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.
Phillip Lopate, The Art of the Personal Essay
I hate reading blogs. All that personal business—yuck.
My anonymous friend (let’s call her ‘Daisy’)
It kind of hurt when my friend Daisy said she hates reading blogs. “All those people spilling their guts!” she said. “Like anyone’s life is all that interesting.”
I had to think she was sending me a thinly veiled message about my own blog, which is, of course, pretty much all personal essays. I ended the conversation as gracefully and as quickly as I could, but it left me a little grumpy. And it nudged me to ponder the value of blogging and personal essays. It made me think about why I do it.
I started my blog three years ago…started it as a discipline. I was a couple years away from retirement, and I wanted, when I finished working, to approach writing in a more organized and professional way. I thought that committing to a weekly blog would be a very good exercise.
I wasn’t quite sure what I would write about. Maybe just the funny, quirky things that happen. Maybe a little bit about parenting an adult child with autism, and how the stigma attached to developmental disabilities and/or mental illness still lingers. Maybe I’d explore ending a long career and beginning what I fervently hope will be a long and rich retirement; I’d document the changes and discoveries I encounter.
Maybe, I’d write about cookies. Or coffee. Or chocolate.
I set myself a date and time—every Saturday morning at 6 AM—and I plunged in.
I DID develop a discipline (in three years, I’ve only missed posting once), but I also found something totally unexpected. The value of blogging, I think, is in the sharing of things that have some kind of universal meaning. And it’s in the feedback and response—in the community—that centers around the rich writing in the blogosphere.
“Every man has within himself the entire human condition,” Michel Montaigne said hundreds of years ago. His language was a little gender exclusionary, but his point was right on: the details and the setting may be vastly different, but under the surface, the things we experience are very, very much the same.
The stories we share have common themes—human fallibility, human relationships, human triumphs. It picks me up to read a fellow blogger’s account of the birth of a child, the birth of a book, or the start of an exciting new adventure. I remember—or I can imagine—the feelings of exhilaration.
I can relate to frustration too, when I read a post about feeling stuck, being unable to move forward, and not knowing why. Deep chords chime when I encounter someone’s account of the excitement of their first professional job; they also chime when people write of loss.
And sometimes I have to laugh out loud when I read about the string of disasters, told in a funny, self-deprecating style, that one person’s bad day can bring. “I know!” I think. “I know exactly what you mean!” Suddenly, my own disastrous day doesn’t seem that bad at all.
So reading other people’s personal essays reinforces what I feel and what I know. It makes me realize my reactions are shared. In the dark times, the reading reminds me I am not alone in inhabiting the darkness.
Reading personal blogs stretches me, too. I doubt I’ll ever see a jaguar in the wild, but I can read Josh’s blog and imagine what that’s like. I can understand, too, the value those magnificent cats add to our world, and why it would be disastrous to watch that species disappear. I can gain empathy with a young woman struggling with mental illness and the challenges and joys of parenting a toddler. I can learn what it’s like to be a student in India, a young wife in Paris, a single woman of a certain age in the United Kingdom.
People who struggle with serious illness. People on the autism spectrum. Scientists and mathematicians, expert knitters, clergypeople. People with lives as different from mine as…hmmm: as vinegar is from snowballs. And yet.
And yet their words sing off the pages, teach me, stretch my boundaries, make me realize the vastness and the beauty and the infinite richness of the human spirit.
One of the absolute requisites of a compelling personal essay, Phillip Lopate tells us in the introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, is this: honesty. When we read about another’s life, and when they tell their story with transparency and without defenses, we are moved and we connect.
Most certainly, there is always a little bit of self-belief involved. We are pretty sure we have something interesting to say, or that what we’ve just encountered is something others may be interested in. We think we can tell the story in a way that engages. And what’s wrong with that? That is not vanity; it’s confidence and recognition. The writer is telling her own story, sure, but she’s thinking of the reader and reaching out to connect. He’s writing to share, not to boast or to pontificate.
Of course, there’s always the danger we might stumble on a blogger whose motive is just to let us know how supremely wonderful she is, or why he is a gift to the world. I confess to not having found those blogs, but if I did, there’s nothing that would compel me to keep reading them.
Instead, I will continue to read the wonderful blogs I’ve encountered—to watch the snow outside my window and then read about a blogging friend slogging through a tropical rainstorm, to contemplate the church I think I will probably attend while reading about the richness of another religion, the purity of a blogging friend’s belief. I’ll learn about birds and baking and loneliness and the rigors of raising a family of eight. My cultural knowledge will expand. I’ll remember what it was like to be terrified and 18, and I’ll read the book blog of an octogenarian buddy and know I have great things to look forward to. I’ll realize how things have changed, and I’ll appreciate what’s stayed the same, and I’ll contemplate the richness of our tapestried world..
So let Daisy avoid the blogosphere. I’ll keep my Saturday morning dates, and I’ll look forward to exploring the posts our blogging friends share. Maybe I’ll find a new recipe, learn something fascinating, or be moved to tears or shaken into laughter. Maybe I’ll connect with someone who becomes a lifelong blogging friend. Maybe all of those will happen in one reading, and it will be because someone had the courage to write a personal essay and put it out there in the blogosphere.
So let’s keep sharing our essays. Happy blogging, my friends!