Personal Essays: The Importance of Being Real

While I prefer to write fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy, I do write other genres. This includes personal essays. I took a little break from writing personal essays over the summer, mostly because writing them can be emotionally draining.

Why writing personal essays feels like a round in a boxing ring

As a writer, I find personal essays emotionally draining for two reasons:

  • While writing and rewriting the piece, I relive the events portrayed in it over and over again. To risk mixing metaphors: writing a deeply personal essay is a roller coaster ride of highs and lows. If my essay details traumatic events, it feels like the blows are landing all over again. Even recalling emotional highs can be exhausting after a while.
  • Once a personal essay is published, I have successfully exposed a part of my inner life for everyone to see. Imagine me as a boxer entering the ring and dropping my robe…except my abs are flabby and my pecs non-existent. The horror! As if that weren’t bad enough, readers sometimes follow up with comments that are cruel, judgmental, or dismissive.

After a few particularly exhausting publishing experiences in the past year, I decided to take a break from soul-bearing. Besides, I had kids home for vacation and unusually early High Holy Days to deal with.

Back in the ring again

Recently, I’ve stepped back in the ring again.  Having penned a few personal essays in the last couple weeks, one issue has come up repeatedly.

As my husband read the rough draft of one of the essays yesterday, he said, “But this isn’t how it happened.” We resolved the matter with a minute or two of discussion — it turned out that he wasn’t aware of a conversation I’d had with one of my children’s teachers — but the issue remained: how faithful must an author be to true events?

I’d already thought about this last week. I had written approximately 500 words about a recent occurrence in my life, when I realized I had to cross out a couple lines. They sounded good, they reinforced my point, but they just weren’t accurate. After hitting delete, I found myself closing my eyes and actually picturing what had happened. Thereafter, I was able to genuinely record my experience for posterity.

Some writers — and I have friends who are included here — have no problem stretching the truth while writing a personal essay. So what if the ending wasn’t happy? Just re-write history a little. Reality not funny enough? Embellish (clearly, if you are writing humor, embellishment is expected). Did a detail of the events you described contradict your thesis? Leave it out.

Their final essay is structurally sound, witty, and thematically consistent, but lacks the ring of truth their essay would have had if it had remained untidy and real.

Here’s the tricky part of truth

Human beings are not machines, able to record life as objective reality. To complicate matters further, each time we recall an event, our memory of it changes. Originally noted by sociolinguists, this phenomenon now been demonstrated in lab research. It’s often difficult to know the difference between what we remember of an event and the facts of it.

A personal essay is personal, which means its readers should know it will be subjective. An author doesn’t need to strive for perfect objectivity. However, the piece should reflect reality as the author experienced it.

Sometimes, a writer will live through an event, and even as it is happening, they write an inner commentary. That inner voice might make wisecracks, go on tangents, or embellish what the person experiences, but it’s still real, in the sense that it portrays the inner world of the author.

It’s only when the events are willfully misrepresented that I take strong objection. Not only does the author lose credibility, but they’ve lost an opportunity…because the best essays tap into the author’s real feelings, real environment, real actions. Those accurate details liven up the words on the page like nothing else.

As I said, this is just my point of view. It’s a matter of much discussion among writers and readers.

Agree? Disagree? Post your opinions in the comments below:

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2 thoughts on “Personal Essays: The Importance of Being Real

  1. I’ve written only one personal essay and it’s one that I never intend for anyone to read. As a writer, I focus on the emotional experiences rather than historical facts and if that’s what I was feeling, what I was experiencing, that’s what going to be recorded. As long as it’s truthful from my point of view — which includes admitting my own shortcomings — then that’s truth enough. Willingly altering it to make it “sound better” or “have more impact” wouldn’t ring true to how I define a personal essay; it would be more like a fictional piece based on real events.

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