2020 Was the Year of the Personal Essay for Me

2020 Was the Year of the Personal Essay for Me December 29, 2020

Despite being badly burned out this year, I published two personal essays and had a third accepted. Here’s what I’ve learned.

an open notebook
Photo by Alina Daniker on Unsplash. In public domain.

While unemployed over the summer, I struggled with revisiting the question of what I want to be when I grow up, and so I decided to spend more time writing on a trial basis. I had more time than commitments so I figured I’d make a go of it, see if I wanted to pursue writing more seriously.

Then I found out I’d be back on campus in the fall after all…but I kept writing. Not as much as I wanted to, which included barely touching this blog during the hellish semester that was Fall 2020, but I continued to poke at a few projects. And, unexpectedly, this turned into a time when I had personal essays accepted for publication and even got paid for it.

The reason this is a surprise is that I don’t think of myself as an essayist. Academic essays and blog posts, sure. But those are more from my perspective as a scholar and a general observer of culture. They’re not really about me. I guess I’ve had a pretty interesting life, but I’m also kinda private about my life, and I don’t like being the center of attention unless I intend to be in that moment; I’m the kind of person who loathes surprise parties and having people sing me “Happy birthday” but I expect everyone’s attention when I’m doing a dance performance or giving a lecture. After those moments pass and people want to talk to me I’m like, “but why?!”

The other weird thing is, I study the genre of personal narrative from a scholarly perspective, and I can talk for days about its traits. I have some personal narratives in my own repertoire, which I narrate when it’s the right context and the right audience. But I don’t think of myself as a particularly skilled storyteller; I’m better at analyzing them than performing them, in my mind.

But this year, I was like “screw it, I’ll just write a bunch of stuff and see what happens.” So you can imagine that I was surprised when I had two personal essays published: “When Fairyland Is Not For You: On Escapism, Fantasy, and Survival” at The Wrangler and “How I Was Cheated On In An Open Marriage…Twice” at Best Damn Writing Magazine. And the editor of Best Damn Writing just accepted another piece from me on relationships, so that’ll appear in the future.

On one hand, I’m not surprised that I can approach a new genre, analyze its components, and figure out how to write it. As a folklorist and a narrative scholar, that’s basically what I do! Learning how to comprehend various genres plays a huge role in my teaching and scholarship; I taught my First Year Seminar students to approach genre in terms of what I’ve been calling the 4-part rubric (content, context, form, and function) and I employ that approach in my own life as well, when parsing what I enjoy reading and writing.

On the other hand, the personal essay presented some new challenges. As I noted above, I’m somewhat private when it comes to certain parts of my life, and I chose rather vulnerable topics to write about (good job, past me!). So I had to really settle into a calm, brave place in order to draw forth those details of my experiences and put them into words. At times, being so vulnerable in ways that would become public made me feel nauseous. But it felt like the right way to approach these topics, so I ran with it.

In doing so, I learned 2 main things about the art and craft of the personal essay. The first is that this genre is meant to showcase experiences that change us. So, like any narrative, something has to happen; something has to change. The “I” that narrates the story is different from the “I” that initially experienced it. And these don’t have to be world-shattering, life-exploding changes; they can be simple, grounded realizations about our priorities, our relationships, or emotions.

The second thing I learned is that the experience fueling the narrative can be anything; it doesn’t have to be the most fascinating or bizarre thing that ever happened to a human. You can write a personal essay about an interesting thing that happened to you or that you did, or you can apply an interesting filter/reframe to damn near any experience you’ve had, and it’s the retrospective gaze that can infuse it with a sense of wonder, sorrow, rage, acceptance…any human emotion, really. And that is what will make it interesting to readers: hearing from a fellow human about an experience that may range from the mundane to the extraordinary, but processed in such a way as to make it both intriguing and relevant.

By way of wrapping up, I’m trying to think of which experiences to turn into personal essays in the future, and even though I’m still feeling a bit burned out, I am enjoying my foray into this genre. Writing fiction (probably short; no novel ideas have grabbed me yet) is next on the list, so I’m cautiously optimistic about continuing to write as we enter 2021.

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