Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Personal Essay, She Kicks My Butt

Hoo boy. The Holy Grail of magazine writing is the personal essay, sometimes referred to as a first-person-reported piece. The idea is this: you get to expound upon your life, Joan Didion-style, and use that as a jumping-off point for a helpy service piece, quoting experts that support your experience and actions and, Godwilling, coming to some sort of uplifting conclusion. Sometimes you don't have experts -- it's just about a moment in your life that's bound to touch others, like on the last page of the New York Times Magazine. But those are even rarer creatures, like baby squirrels or flattering Uggs.

My favorite recent personal essay is by the marvelous Wendy Shanker. It's beautifully written, details her struggle with a health issue, and despite a lack of a neat-and-tidy ending, manages to leave the reader feeling like there's hope. One of the annoying things about magazines is a trend, in recent years, to take the attitude, "Everything's GREAT! Here's how to make it GREATER!" That chirpy, unrealistic approach seems limiting to me. I get that magazines go with what sells on the newsstand, but I've never been convinced that a complete denial of negative experience is really what gets magazines in hands. So when I read this, I subscribed to Self so they'd understand that I supported this fresh view.

Of course they'll get right on that because I'm their A#1 priority. But ya do what ya can, right?

Anyway, I finally got assigned to write not one, but three personal essays for I write for them a lot (cast your eyes to the left if you don't believe me), and I have the world's most nurturing relationship with my editor there, so I was totally pleased -- and totally terrified. Writing about yourself seems fun till you realize that it's only interesting if there's something at stake. And when there's something at stake, well, you have to be vulnerable. You have to let the reader in. You can't just put up your sassy-brassy shields, and lob kicky bits of advice over your Wall of Comfort-Level. You have to level that wall, within reason, and admit to actual foibles, embarrassing ones, and confront not just how they make you feel, but how you can get past them and improve.

It's like taping a therapy session, having it transcribed, and handing it out to your nearest and dearest for their perusal. Look, I'm as shameless at the next GenX-er, totally willing to profit from my own embarrassment, but as I get older, and the embarrassing situations become less kicky and charming and more heart-wrenching and permanently damaging, the process of writing about them becomes more difficult.

I guess that's what makes them good and readable. But damn, it takes a lot more time, energy, and self-discovery than the usual three-point FOB service piece. Ha-doy.

No comments: