Ventures into the Personal Essay

The month began with good publication news, was filled with good publication news, and ends with more good news: my personal essay “Walking the Labyrinth on My Almost Birthday” will appear this winter in the Literary Reflections section at Literary Mama.

I’ve long admired this site, which offers “reading for the maternally inclined,” and the Literary Reflections in particular examine the intersections between motherhood and writing, which have been a recent preoccupation of mine. It’s a joy to have something in the pipeline there.

And it’s also strange to return to the personal essay genre after a long – a very long – hiatus. In the past year, inspired by Sarah Ruhl’s book 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write, I have been jotting notes to myself that often became what I thought might be the early drafts of essays, mere kernels of experience capturing the thoughts I associated with them at the time. Ruhl’s essays are often deep and always challenging, inspiring wonder, pause, reflection, or new connections and discoveries. My kernels are far less formulated and certainly less deep.

But this got me in the habit again of reflecting on my own experience, something that had fallen by the wayside after I had children. And after taking a Creative Nonfiction workshop with the excellent Christiana Langenberg through the Midwest Writing Center this June, I felt a longing to return to the form, for what it demands of disciplined thought and, to rob from Wordsworth, emotion reflected in tranquility. A few days later I took my children to the local arboretum and, for the first time in my life, walked a labyrinth. It unwound something in me that is still unwinding, and I wrote about it, and as it had to do with motherhood and writing I sent it to Literary Mama, and now soon it will be in print.

I never worry about revealing too much in my fiction, because in fiction you always have the parachute: it’s just made-up, folks. Sure, inspired by real events, but tweaked. Plus you can give your characters thoughts, interests, and obsessions that a sane, well-adjusted, well-balanced person would obviously never entertain. But in the personal essay genre, there is the implicit understanding that This All Happened. When the narrator admits to a thought, I actually had that thought. When I describe an event, you may assume the event took place, in my creative nonfiction, at any rate.

So having a personal essay slated for publication – not just this one, but also an essay I wrote on my C-section experience – brings, along with joy, a certain frisson of dread. Have I revealed too much? Are the emotions too raw, the peeks at my inner emotional landscape too barren? What further is revealed of the workings of my mind, the flaws in my personality, the limits of my heart, that I might have preferred to remain unexpressed?

The lesson, I suppose, is to take the risk. Have courage. Search for meaning. Share your story, and in so doing, hope that you are quietly, sanely speaking to someone else. Perhaps even someone who shares your experience, or understands your story, or badly needs to hear it. There is great satisfaction in the examined life, the life of reflection on experience. But there is even greater satisfaction in sharing that reflection, that experience, in community. That is, I suppose, why I write.

Ventures into the Personal Essay

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