Musings on the Personal Essay


Joni Mitchell, musician, painter and dare I say, one whom muses, had this to say:

You could write a song about some kind of emotional problem you are having, but it would not be a good song, in my eyes, until it went through a period of sensitivity to a moment of clarity. Without that moment of clarity to contribute to the song, it’s just complaining.

It’s easy to see, then, how this relates to the personal essay. I wish I had seen this quote sooner because let’s be honest: My personal essays that I’ve penned in the past have sucked. At the time, they felt strong and like I was “bleeding onto the page,” as we writers like to suggest, but I was merely doing exactly what Joni Mitchell has said here; I was complaining. It reads like the whiny prose you’d see on an abandoned Myspace profile than something serious featuring some valuable insight or message.

I certainly have many emotional issues that weigh on me in such a way, as to force me to write about them. Not writing about them is genuinely, mentally painful. It’s like allowing poisoned blood to circulate your veins instead of letting it gush out, cleansing yourself.

But that doesn’t mean I’ve written about them well. Or in such a way as worthy of publication. Which is right in line with some rejection letters I’ve received when sending my personal essays out. In fact, if I recall correctly, one rejection letter even used the words “whiny” and “complaining.” And I don’t fault them for that pointed criticism, as it lies with the ineptness of this writer to convey an emotionally charged point-of-view in an effective manner.

With that, though, when writing about such personal material and presenting such nakedness to others, you often — well, I often — get lost in the gravitas of that act. In other words, “Hey, I’m naked to the world, isn’t that enough for you people?” No. Just because I’m “naked” doesn’t mean people have to like what they see or in this case, read. Sure, the courage, the boldness to present yourself so honestly and openly is commendable, but if that’s all you’re doing, then you’ve only managed half the battle as a writer.

Because at the end of the day, what’s boldness in writing if the writing sucks?

2 thoughts

  1. This is fascinating to me. I too feel the need to write my own personal feelings and experiences, but I struggle to relate them to a bigger picture. I’ve actually shared essays with my writing group and received the feedback, “Well, poor you.” haha

    It’s definitely the number one hurdle for nonfiction writers, essayists in particular.


    1. It’s rough; for that reason — the difficulty involved/fearing that I’m whining — I haven’t written a new personal essay in almost a year now. I’m hoping keeping this quote in mind can be the catalyst I need to dive back into it.


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