ON THE ART OF THE PERSONAL ESSAY

By: Justin Shelby

“To assert that all men are brothers, that prejudice and racism are bad, and that nature should not be despoiled may win a writer points in heaven, but it is doubtful that these pronouncements will quicken the reader’s pulse…The enemy of the personal essay is self-righteousness, not just because it is tiresome and ugly in itself, but because it slows down the dialectic of self-questioning, what Cioran calls ‘thinking against oneself.’”

– Philip Lopate, The Art of the Personal Essay, Introduction xxx

The Art of the Personal Essay is an anthology of personal essays compiled by Philip Lopate, an author and professor of writing at various Universities in the United States. My first exposure to the personal essay didn’t come when I attempted to write a college essay. Instead, I had the luxury to read the essays of authors like Woolf, Orwell, and E.B. White almost without any ulterior motive. Except for maybe an AP test. Or getting an A in my English class. I can’t quite remember. 

I have been influenced profoundly by this early exposure, both by the explicit observations that Lopate makes about the genre and by the essays that he chose to include in the collection. Although I disagree with some of his ideas, he was my starting point. It was a good place to start out for me. I hope it is for you too. 

At some point, each of you will receive a copy of this book. If you’re ever confused as to how to write, what to write about, or what it is acceptable to write about, I urge you to pick this book up and start reading at a random place. You’ll make some delightful discoveries. Keep in mind that this book was assigned to me in a conservative Catholic school. It includes tame reflections: Virginia Woolf’s meditations on the death of a moth and Seneca’s brief discussion on how noise is annoying. Perhaps surprisingly, there are salacious bits too: an exploration of the consequences of mutual masturbation among some of George Orwell’s childhood school-mates and Edward Hoagland discussing the pleasures of drinking milk, straight from the breasts of his lover. Take the diversity of style and content present in this anthology, add in a dash of Allen Ginsberg, and then you’ll have more or less arrived at the full range of what is acceptable in your own personal essays. In 650 words, of course.
Although most of our work does not involve the salacious, risqué, or traumatic, those parts of our work that do always generate the most controversy and conflict. Some will say that to discuss or explore such things is unprofessional, or even potentially traumatizing. Or that contemplating such topics is inappropriate for a college essay. The same people have told me that it is impossible to shock the readers of these essays, because they’ve seen it all. If our readers are impossible to shock, then we lose nothing by widening our scope to the limits of experience. Of course, we may offend. Freedom is risky. Whether to explore such things with individual students is a judgment call to be made with each student. In any case, I can only teach as I have been taught. And I have been taught to explore the world most fully by contemplation and curiosity without fear of taboo or conflict. I hope I can pass some of that attitude on to you. It has served me well so far, in my brief 28 years of life.
Specifically, I want to put together some didactic reflections on the parts of this book that I find the most relevant, and I think that there is no better place to start than Lopate’s introduction. It’s quite a dense introduction, a good bit denser than most of the essays in the collection. I think the density in the introduction comes from the fact that Lopate is trying to compress a lot of information into a relatively small space. Conversely, most of the essayists in the anthology have one or two points in mind and use a lot of words to convey those few points to the reader with great clarity and force.

When I started writing this, I intended for the preamble to be quite short. I realize now that it is too long. This will have to be a series of reflections. I guess I will conclude with a summary of my aims. In the first place, I hope that students can use what I say to write better essays. Lopate knows a lot about personal essays and it is well worth understanding his prescriptions for them, even if we don’t always agree. This is what I owe you as my clients. But I also hope that, as my students, you can use this understanding of writing to begin thinking more clearly and more powerfully. It is not good enough that we help you get into a good school, we also want to leave you with a mind better able to process and reflect on the world into which we are sending you. 

I also think that reflecting publicly in this way will help my staff, present and future, to understand my perspectives and my aims more clearly. Whether they agree with those perspectives and aims is another question, but at least there will be a fleshed-out body of text on which to base the discussion. It is one thing to think me perverse or otherwise morally bad on an obvious paucity of evidence; it is an entirely different thing to think me so on an abundance of evidence. You may imprison and examine me; I demand the warrant. Clarity is always helpful, as is vulnerability, and I can think of no better or less threatening way to be clear on my own views than to state them outside of conflict to a general audience before they are drawn into conflict with particular people on particular topics. In some respects and for some people, this will be impossible and some of what I say will be or seem inevitably retrospective, for which I apologize. In any case, rest assured, nothing will be made personal. 

Finally, doing this will help me understand how my own views evolve over time, which is always a useful thing.

This will serve as the introduction. Stay tuned. Next time, I’ll actually talk about the quote at the top of the page, which was the purpose of this exercise in the first place!

Justin Shelby