#LiteraryCriticism: How to Read a Personal Essay (Walmart Style)

Jeri Walker
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Jeri Walker
Jeri Walker
Jeri Walker
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I’m dipping into the literary criticism vault today to share a subject near and dear to my heart: personal essays. Yes, I am a lover of the much-maligned essay and for good reason. This exploration of how to read a personal essay is an essay within an essay, and one I could revise for years to come. I’d love to know your thoughts on this often overlooked genre.

 

How to Read a Personal Essay (Walmart Style)

 

 

 

Once upon a graduate school time, I would occasionally find myself shopping at Walmart on a Friday evening. Back in those days, I would make every attempt to buy groceries in the early morning when it would be just me and a few other serene shoppers strolling up and down the aisles—but those plans would often get nixed due to school and teaching demands.

 

In the a.m. hours, Walmart is as vast and peaceful as the Western Frontier must have seemed to all those pioneers not so long ago. I can mosey around admiring all that I survey, wishing to make it all mine—toasters, ready-to-assemble home décor, tropical fish. The smell of fake leather in the shoe department practically makes my skin tingle.

 

Once everyone gets off work, and especially so on the weekends, humanity makes a mad dash to this evil empire of consumerism. On this particular Friday of reminisce, the poor white trash quota surpasses my kind—the tired, frustrated, bitchy graduate student. An assignment for a History of the Personal Essay course taught by Bruce Ballenger looms, and something about the Walmart clientele set my mind in motion.

 

Picture of Michel de Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne is considered the father of the personal essay. Never fear, his writing is far less stuffy than he looks!

 

In the pet food aisle, I round the corner with my cart and am nearly toppled by a big fat man riding one of those scooter-like wheelchairs that can turn on a dime. He scowls at me and quickly jerks his chair to the left. Later, I spot him coming down one of the frozen-food aisles. The faint buzz of his chair’s motor distracts me as I squint at the aisle markers wondering where in the hell the spray starch might be. Again, he maneuvers around me and gives that look that says he’s the handicapped one and that I should be scurrying to give him a wide berth. Next, I am nearly sideswiped by his equally huge lady-companion who also rides on a scooter. Both of their massive sets of buttocks ooze over each tiny seat.

 

The coast looks clear until I’m in the dairy aisle. After deciding on some Vanilla Toffee Caramel International Delight Creamer, I cross over to the egg case and begin lifting the lids on every large AA-sized carton in order to make sure none are broken. This time, the portly man and woman come at me, or rather past me, toward the multi-colored, shiny plastic of the margarine containers.

 

“We need some margarine,” says the woman, her hair looking like it may have been coated in some sort of equally oily substance.

 

“Grab one of those big ones.”

 

“Ohh, look two for one!” she squeals in delight.

 

In that moment, I know this is something I must write about. These fat-assed folks riding in wheelchairs who muster more excitement over margarine than most people feel over pretty much anything, even sex. Which probably isn’t saying much for this couple since their girth makes it pretty evident they aren’t doing the nasty, so maybe to them, margarine really is the next best thing.

 

As a writer, I know what I observe in these elated Walmart shoppers will not be what someone else will see, and that is why I must write it all down. As an essayist, I aspire to find small moments and make them something huge. One of my favorite essays does just that. The best essays teach the reader how they are to be read as the words on the page capture the mental gymnastics of a mind simultaneously at work and at play.

 

 

In “This is Our World” by Dorothy Allison, she uses the essay form to explore how our perceptions differ. The worlds we encounter in personal essays don’t have to be a one-size-fits-all affair. In his comprehensive detailing of the personal essay genre, Phillip Lopate states, “How the world comes at another person, the irritations, jubilations, aches and pains, humorous flashes—these are the classic building materials of the personal essay” (xxvii). Allison presents us with a provocative world, whereas I choose to make fun of mine.

 

The beauty of the essay stems from the “the private, idiosyncratic voice in an era of anonymous babble” (Sanders 661). Allison’s voice invites us in. Her third sentence establishes the direction her essay will take while also hinting at what her essay may do for the reader. She writes, “I took the notion that art should surprise and astonish, and hopefully make you think something you had not thought until you saw it” (617). The essay gains momentum from section to section.

