  Give us a glimpse of your personal history in 500 words or less.  Where have you been, and where are you going?  This can be a gruelling question because many of us don’t like talking about ourselves.  Ego-driven salesmanship.  Yuck.

I remember writing a personal essay for college that started with a John F. Kennedy quote.  Classic Irish-American.  Popular president.  Tragically killed.  Ask not what your country can do for you but… OK, so why not?  I didn’t realize the cliché.

I also didn’t realize the cliché of saying that I was a first-generation college student from a blue-collar working class background. That put me into a category of, I don’t know, perhaps a thousand other applicants.  A sociocultural stereotype of sorts.  I wasn’t a stand out candidate.

What I didn’t realize that I wish someone would have pointed out to me is this: sure, it’s a personal narrative, but with a twist. I was really supposed to write an argument–a story with a persuasive purpose.  Why should I be admitted?  Or better, why shouldn’t I be rejected?

In other words, I hadn’t learned the importance of a reader’s needs.  If a writer tells a story, then he or she must give the reader compelling reasons to continue reading.  I’d never considered that detail.  Why should any reader read my stuff? Why should a reader continue reading after the first sentence or paragraph?  Every story implies an argument whereby a reader concludes, makes a decision, about the value of reading further.

Flash forward years later.  I made it through college.  Now I’m a college professor.  Students often come to me for advice on their college application essays.  I’m glad to help them, because I had no one to turn to for similar advice.

I hate to be a critical naysayer, but I have to admit that I read a lot of bad writing.  A lot of poor salesmanship.  Yes, it’s true that people often have a hard time writing about themselves.  Writing is hard, but writing about yourself is perhaps hardest of all.  It takes a lot of time and patience.  Of course, many novice writers want to crank out drafts overnight and toss them into the mail.  Get it done.  Screw patience.  Screw multiple drafts.  Screw feedback.  Screw you.  OK, but who’s screwed in the end?

Of course, no one wants to hear that he or she has produced bad writing.  This is a huge issue.  We grow up in school these days and nearly everything we do is marvelous and brilliant.  This is especially true of honors students.  They’re used to getting the right answer and always being right.  This extends to their writing as well.  They cannot be wrong.  They’ve always earned “A’s” even when they’ve produced the most boring, lifeless prose.  They get “A’s” for effort, their ideas, summarizing and memorizing information, yet often their ideas are couched in comatose prose.  This would be perfect if they were always asked to write about the zombie apocalypse or necrophilia.  However, college essays tend to be on a variety of topics.

Typical essay prompts ask applicants to consider an intended major, a course of study, and reflect on past lives of critical literacy. Very few prompts ask about World War Z.  This is truly a shame because so many novice writers could produce appropriately lifeless prose.  No feelings.  No desires.  No beliefs.  No sensory details. No curiosity.  Nothing to show, but plenty to tell.  Grrrr…..

Naturally, no one likes to be told that he’s wrong or could do better.  No one likes to hear criticism.  Even the most polite and constructive criticism.

But this blog post really isn’t about issuing and receiving criticism.  It’s about the importance of the personal essay.  OK, so why is it important?  With so much going on in the world, why shouldn’t we consider more global issues?  Why not worry about social and moral issues?  Pro and/or con?  Global warming, animal rights, GMO foods, driving with cell phones, the rising costs of a college education, the death penalty, the Oregon euthanasia law. Serious stuff is going on, so why do we need to dwell on “the Self”?  Isn’t the self-absorbed selfie culture a serious problem?

And what about literature with a capital “L”?  Shouldn’t we promote literary texts and close reading?  Personal essays do not really promote critical thinking, do they?  With so much writing about one’s feelings, needless to say not much analytical thinking is going on.

Normally, these questions would be spot on.  But I believe that we need to encourage personal essays… But with a twist. What I have in mind is Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, but without the neo-liberal ratiocination.  For a good skewering of Nafisi’s book, see John Carlos Rowe’s “Reading Reading Lolita in Tehran in Idaho” (See chapter via link).  Or maybe the personal literary criticism of James Wood and Daniel Mendelsohn.  Or the critically minded nonfiction of W.G. Sebald, Rebecca Solnit, David Foster Wallace, and Sven Birkerts.

Rather than write snobbish academic prose, novice writers need to be encouraged to explore and reflect upon their personal feelings.  Respond, reflect, analyze, evaluate, and synthesize source material with their own experiences.  Read the world by locating their selves in the world.

I believe Helen Vender is right in “What We Have Loved, Others Will Love.”  And I believe Wayne Booth is right about boring freshman essays.  How do we combine these two approaches?

We can allow novice writers to write personal essays and approach the text of their lives as worthy of critical scrutiny.  The best fiction and nonfiction does this.  Now I’m thinking of James Baldwin’s essays and his fiction, such as “Sonny’s Blues.” We can invite personal reflection, compassion, and empathy by asking readers to think about what it means to be a writer–how to read as a writer.  This is what Francine Prose advocates as well.  How do you as a reader locate yourself in the text?

Last week, I had a student come to me with her college application essay.  She told about growing up in Iran.  A decisive event happened in her life before she immigrated to the United States.  She was arrested for strands of hair straying out of her hijab.  She was interrogated by police and went to jail.  But she wrote her essay like I’m writing sentences right now–merely reporting events without feeling or details.  The story was compelling, but the words were not.

The student did not realize that she was writing about herself as a cultural stereotype along the lines of characters depicted in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.  Her story was not uncommon.  Her audience would be biased and prepped for it.  Her story did not evoke emotions.  She didn’t put her reader into the events of the story.  She had a story to tell but told it rather than show readers what the story truly meant to her.  She hadn’t located herself in the text of her own life.

After awhile, she admitted to me that she had no feelings about her story one way or another.  In fact, she mentioned that she’s never allowed herself to have feelings, never mind showing them publicly.  No feelings.  Has never cried.  Always the public face. Outwardly healthy and content.  But inwardly?  What inner life did she have or permit herself?

Personal essays allow novice writers–and veteran writers–opportunities to reflect upon, explore, analyze, evaluate, and discover their inner lives.  In this way, readers can write the text of their being alive.  But the first-person perspective needn’t be limited to the self.  It can be a gesture of critico-creative discovery.  How is the self a kind of archival text in the world? How can we delve into the library of our memories and past lives? How can our lives become worthy subjects of literary reflection? … But literature not of the Walking Dead?

 

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