Week 1: The personal essay

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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5 Responses to “Week 1: The personal essay”

  1. Sam J Says:

    Upon discovering that a large proportion of our studies in Text and Context would be devoted to the personal essay, I must confess, I suppressed a shiver of apprehension. Using “I” in a critical essay? It’s breaking the foundational principle of essay writing that has been drummed into me for 7 years, but it seems – according to Astrid – that we’ll be breaking a lot of the literary rules that were taught to us during high school.

    I was concerned with how a personal essay could truly be critical and not dissolve into confusing, spiralling ramble which would only ever make sense to the author and remain forever impossible to understand to everyone else. Yet Seneca’s essay, On Noise, not only seemed, to me, to discuss the difference and effect of noise as opposed to voice, it was also amusing, casual and filled with imagery. In Bed also treaded the line between personal history and explanation of the effectiveness of treating a migraine with medication with a tone that was both familiar and critical. This, I think, is the essence of a personal essay.

    I’m not sure if this was how I was supposed to contribute to the post, Astrid, but I hope it’s somewhat like what you were expecting.

  2. textandcontext09 Says:

    Wonderful response, Sam!

    And yes, you’re right, after so long adhering to a particular structure of the ‘correct’ essay at school — a kind of politely fictional effacing of the self from the voice of a text, as the if the writer could ever be absent from their discourse — this is new territory.

    Remember that ‘critical thinking’ is natural to everyone and that being aware of and excited by your own critical thought is central to interesting writing. The critical insight does not need to be manufactured, or even discovered, in your own ideas, but merely explored, highlighted and teased out. As you say — the attention Seneca gives noise and its connection to conscious thought, is demonstrating critical engagement with experience. Yet, as you also say, it is humorous, warm, informal, loose.

    So glad that you’re reading, enjoying and thinking: a very good three-pronged attack for this course!

    A

  3. Louisa Says:

    I don’t really have anything profound to say about the “personal essay” other than i’m pretty excited to be so free with the range and possibilties it brings to me in writing, having been restricted to prescribed topics and texts for so long.

    But something i came across which may have nothing to do with anything, but what i found quite cute and playful is this short film on youtube called “Signs”:

    After talking about noticing your surroundings more and becoming more active in them i thought this short film captured an essence of that by showing how stepping out of the everyday “box” your viewpoint on your current situation and surroundings can be challenged. Again, i don’t really know if it’s relevant but why not watch and see for yourselves!

  4. textandcontext09 Says:

    Thanks Louisa! What a lovely film.

    Yes, it is a good example of what Lopate, in his intro, refers to as the “littleness” of personal essays. Focusing on the everyday, the diurnal, the quotidian, the small-scale, which of course, as shown in this film is also the large-scale — the daily banalities of Jason’s life pre-signage is manifesting itself physically, bodily, as depression and unhappiness. The little-big dialectic is radical, full of tensions and cross-overs and feedback loops. Littleness-bigness can also be imagined as creative-critical, though I would shy away from keeping the distinctions clear.

    Good stuff!

  5. Dahlia Says:

    I am unsure if I am on the right track but I thought, I give it a try.

    When Michel de Montaigne was quoted, “Every man has within himself the entire human condition”. This meant that when he was telling about himself, he was talking to some degree, about all of us.

    That was an awakening moment for me. Had I just made an assumption based on the title by itself, I would have assumed The Personal Essay to be somewhat like a Personal Composition and how wrong would I be because much as the Writer chose to share some or almost all truth of himself, it is not one dimensional. I always assumed that when one shares, the experience is unique only to that person who shared … never would I make the connection that he is, inextricably tied to another and although his experience may be unique but his constant critique on his experience, allows the reader to identify with him.

    The Personal Essay is not just about sharing his experience but his approach in conveying it.

    I have a lot of information floating (notion of honesty, perception etc) but yet, I find it difficult to deliver and this is all I can come up with for now. I hope I can articulate myself better the next time!

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