On the Personal Essay:

An examination of ourselves

On one of my journal entries during my time in Spain, I included the reason why I write: I believe that if I put my rummaging thoughts into structured sentences that will make them leave me. I seem to be afflicted with a habit that is most common amongst writers: I think too much. The internal monologue inside me spins incessantly. It is rare that I ever find myself observing life exactly as it presented to me, without attempting to fit the images that I see into a narrative that will resolve a pre-existing emotion inside of me or that will eventually unfold itself into a reflection that will answer some of the many questions I constantly ask myself.

Yes, what I am saying is I write as a form of therapy. I believe this began sometime in High School, using a gel pen on the pages of cute journals, but it never evolved into a serious practice of mine until perhaps the end of my first year at Cornell, after enough difficult situations had arisen in a short span of time that I turned to writing as a coping mechanism—an outlet to spew all the thoughts weighing heavy upon me. Late at night, alone in my college dorm, I remember grabbing my laptop, opening it and heading directly to a Google document titled “XXX” and writing all that I felt. I realize now, a few years later, with variants of self-growth, that writing about my personal life functioned not only as that breath above the tumultuous water that is life, but also, as I can see it most clearly now, an effort towards controlling the spiraling of my life.

My first experience with the personal essay occurred fall of my sophomore year in college when I took a class called “Creative Non-Fiction: Do Our Stories Really Matter?” By then, the issues I had been struggling with in secret during my freshman year grew too big to hide, and eventually I, and anyone close to me, could tell that it was time I faced them. With a focus on trauma, of all scales, and its effect upon us, the class found me at exactly the right time—I was ready to delve into the past, hoping that it would clarify the fragmented present for me. The class was a group therapy of sorts. I attended every single class, despite accumulating many absences in my other classes.

While I read James Baldwin, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Ta-Nehisi Coates among others, I was inspired by the depth and clarity of their writing, mixing their own personal stories with politics, psychology, philosophy. The writing, as I remember it, was never passive, or solely descriptive, it was energetic, striving towards a resolution, always. By the time I had to write essays of my own, on family issues or the effect of immigration on identity, I recall feeling excited yet completely paralyzed by the blank page. I had little writing experience then and I had not yet found my voice or style, so any effort at writing was distinctly laborious.

By the end of that semester, I had worked through enough issues to constitute two years of owning my shit. And by then, I also had fallen in love with writing and reading other people’s writing, so I continued taking English classes to further develop my expertise. I continued with my personal writing of sorts in Google documents, mostly as, I said before, for therapeutic reasons. But, as I look back through these journal entries, my writing improved tremendously. After my first personal essay class, I had finally found my own voice and style.

I was ecstatic to see a higher-level personal essay class offered my last semester at Cornell. I had grown up a lot since my last personal essay class and was curious to see what more I could write about my life. Noting that I was incredibly more emotionally stable than I had been in the past, almost completely forgoing those late night desperate writing sessions, I noticed that my interest for writing steered far away from hoping to find answers to life’s most pressing questions to one more concerned in the aesthetics of writing. It’s possible that after three years of trying to remember, reassessing stories, and working for those implacable breakthroughs about who we are, I became disillusioned over how transient most of our views of our lives are. In the span of three years, I had written many stories, far too many of which stood at conflicting ends and whose accuracy I could assign only momentarily.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” I did not know quite what Didion meant when I first heard this, but the quote eventually found its way back to me a few years later and I was then able to grasp some meaning out of it: anything that we say about our lives is a story we tell ourselves, and these stories in turn shape the possibilities of our future. It was a quiet moment then, when I realize that the fundamental characteristic about all humans is that we are all constantly working towards forming a story about ourselves, though some more than others, and myself more than anyone I have ever met. I concluded, this past summer, after a hiatus from heavy writing and avid reading, that the great resolution might never come. My participation in life is one that will always need to be reassembled, rewritten, and reconsidered. As I live more, it is not just to the future that I am envisioning, but the past too, and I am always changing my view.

I entered the classroom of creative, nonfiction, writing again, as I stated, to see what else I had to say about my life. It turns out that this time I became interested in the actual craft of essays, and that I veered far, far away from wishing to have a collection of lessons under my belt from other people’s lives. I started focusing on the development of sentences, how it was that they were strung together. Or the diction, what voice did the author wish to relay upon us? If there was anything broad that I was concerned with while I read nonfiction during my last semester in college was regarding topic choice or structure, but never with the hefty: What did the author conclude about who he or she is?

I was glad to be inhabiting a narrower view. Glad that I had left the heavy expectations to have a coherent grasp of my life and myself in relation to it. And I was even more glad to find an entire world of writing with the intention to produce a beautiful piece with a profound emotional effect, rather than the philosophical burden of organizing human “messes.” Sometimes a story well told—the right details, right organization and the appropriate prose—is better than one with a grandiose ending intended to profess some implacable truth about the human experience.

It is so interesting to see how intimate our writing is to our inner life. I cannot seem to separate the two anymore. Now that I have shifted my writing to be one more detailed, less political or philosophical and more concerned with capturing the moment right, is that I find myself also more present in my life, often fixating in such minor details, like the sky that day or the texture of my t-shirt. My life now seems subdued of an existential anxiety that I had borne for far too long. It’s nice to view life exactly as it falls upon me. Now, I am concerned with tying small moments together into sentences and I am finding that this seems like an adequate way to experience life, in its minutiae, rather than its absolution.

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