 

There is little joy in having an author hammer us over the head immediately with the point. Otherwise, there would be reason to continue. The serious approach of Allison’s dramatically differs from my comical observations of the Walmart lard-asses, but either approach attempts to keep us reading.

 

At first glance, understanding seems illusive. Like Allison’s essay states, art should make us think of new things. We ask of many things but what does it all mean only to get frustrated when thirty seconds of heartfelt contemplation yields no satisfaction. Or, and perhaps this is the reason why the average Joe doesn’t appreciate essays, we refuse to question how to understand something because our brains aren’t trained to make the effort.

 

Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain that ability to function” (520). Essays challenge the mind’s capacity for thought and allow ventures down new paths.

 

There is no such thing as a dull essay, just as there is no such thing as a dull person. Maybe you don’t see anything exceptional or interesting in the aforementioned wheelchair bound shoppers, or maybe you think I am unfair and unkind in making light of their plight, but whatever way you chose to see it, just know that any situation can be rendered on the page in a quality essayistic treatment.

 

Good essays invite us in or as Virginia Woolf puts it, “A good essay must have this permanent quality about it; it must draw its curtain round us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in, not out” (307). When I read Allison’s essay, I feel shut in, like she’s having a conversation with me and nobody else is in the room.

 

If I were to continue the essay about the Walmart shoppers, I would attempt to wrap you in a curtain that welcomes you into my realm of experience by making it familiar. It would be up to you to entertain my vision for the length of the essay. And why not do just that?  My Walmart essay would be about how the store’s customers are indicative of many depressing issues present in American society, more so than just scathing remarks that enable me to feel better about myself by poking fun at others.

 

 

The reason why we can tolerate and love personal essays usually results from a little self-deprecation on the author’s behalf. Believe me, I’d also make sure to note that I sometimes go to various supercenters simply to get away from the real world, and that’s pretty sad. Walmart is my television, my heroine, my sex, all for the low-low price of $5.99. Most essays have an apparent subject and a deeper subject, to varying degrees, and essayists counter significant detail with reflecting on making meaning as a way of understanding life.

 

Allison’s essay utilizes surface and deeper subject matter perfectly. Maybe you think essayists are egoists, and the more personal their writing, the more self-centered the prose. Keep in mind that even personal essays vary in the amount of disclosure the author utilizes. I’m the bleeding-heart type, but you may not be. What matters is that we bring an awareness to the genre pertaining to how quick we generally judge opinions when it comes to issues of power and authority. A good essayist practices careful patience and makes careful judgments.

 

The relationship between the reader and the writer must not be ignored. For all the supposed emotional baggage that authors carry, we can’t ignore that each of us also brings our histories to a reading of any particular piece of writing. Throwing all that baggage together makes an essay pulse and ebb with a life all its own. Simply being able to relate to an essay’s content does not mean all its rewards have been reaped.

 

I invite you to come shopping with me at Walmart. See what I see is my invitation. Where I may dwell in absurdity, another writer may take another approach. That’s the allure of the essay. It’s as close as we can get in this confusing thing we call life to truly reaching out to one another from the many realities we all swim through.

 

The best essays make us think. Allison poses many questions that allow reflection. Essays render life on the page to the best of the author’s ability and we can take it or leave it, but we are better off at least making an attempt to temporarily entertain the author’s view. In other words, reading an essay is hard work. The inner-workings of an author’s mind are not revealed so much for our judgment or approval, but rather for the pleasure of seeing a mind at work.

 

We should read an essay like we should live life. Slowly, deliberately, and with an agile mind and spirit. Hurrying from paragraph to paragraph in search of an illusive point will get us nowhere when so much more pleasure can be gained from journeying with the author through a spectrum of possibility or doubt. Good essays perch on our brains like chameleons as appearances shift and meaning changes color under the careful eye of the reader. Whatever you do, save the skimming for computer manuals and textbooks.

 

 

Philip Gerard’s book Creative Nonfiction offers the following insight about most readers’ experience with how writing is organized, “Structure is the arrangement of parts and all the techniques you use to hold the parts together and make it do what it is intended to do. Most readers never notice structure—until it falters.

