Creative Nonfiction Subgenres Help
The Personal Essay
The personal essay is characterized as having the attributes of honesty and humility. The author appears as a flawed individual trying to work something out, not a godly being with all the answers. As we read writers' intimate truths, we grow closer to the essayists who are revealing who they are, how they think, and how they feel while striving toward deeper understanding. Ultimately, while reading the best personal essays, we read as if the exploration is our own—the writer and reader are one, sharing the journey of understanding experience through reflection. It's a large and important task for such a short, humble form.
In The Art of the Personal Essay, Philip Lopate describes the personal essay by looking into its history and likenesses to early writing. The conversational aspect of the personal essay makes the form a relative to Plato's dialogues. Lopate believes that "personal essayists converse with the reader because they are already having dialogues and disputes with themselves." The personal essayist writes in order to explore these disputes. Lopate credits the French author Montaigne as the first writer to talk to himself convincingly on the page and allow a reader to feel he or she is eavesdropping on the writer's solitary mind. Writers such as Charles Lamb, William Hazlett, E. B. White, and later, Joan Didion, among so many others, kept the personal essay form alive. Today personal essays appear in literary journals, national magazines, newspapers, and National Public Radio commentaries, as well as themed anthologies. The Best American Essays is an important annual publication edited by Robert Atwan and guest editors.
How can you identify a personal essay? First and foremost, you will most often see the use of the pronoun "I." It is assumed in personal essays that what is at stake is the writers' coming to know more than they did at the opening of their essays about their feelings, thoughts, and connection to whatever has hooked their interest. There is no need to be objective, but observing others in addition to one's response to them is, of course, important. No one wants to read a completely self-referential piece of writing, and no writer can actually learn and grow and make readers believe in this learning and growing without observing the who, what, where, when, and how of what surrounds him or her. Personal essays contribute information to others about the world, even as they evoke a particular author's singular emotional journey.
When the personal essay includes narratives of being immersed in travel, nature, sports, and investigations, the attitude that distinguishes them as personal essays is this: The writers are telling the readers how they cared about things that happened to them while they were involved with those travels, that time in nature, or a particular investigation. Good examples in contemporary publications are Susan Orlean's essay on raising chickens, "The It Bird," which appeared in the September 28, 2009 New Yorker (www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/09/28/090928fa_fact_orlean), and Jack Heffron and John Boertlein's essay "Death on a Quiet Street," about an unsolved murder in a middle class 1960s Cincinnati neighborhood, which was published in the April, 2008 Cincinnati Magazine (www.cincinnatimagazine.com/article.aspx?id=47780). There are also dedicated anthologies of essays on travel, nature, and sports writing published in Houghton Mifflin's The Best American Series each year.
If a personal essay is not organized as narration (the telling of an event through time), it may be organized by other rhetorical patterns: description, comparison and contrast, how-to, cause and effect, division and classification, or definition and argument. Sometimes personal essayists claim argument and persuasion are not part of their realm as they are not writing to change anyone's mind but to explore their own. However, many recognize that all writing is argument—as authors we are asking people to see it our way for at least a moment. So, personal essayists sometimes apply rhetorical patterns to the task of persuading others to reconsider beliefs or actions, which produces an urgency of occasion and an avenue for thorough exploration of topics that may be controversial or misunderstood. Russell Baker's "The Plot Against People" (www.srs-pr.com/plot.pdf) argues via classification and division that inanimate objects aspire not to work. Judy Syfers's essay "Why I Want a Wife" (www.cwluherstory.org/why-i-want-a-wife.html) uses definition to argue that the role of a wife as someone whose job it is to be always at the ready to fix and make things more comfortable is dehumanizing.
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