I Just Have A Lot of Feelings: In Defense of The Personal Essay
You know in Mean Girls when Janice Ian maps out the school cafeteria for Cady Heron? (If you don’t, get out of here, but really please stay because I’m a budding young writer desperate for clicks lol.) That’s exactly what my Twitter feed feels like on the dismal days I’m trying to pretend I’m not a personal essay writer.
In one corner, we’ve got the motivational thought leaders out here for the #retweets. In another, outraged social justice warriors reviving culture one woke tweet at a time. Right in the middle somewhere are the SAHMs trying to build their book platform (on Wednesdays, they wear LuLaRoe). And alongside them are the “IDGAF about the news, just give me my memes” people, my personal favorite brand of social media users.
And then: the cool kids. the think-piece wielding #journalists with hella blue check marks and mad bylines crowning their bios (and probably a very respectable liberal arts education). (ICYMI JOURNALISTS: I AM NOT MAKING FUN OF YOU; I ACTUALLY KIND OF WANT TO BE YOU)
So where do I fit in? I am a never-viral, always honest, and I promise you, v funny writer of creative nonfiction who tends to devote more energy to feelings than facts. But much like our heroine Cady, I don’t know where to sit. Actually, more often than not, I resign myself to eating my hot lunch alone in the bathroom stall.
Let me explain.
Back in 2015 when I “broke into the online writing world” (patent pending), HuffPost was everything. Didn’t care that they didn’t pay me. Didn’t care that I was likely just a content robot in their alternate clickbait reality. Namedropping Da Post in progressive venues was my favorite pastime in those days. And the writing was fun, too. I did a piece on epidurals (TENDER TOPIC, SRY) that both personifies my voice and captures hope, something I give a very big damn about cultivating on This Here Internet.
Yet 2 years later, I find myself, like, a little embarrassed. Sometimes I even joke about my HuffPost clips in pitches like editors might take me more seriously if I admit it’s uncool. BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE.
I coincidentally started engaging more intentionally in the Twitterverse around the time of last year’s election. To be frank, though I consider myself a Person Who Cares About The Marginalized, I’ve never felt compelled to talk about politics and adjacent issues online. I do, however, Tweet a lot about my kids and writing and sometimes, if I’m into the boxed wine that night, play into the meme zeitgeist like the smarmy millennial I am.
But when there *happens* to be a current events topic I want to address, because I choose to write about feelings instead of facts, I feel a little unqualified. Uncool, even.
Back to Mean Girls tho. In this bleeding heart internet scenario, it’s survival of the wokest. The journalists are the homecoming kings and queens, and the personal essay writers (or worse, the listicle creators) are the Cady Herons, fresh out of home school, just trying to find a place to sit. Or, that’s the identity I’ve prescribed myself. I wrote “imposter writer” in my own burn book before anyone else had a chance to tell me that they— wait for it — don’t actually care that much what I choose write about.
I’m here to say that this self-deprecating approach to writing about ourselves has to stop. (And also to defend the art of the personal essay as a valid contribution to the social landscape. Wait hold up, is this a think piece?)
When I think about it (personal essay writers think too) it’s very obvious that the creative glass ceiling we come up against as personal essay writers is self-fulfilling. For me to disengage from the conversation — to hide from who I really am and what I like to do — means I count my art as less valuable cultural currency than someone else’s. So what if I’m not obsessed with the news cycle? I get to hand out truth to people via metaphors and words and sentences. For me to swerve into someone else’s lane not only does me a disservice, it robs culture of something sweet it just might need to taste.
Ironically (or not? It’s been a while), there are a few very fascinating and well-crafted PERSONAL ESSAYS floating around the internet about PERSONAL ESSAYS. Is the medium dead or dying? (Jia says yes.) And if so, should we try to revive it? (Arielle and my Cady Heron alter ego say hellz yes in melodic unison.)
In a grim AF cultural climate, reported pieces tell us what’s happening, and personal essays tell us how what’s happening affects us on a soul-level. They create a microcosm in which Big World Issues come to life. With their scenes and poetry and feelings, they etch out avenues for empathy. Which, to me is pretty magical (but what do I know, I’m just a recovering HuffPost minion).
This is what I mean. The thing most Tried-and-True writers (WaPo journalists and MFA grads alike) have to say about personal essays is this: the story only has legs if it ties back in to a greater cultural reality. Like, don’t be self indulgent: illustrate a transformation that happened inside of you. The heart-winning essay isn’t about your epidural and why it was awesome. It’s about your experience with the stigma of epidurals and how you changed in the process.
And that right there, I believe, is where the magic is. Personal essays are never exclusively personal. Instead, they chip away at culture, uncovering centuries of lost hope and hidden beauty. What’s more, the personal essay is the open door many new writers walk through to build a portfolio, develop rapport with editors, and learn the ins and outs of internet writing. Personal essays are how I got started, yes. But I think maybe they’re what I want to keep doing.
So, are there reported pieces in my future? I hope so, because journalism is fun, and let’s be real, feature pieces are where the money’s at. Will these pieces be narrated in first person and tempered by wit? Highly likely, if my editor will let me, because melding feelings with facts AND FUN makes me feel really cool and deep.
But whatever my freelance future holds, one thing is for sure: I won’t pretend to suck at math to get Aaron Samuels to like me. He wouldn’t want that, anyway.