 

In fact, one sign that you’ve done it right is precisely that the reader doesn’t notice” (156). Allison’s essay relies on a complex structure as she delves into an exploration of the purpose of art. As each section moves forward, it also moves back and references what came before it, while at the same time also expanding the implications of her topic. This strategy provides a constant thread that links each section so that we barely notice how gracefully she weaves everything together. If I’m doing my job, you’ve made it this far and will stay with me until the end.

 

Even if you experience difficulty fathoming an author’s intent, glom onto whichever lines that stick out, for whatever reason, any at all will do—so long as you truly like the line. There will not be a quiz after all. Also think about the title. Most authors put great thought into them. Writing communicates so much more than fact. Darn key lines, you might be thinking, they pop up all over the place. Certain lines carry more tension than others and they work double-time to advance the essay.

 

Allison writes about the painting, “It had what I am sure art is supposed to have—the power to provoke the authority of a heartfelt vision” (619). Once you find one line that you love or hate, they will keep popping out at you. Again, Allison builds to another key line, “I have the hope of understanding something I did not understand before” (621). Some readers may demand that there be a sense of truth and that Allison’s comments skew things. Essays are like that. We each encounter reality differently, and the most flexible minds bend their version of truth in order to temporarily entertain another.

 

The end of Allison’s essay moves further from the specific to the most general of implications, “we are not the same” (623). Hopefully, Allison’s line of questioning gets the reader to explore their thoughts on art. Now Allison gets at the meat of the matter. Art itself is not indicative of anything, it is our reactions to art that matter. What we see is who we are and if we don’t or won’t see anything, then who are we?  It really is our world, and as such, we do not exist in a vacuum.

 

 

Life carries so many unapparent commonalities and connections and Allison has begun to touch on a few of these links in relation to what art does and what art can tell us about ourselves. Then comes the big line, “Art is not meant to be polite, secret, coded, or timid” (624). All experience and ways of knowing have validity and this essay and many more like it opens up the reader to multiple perspectives. Her essay comes full circle and offers closure even though it offers no concrete answers because every answer only brings up a new question. Just like real life, sometimes in order to feel free to be ourselves, we must grant ourselves permission to explore the possibilities of a world that more often than not boxes us in. Essays make that attempt, and more often than not, the attempt is what matters.

 

Oh yes, now where was I?  Not so long ago I found myself shopping at Walmart on a Friday evening. Ready for a little adventure?  Sure you are. You now know how to read a personal essay.

 

*The list of works cited appears at the end of this post.

 

As a writer or reader, what are your thoughts on the personal essay?

 

 

Image Credit: Michel de Montaigne via Wikimedia.

 

Works Cited

 

Allison, Dorothy. “This is Our World.”  The Writer’s Presence. Ed. Donald McQuade and Robert Atwan. Boston:  Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000. 617-625.

 

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. “The Crack-Up.”  The Art of the Personal Essay. Ed. Phillip Lopate. New York:  Anchor Books, 1994. 520-531.

 

Gerard, Philip. “Mystery and Structure, Style and Attitude.”  Creative Nonfiction. Cincinnati:  Story Press, 1996. 155-178.

 

Lopate, Phillip. Introduction. The Art of the Personal Essay. New York:  Anchor Books, 1994. xxiii-liv.

 

Sanders, Scott Russell. “The Singular First Person.”  Sewanee Review 96, no. 4 (1988 Fall). 658-672.

 

Woolf, Virginia. “The Modern Essay.”  The Common Reader. New York:  Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1925. 293-307.

Author: Jeri Walker

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53 Comments

  1. I like reading essays, even the political ones, believe it or not. I find they’re written from a more poetic angle, which, at least for me, it so enjoyable. I like writing them too. Why I don’t do more reading or writing of this genre, I can’t tell you because I’m not sure why this is.

    Post a Reply
    • Glynis, I love political essays most of all 🙂 I think essays tend to be associated with those five-paragraph nightmares students have to write in school, and that sense of pre-formatted drudgery follows the form into our adult years, even when we do realize essays can be so much for than just themes written for school.

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  2. I certainly agree with your point about saving the skimming for the textbooks and computer manuals. In fact, I just had a little laugh after reading it a second time. Your piece here really taught me about (yet again) how to look at my own writing and to really try and see if my words and phrases are making people think. As with everything, it’s easy to just stumble through some writing and arrive at a humungous number of words without really having said anything. That’s the big struggle I have these days.

