Archive for February, 2009

Week 1: The personal essay

February 23, 2009
Photo by Pat Armstrong

Photo by Pat Armstrong

Though we didn’t talk thoroughly about this in class, the ‘personal essay’ is the textual form most central to this course’s assessments. You will be asked to write two personal essays, one brief and one of length.

A ‘personal essay’ does not necessarily mean an essay that simply divulges the personal, psychological or emotional self. Rather, it is an essay through which the self emerges, or is evident, and plays a role in the composition and form of the writing. The role of self (or selves) can move (or disrupt) the text in different ways. A self-awareness of writing-as-thinking and thinking-as-writing might reveal pleasurable or painful sensations of the compositional act itself (that is, the act of writing, with all ‘selves’ jostling in the imagination). Perhaps you will start the text with one idea and end with another. Perhaps you will confront what you think you know about something.

Remember that the idea of the ‘self’, is by definition, problematic. To what extent is the self ever known? How does the self, as an ‘I’ character, come to bear in language? What relationship does this psychological singular (perhaps designed only for shorthand reference or as a kind of ‘corner-cutting’) have to our messy, complex, multiple and paradoxical reality?

A personal essay is a place to practise playful interrogation: to question the habits and norms of your everyday life and to meditate on the small, banal rituals of experience. You can write a meditation on the 412 bus and its early-morning passengers. You can write about the chronic disease of boredom. You can open out a discussion of insomnia. You can unpack the feminist possibilities of anarchism. You can read tombstone inscriptions as haiku and write a poetical analysis of death-notices. The trick is to focus on the local, the specific, the particular, the minute and the unique, rather than on the general or the universal.

In Phillip Lopate’s introduction to the anthology ‘The Art of the Personal Essay’, he cites the hallmark of the personal essay as its intimacy. This intimacy not only refers to the intimate self and its affect on the composition of the work. It also refers to the intimate connections between words in syntax (the poetical qualities, cadences and melodic inflections of language) and the intimate relationships formed in the sensual practice of critical thinking. To be engaged, to be aware, to be attuned to the material and sensual properties of experience leads to a greater awareness of the very act of writing: composing, arranging, re-making and layering the data of experience in language. One idea exists intimately next to another. One sentence moves intimately against another. Lopate refers to the thinking-and-being at play in a personal essay as a form of experimentation: literally, a trial or attempt. In this sense, the essay becomes a space to ‘test out’ ideas about the world. The essay becomes an uncertain, in-time, dynamic and complex model of potentiality.

Remember what I read in class by DuPlessis:

But what unites essays, if it is possible to say, is probably a defining attentiveness to materiality, to the material world, including the matter of language. The essay is currently born (and borne) in some relation to a cultural moment centering on difference, on articulations of specific, local, and topographical being, on the stating of the material meanings of individual choices, practices, options, and needs, on political and social locations for identity taking shape within language as language, within form as form.

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