I’ve always loved the form of the personal essay. As a teenager, I loved reading Mademoiselle and Glamour magazines, largely because of the personal essays in their pages by writers such as Mary Cantwell. A Google search leads me to a blog called EAT, “a tribute to Mary Cantwell” by Julia Reed, which mentions Cantwell’s columns for Mademoiselle as being about the pleasures of meals taken alone or with family and friends—but that’s not how I remember them. I wasn’t particularly interested in food in high school, when I consumed Cantwell’s essays, but I do recognize Reed’s appreciation of Cantwell’s style as that of “a memoirist at heart.” Intimate but not raw; smart but not show-offy; and wonderfully able to transport a seventeen-year-old out of herself and into a wider world. When I learned years later that Cantwell had lived in NYC’s West Village, I thought Aha, as though the geographical provenance of those articles had seeped between every word to breathe their bohemian allure of cobblestoned mews and charmingly non-grid streets to my suburban bedroom in bland California. A romanticized notion, yes—but to someone who recalls walking home from the subway on an early fall evening as the sunset over the Hudson cast a honey light over the gray cobbles, not so far off the mark.
But I digress. I didn’t start this post to wax nostalgic about the state of women’s magazines in the 1970s or reminisce about West Village sunsets, but to write about personal essays. So maybe the previous paragraph isn’t so much of a digression after all.
As a college freshman, I took a yearlong Western Civ class that began (of course) with the Greeks and ended somewhere after Freud. Of all the sentences I read that year, here’s one that I recall verbatim: The surest sign of wisdom is constant cheerfulness.
Michel de Montaigne wrote those words in the second half of the sixteenth century. He was the first to use the word “essay”—not for the five-paragraph structure of thesis, supporting evidence, conclusion that I’d churned out in high school, but for the kind of writing that made me run to the mailbox for my latest issue of Mademoiselle. Montaigne wrote rambling explorations on such topics as friendship, anger, “some verses of Virgil,” and thumbs. On anything, in other words. He called them “essais” from the French verb essayer, to try. Explorations, attempts. He digressed, he contradicted himself. He engaged in rapt fascination with the human condition.
In my Creative Nonfiction classes at UC Berkeley Extension and through the Glen Online, I assign a textbook called Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola, which explores the lyrical essay, the braided essay, the personal essay, the hermit-crab essay, the essay that weaves in reporting, the essay that plays with different points of view, etc. The forms are myriad, which doesn’t mean that essays are loosy-goosy journal entries. They are, however, plastic. Moldable. That’s where the “essayer” comes in, the trying-out, the shaping. And when we read a good essay, we’re engaged in conversation with the mind doing the shaping. Personal essays fascinate.
When I read Montaigne now, I’m not drawn as much to statements like “the surest sign of wisdom is constant cheerfulness,” which have about them an air of pronouncement, a whiff of the pedantic, as to the way Montaigne punches holes in his own sureness, the way he contradicts himself happily, like Whitman three hundred years later.
All good writing takes us into a wider world, of course. Personal essays are just one way of getting there. At their best, they reach beyond their stated topic to embrace a wider scope. They entertain, they shock, they educate (but do not lecture)—sometimes all at once. Some are light, even frivolous; others, dead serious. Best American Essays is a good annual source, and a predictable one. At the back of each issue, a list of publications gives other venues. Alas, you won’t find any in Mademoiselle these days, but there’s always Montaigne. And somewhere, in some suburban bedroom, whether online or on Kindle or on a paper page, some bookish seventeen-year-old is reading one and thinking, I want to write like this.
Any personal essays you’ve read recently and liked (or not)?