    I mostly prefer what you quote Virginia Woolf as saying. Permanence or timelessness are important when reading but I do think dating your work is important for context of setting. Otherwise, keep it without a time stamp and it will transcend generations. It’s been a while since I’ve had solid enough wifi to stop by. Thanks for reminding why I should book places with better connections:)

    Take Care, Jeri.

    Post a Reply
    • Duke, glad you have access to wifi and could stop by 🙂 I think we’ve all been there when we’ve written a lot only to realize we’ve ended up with a ton of words that don’t have much impact at all, and then it’s back to the drawing board…

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  3. Fantastic post Jeri – and thank you for reminding me of Dorothy Allison. I love her writing, but she has escaped my bookshelf for a while. I imagine her essays are very thought provoking. I’ve been slow to come to appreciating non-fiction, but now I finally can , I agree they should be read slowly and not whizzed through as we might an essay. Itf the work is any good there’s a point to every sentence, and impossible to take in all at once. You’re very harsh on the two customers I have to say, but your descriptions really added a lot to the strength of the work.

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    • A.K., it’s been while since I’ve delved much into Allison’s work as well, but I love her style. The best essays, like all good writing, really can be read again and again and we’ll come away with new insights each time. And yes, I was pretty relentless in portraying the Walmart clientele. I wouldn’t have it any other way 😉

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  4. Oh my how I loved this! I have to admit, that personal essays have not been the thing I seek, even though, after reading them, I find them completely satisfying. Maybe it’s because it’s like savoring a great meal; not chewing so fast and swallowing right away, so you can absorb and appreciate all the flavors. As to your Walmart observations? Brilliant!

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    • Jacquie, essays definitely require a certain focus and mindset to read, which is what I hope this post helps convey. Looks like I’ve come full circle regarding Walmart. I am back shopping there on occasion after years away now that my budget has changed. I’m sure the new trips will result in more fodder for writing.

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  5. Great post—but I still won’t go to a Walmart (hehehe…) My laboratory of humanity is my favorite coffee bar, the line at the Whole Paycheck (Whole Foods) and buzz of competing conversations that surround me in a city overstuffed with people determined to carve out personal space where there is none.

    Keep on posting. Keep on writing.

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    • Candy, isn’t it a amazing how we all try to carve out personal space? Having only visited NYC once, I can only start to imagine what it’s like to live there on a daily basis. I would feel so closed in. I’m too much of a Westerner that way. I do venture in Whole Paycheck on occasion and definitely should commit some observations to paper one of these days. Two tattooed guys picking out flowers there for their girls there the other day provided a good contradiction of sorts.

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  6. I’ve never thought about writing about WalMart! Actually we don’t have one near by but we do have a Target where the clientele is a step up but you have to be careful not to wear a red shirt or people will think you’re one of the employees!

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    • Jan, oh no! How does one not have a Walmart nearby? Each big-box store definitely comes with its on unique flavor though. Have you seen the SNL skits about Target Lady?

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  7. The title may be about reading a personal essay, but the article had me thinking about writing them. I don’t read a lot of essays, but when I read good ones, ones that draw me into the details and make me think, I am struck by the quality of the writing. There is a real art to penning a good essay. I like your comment about the histories we each bring making an essay pulse and ebb. Lately, I’ve thinking about how our individual experiences influence all the stories we read.

    Post a Reply
    • Donna, good writing really does come to life and take hold of us. There’s such an art form to crafting such pieces, but I really do fear some of that is being lost in this day and age. The average reader definitely isn’t on the prowl for essays, though in a way, many bloggers are modern-day essayists, but tend not to think of themselves as such.

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  8. Fantastic read! I thoroughly enjoyed the Walmart story, and concur with much of it. 🙂

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    • Debby, essays really can be about any topic under the sun. Maybe someday I’ll come back to the Walmart piece and turn it into more of a commentary on consumerism in general and the tendency of shoppers to buy cheap things that won’t last.

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  9. ***These fat-assed folks riding in wheelchairs who muster more excitement over margarine than most people feel over pretty much anything, even sex***

    superbly interesting)))!!!

