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Allena Tapia

Various Sites Disparage Personal Essays, But I Cash the Checks and Keep Writing

By January 17, 2013

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Good morning from arctic Michigan, writers.

I am addicted to Slate and Salon. I admit it. If you follow my Twitter or Facebook feeds, you likely know this already. I recently followed a discussion on personal essays and memoir at Slate, but the path to the discussion was a bit roundabout, so let me take you there, first.

1) Author and Journalist Elizabeth Wurtzel published an essay in New York magazine that was largely decried as selfish and myopic (or, what many a writer's workshop would call "navel-gazing"). It may or may not be worth your time to read. I read it, as I read and liked Wurtzel's More, Now, Again; A Memoir of Addiction. Parts of the essay echoed familiar (where the hell is my life going?) but other pieces of it were found by some to be offensive. Here's a sample:

I am committed to feminism and don't understand why anyone would agree to be party to a relationship that is not absolutely equal. I believe women who are supported by men are prostitutes, that is that, and I am heartbroken to live through a time where Wall Street money means these women are not treated with due disdain.

Now, one can see how this would elicit some blow back.

2) The above blow-back came  not just in the comments of Wurtzel's personal essay, but also in various other places, Gawker among them. (Also, see Slate's Double XX blog and Katie Roiphe's response in Slate.)

What interests me here, and what I want to deal with is the jump from "Wurtzel's essay is myopic" to "personal essay is the bane of written text." For example, Gawker says:

"The demoralizing truth is that there is a huge appetite for first-person essays of this sort. The pages of Salon, and Slate, and Thought Catalog, and XO Jane, and women's magazines, and lowbrow-masquerading-as-highbrow publications like parts of the New York Times, and Gawker Media are absolutely overflowing with them. At their very best, they offer some amount of insight learned through experience. Mostly, they offer run of the mill voyeurism tinged with the desperation of attention addiction. For those who own the publications, they're great--they bring in the clickety-clicks. But for the writers themselves, they are a short-lived and ultimately demeaning game. They are a path that ends in hackdom. And young writers who've paid good money to attend journalism classes should not be set on that path."

Well, writer, I don't know about you, but, hackdom or not, I'd be damn tickled to see a personal essay of mine in any of those lowbrow OR highbrow publications mentioned. And you know why? Because I have the story in me, and because I have the mortgage to pay (and, I'm not 100% supported by my hubby, although I don't know that it sounds as nasty as Wurtzel seems to think it is, but that's another subject).

I think Roiphe handles this whole subject matter best. It is true that many a personal essay are vapid, empty things. But that doesn't mean the genre is 100% hack jobs. There are people like me (and you perhaps) with a hunger to get in other's heads. I'm giving those clickety-clicks out. I'm buying the "More, Now, Again" titles. And, hey, I even appreciate knowing what 40 looks like from Wurtzel's POV. Roiphe's response outlines some ways to do memoir and personal essay "right."

Another issue here is the line between journalism and (what I would call) freelance writing. Gawker says "Journalism is not narcissism." True, but is personal essay journalism? I think not. I'd say that personal essay is a form of general freelance writing, and if trained journalists switch gears and write a personal piece, it's not an issue. No one said you have to choose journalism and do it 100% of the time, always. I know many freelancers who do (for example) local independent reporting, but switch gears and writes curriculum for textbook publishers. Or, they write for magazines, but also have a place in the local beat at their city newspaper. It's a cobbled-together income, but they love it. I love it.

My point: if you have a talent for writing, for parlaying info of any sort into written text, there's a whole slew of genres you can explore. I'd like to be able to do that without invisible genre fences getting in my way. And I'd like to continue giving the clickety-clicks to places like Salon and Slate, TYVM.

What do you think? What's the state of the personal essay? We know this site deals with freelance writing as a chosen career path- does personal essay fit into that career path alongside our copy writing and our ebook editing services and so on?

January 21, 2013 at 11:59 pm
(1) V Russo says:

Personal essays are fine. It’s the quality of writing that counts, not the genre. I considered it a great honor to be asked by the family of a deceased artist to write a memorial article, which is one type of personal essay, for the local newspaper.

January 22, 2013 at 1:01 pm
(2) ericka says:

essays per se are fine.
very tired of tales of disfunction: drug addiction, compulsions, money problems, and the ensuing salvation–upper-middle class redemption. perhaps its assumed there’s universal appeal, but i keep just wanting to say, a la Moonstruck, SNAP OUT OF IT.

January 25, 2013 at 2:01 pm
(3) freelancewrite says:

I get you, Ericka! :) Funny.

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