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Copyright Melanie Spiller 2011. Do not copy without permission.
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Writing Personal Essays

There’s been a trend in publishing for, oh, the last hundred years or so, to write personal essays. That’s where you talk about something that interests you and why it interests you. It’s like a monolog you might deliver to a patient friend.

 

The most recent trend in personal essays is to write about something in your past—like your childhood—that was a learning experience or a revealing moment. Many people write about the most painful things in their lives as a way of expunging them. Because modern psychological thinking encourages sharing personal information, lots and lots of these exposures make it into the public eye. I’m not sure that’s always a good thing, but that’s beside the point.

 

The point is that in addition to the various flavors of fiction, technical books, and technical articles, writing personal essays is another option. Mark Twain popularized this genre, writing about why he found German and French odious and various political peccadilloes. (He also wrote travelogues and political satire, genres that will be the subject of future blogs.)

 

In a sense, a blog is a kind of personal essay: it’s an opportunity to expound upon something meaningful to the writer, whether that’s baby’s first step, a trip to Iceland, or an interesting item from a high-tech developer. This difference between a blog and an essay is subtle, then: a blog is meant to be short and specific and an essay might wander a bit to bring the point home, and it’s much more likely to be entirely subjective than most other types of writing.

 

If you’re a regular reader, you’ve noticed a wee bit of difference between my technical blogs and my more general ones: exposing the underbelly of American English grammar is roughly parallel to a technical article/blog and the ones that root around in the pleasures of critical writing or certain word choices (like People Versus Persons, November 2004) are more like personal essays. You can see that the distinction is subtle.

 

I could sum the difference up by saying that a blog is what the writer thinks will be of interest to the reader, and a personal essay is what the writer thinks is interesting himself: the distinction is a question of audience.

 

I have read oodles of blogs where only the writer could possibly find the contents interesting (I include no names to protect the solipsistic), and I’ve certainly seen blogs that are rants and vents intended to relieve pressure and to provide a little excitement on the chance that the subject will read it and be told off without the writer having to actually stand before the odious one and take the resultant lumps, but that’s not really what I mean.

 

Let’s go back to Mark Twain. He wrote both blog-style essays (see "The Danger of Lying in Bed") where he’s just sharing his humorous thoughts on an unimportant subject, and he wrote personal essays, where he’s trying to convince the reader to pay attention to some circumstance or other (see "A Monument to Adam") and he’s making a point about the folly of bureaucrats or the importance of paying attention to what’s going on in the world.

 

The question seems to be whether you can include both types of work in a single source, like your blog. Countless anthologies include Twain’s work in a single source, so the answer has historically been “sure.” I think that if you have a basic theme for your blog—like mine, for instance—there’s plenty of room for both. And if you don’t have a theme, well, your readers will be used to your wandering and it doesn’t matter anyway.

The critical element is recognizing whether the word “personal” can be attached to what you’ve written. In my hundred-plus blogs on writing, only once did I veer off the topic of writing and the tools for writing, the day after I rolled my car (September 2004). I needed to write about it to expunge it or put language to it and move it from a nightmare into a memory as part of my personal journey. I didn’t intend to publish it at all, but I discovered that I needed sympathy, so I put it out there in my blog with an apology. I got nearly as many comments on it as I have on the more complex aspects of grammar or when I made a spelling booboo when I was talking about gratuitous Latin. This was clearly a personal essay and I got the sympathy I was looking for. (Thank you.)

 

Most of my word usage- and general writing advice-flavored blogs qualify as personal essays: there may be loads of facts in there, but in the end, these are my opinions. Narrowing it down then, a personal essay either describes a personal experience or it expounds on a personal opinion. If you’re as clever as Mark Twain you can throw a little fiction in there to shake it all up, but the end result is the same: there is a point to be made that is opinion, not necessarily fact.

 

I think that personal essays hold—and should hold—a huge place in literature. Through them, we find out what it was like to live in other times or places, and we get insight into another person’s thought processes during experiences that differ from our own. But do they belong in blogs? I don’t know.

 

The reason I’m exploring this is that my brother is considering joining the great army of bloggers out there. He’s sent me a handful of some potential blogs, and what struck me about them was how academic they were. Some are on politics, others on religion, some on politics and religion, and a few on the science of a diet he’s trying. I came away from reading them thinking that they were interesting and well-written, but that somehow they didn’t “feel” like blogs. Why not, I wondered?

 

The reason they didn’t seem like blogs is that they were longish—more than four pages, typically, and one looked like it was 20 pages long (my brother uses rich text, so I’m guessing based on how many times I had to scroll). Another is that there are footnotes and references all over the place to “outside” reading. Is there anything wrong with this?

 

Of course not. But I’m not sure that such erudition and academic style is associated with the word “blog.” Are blogs necessarily short? I think the answer is that yes, they usually are. Sometimes a subject can’t be contained in two or three pages: some authors let these issues occupy as much space as they need and others break them up into smaller chunks to be published separately. But a typical blog, it seems, is much more likely to occupy a fraction of a computer screen than to last for four or more screens.

 

I’ve certainly found ample examples of longish academic or scientific essays out there. Typically, they were about a political or environmental issue, and typically they were on Web sites devoted to the topic or a particular essayist rather than in a conventional blog-style forum. I suppose that’s what I’ll recommend for my brother. Then, unless he joins a forum of similar writers, the only question is how to drive traffic to his site. (Warning: impending future familial advertising.)

 

If you’re interested in reading more of Mark Twain’s works, there’s a decent site at http://www.mtwain.com/. It is rife with typos, but you can read past them easily. Twain is one of America’s better writers, and if you didn’t know that he wrote more than “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn,” you’re in for a special treat.