    PS. Nobody can quite write a personal essay as well as Woolf! Oh, and Plath KICKS ass. And Jeri Walker! xx

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    • Kim, Woolf and Plath, indeed! Now there’s two ladies worth keeping literary company with.

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  10. Excellent post, dear Jeri,
    I´d say that all essays are personal essays as they represent thoughts and feelings about a given specific topic.
    In Spanish they are most times related to political subjects … or technical scopes of Knowledges, such as Law, Literature, Philosophy to name a few ones…
    When it comes to formal essays, the structure is basically and introduction, a core which usually includes hypothesis or suppositions and furthermore and lastly a conclusion, which tends to approve or disapprove the previous hypothesis… you are compelled to include quotes and their respective footnotes too…
    As to personal essays in English I read that the suggested and probably shortest form is an introductory paragraph followed by three paragraphs outlining three main points and a final summary paragraph.
    I assume that the hypothesis would be included in the introduction…
    I am wondering if the term essay is more extensive thus less specific when it comes to rules to follow along in personal essays in English…
    I much enjoyed the reading… thanks so much … Sending best wishes. Aquileana ☀️

    Post a Reply
    • Aqui, there are many types of essays and rhetorical devices writers can press into play. The term essay comes from the French essai which means to try or attempt. Some of the best essays are full of tangents, but those meanderings work so long as the writer manages to rein them back in. So the basic form with five paragraphs is just the beginning, but the one that school kids get subjected to over and over again. The best essays really are like watching the mind at work/play on the page.

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  11. I like a good personal essay myself. Your Walmart observations do remind me of those pictures of The People of Walmart or some such website. You never know what you’re going to see at Walmart. Your observations are indeed comical. I was impressed that as a student you were actually looking for spray starch. Amazing! That gives us a little more insight into you. 🙂

    Post a Reply
    • Susan, well back in my graduate school days there were always shirts and slack to be ironed. I hated being a frumpy composition instructor. I haven’t owned a can of spray starch in years now, and the last time I ironed a shirt a couple of weeks ago, I burnt my leg. It’s a long story…

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  12. Jeri — the whole time I was reading your definition of an essay I was thinking “short story.” I’m not sure I quite understand the difference. Is it that a short story is fiction?

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    • Jeannette, a short story is fiction and an essay is nonfiction. Short stories do bear some similarities creative nonfiction in that elements of storytelling are the main focus such as plot, character, and setting. Emphasis will be own showing versus telling the reader. Essays dwell more of the realm of ideas and tend to be more abstract than short stories or creative nonfiction, though the lines tend to blur quite often.

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  13. You have such a way with words – you bring them to life.

    As you described the Walmart customers, I was able to picture them from head to toe.

    I like to people watch and I guess their lifestyle simply by looking at the way they present themselves.

    Post a Reply
    • Phoenicia, people watching is definitely a tried-and-true method for gaining writing inspiration. There’s just no telling where our minds may go when we start to making a myriad of connections. The best essays will make connections between seemingly unrelated things.

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  14. I do enjoy essays of many kinds. I love the remark that “it must be a curtain that shuts us in, not out” because it is so true and I really hadn’t thought of it like that. Of course, when I finish reading one, there is always that moment of returning to the “real” world. I guess that’s the same thing. Thank you for your thought-provoking and even amusing piece.

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    • Beth, the attempt to marry though-provoking with amusement is one I am drawn to again and again in my writing. I think this one works okay, but now that I’ve posted it, I instantly got a ton of ideas for ways to make it even better.

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  15. I love reading and writing personal essays, Jeri. I kind of equate them to a rant in some ways, LOVE the anecdote about the scooters in Walmart! You really have to dodge out of the way of some of them!!!

    Post a Reply
    • Doreen, some essays do function as rants. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to them so much. The form offers a chance to fully explore how the writer feels about a given subject by leaving on stone unturned.

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  16. Jeri, As I was reading your post I kept thinking, this style is similar to what the great stand-up comedians use for their acts. People like Jerry Seinfeld, Maria Bamford and Jim Gaffigan. They take microscopic view of “everyman” using themselves as the foil. And with their observation make point about society.

    Post a Reply
    • Pamela, oh yes, comedians are another group I would put in the same category as essayists. The form really is more widespread and loved than would seem likely at first glance. It’s a fluid genre and fits many different contexts well. I’d put Henry Rollins on that list as well.

