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.
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.
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.