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  17. Fascinating journey you’ve taken us on with your article Jeri. I can count on one hand the number of essay’s I’ve read, not because I’ve intentionally shunned them I just never think about them one way or the other. I’ll have to go hunting for a few to expand my horizons.

    On the Walmart front … well as you pointed out we all see different things based on our perspective and experiences. Having chaired 3 county food drives I confess to being a little more sober minded about the customer base. What I see is a lot of people working hard just to make ends meet – in my area that often means balancing multiple jobs and living on whatever food happens to fit into their meager budgets. Are some people out to squeeze a nickle – of course – but that’s not limited to the big box stores. I once saw an impeccably dressed woman making quite a scene as she argued with a clerk at Macy’s trying to get an extra “free” bonus gift. Thanks for sharing your inspiring observations Jeri!

    Post a Reply
    • Marquita, I hear where you coming from about the struggle to put food on the table. Never fear, I would love to cut that impeccably dressed woman at Macy’s down to size as well 😉

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  18. Jeri, you had me at the title! Now I want to know what happened to your Walmart couple. And I’m intrigued to read Allison’s essay. Also, this made me wonder if blogging isn’t just a new interpretation of the personal essay?

    Post a Reply
    • Meredith, blogging is definitely a new interpretation of the personal essay. In that regard, the form is very much alive and well, which makes me very happy.

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  19. I’d like to leave a more insightful comment but all I can think of at the moment are fat-assed scooter jockeys dominating the aisle space at the Walmart dairy department as they each tuck a tub of margarine next to their girth. Made me laugh out loud. I think we need a sketch to go with this.

    Post a Reply
    • Ken, Yay! It’s always good to hear my writing has caused a laugh-out-loud moment. As for a sketch, can you draw?

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  20. I enjoy personal essays most of the time. There are times when I’m reading some things and my mind starts to wander though.

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    • Jason, that’s understandable. My mind wanders too when an essay doesn’t fully catch my attention. At the same time though, I do give the form a certain leeway I wouldn’t with reading a short story. I love dense essays that invite multiple re-readings, but as with all writing, the topic makes all the difference when it comes to catching a particular reader’s attention.

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  21. I first have to comment about Wal-Mart. When I was trying to get out of debt, I worked part time at night after my day job. People you described would always show up where I was stacking shelves. I think you can imagine what happens with an aisle full of boxes.
    I like reading other’s essays. It is fascinating if you look at the history of them how they have changed.
    At one time, they concentrated with religious believe. During, our revolution it was either faith in England, or a call to arms against them.
    There were essays written about the evil of slavery, or states rights.
    We all in a sense send out our essays now, in blogs and twitter and other social medias. I wonder if these will change over time too.
    Thanks for sharing a wonderful post with us.

    Post a Reply
    • William, I can imagine with your interest in history you’ve come across a lot of great essays. I can also imagine all of the color “people of Walmart” you encountered while working there 😉

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  22. Great article, Jeri. Am personally not that keen on essays for the simple reason that I prefer when a text is written in a journalistic way that draws us into the text i.e. we want to know more.

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    • Catarina, you might be drawn to literary journalism them with is a hybrid of the two styles of writing.

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  23. I have to say that I barely ever read a personal essay. However, I feel that if there ever were a society set to create a resurgence of the personal essay, the world we are living in would definitely be it. So many of my friends write long stories on Facebook about mundane things that happen to them from which they draw special significance. In a sense, these are seeds for personal essays. For that reason, I feel like young people growing up in this culture might really appreciate the task of writing a personal essay in a way that I didn’t when I was in school.

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    • Erica, how lovely that you see that connection between status updates as being seeds for personal essays. Surely that is the mark of an essayist waiting to be born.

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  24. Jeri, I wish I could see people the way you do and then write about them in a way that you actually are able to picture them. I am so non-creative that writing a personal essay is way beyond me but I sure enjoyed reading this.

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    • Lenie, thanks for that. Capturing people on the page has always been so much fun, though at times I think my tone can rub some people the wrong way 😉

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    • Laura, it was difficult blending humor with such serious research sources. All in all, I’m happy with it, but still have a ton of revision ideas.

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