First, an attempt at the impersonal: The man down the street from us works as a flight attendant, although I originally mistook him for a pilot—possibly due to my own gender biases, possibly because I swear that’s what he told me. He’s something of a mystery: slim, shock-white hair, so thin his cargo shorts hang from his hips. He claims to be married, but his wife was absent throughout the pandemic—taking care of family in Colombia, he told us. When pandemic restrictions lifted, she never reappeared. I see him in the evenings mostly, toddling down the street—he’s begun to toddle—calling out our dog’s name from blocks away.
“Oki,” he yells, “Oki, Oki, here boy, what a beautiful boy you are.”
When we meet, he always says something about how Oki is looking thinner or seems fatter, though Oki remains the same level of stout. I respond in a way that indicates that Oki is female, a gender he ignores. If one of my kids is with me, or my wife, Marta, he ignores them, too. He talks to Oki and about Oki, and sometimes about neighbors’ dogs, whose names and breeds he knows but I quickly forget. Oki is a rescue who loves humans and hates other dogs, and for her sake I remain uninvested in the neighbors’ canines—but there I go, losing the thread of the impersonal, if I ever had a hold of it at all.
There is a way to write impersonally, I know that. I worked for six years as a newspaper reporter after college: a confession that is not impersonal, even if the work was. I started by freelancing for a state-wide LGBTQ newspaper in Florida, writing about pride parades and profiling gay or gay-adjacent figures (my closest brush with fame: Ellen DeGeneres’ mom). With those clips, I landed a job as the sole reporter at a weekly newspaper on a tiny island on the west coast of state, where I drove a golf cart to cover the news and my editor decamped each day at 3 p.m. to a bar called The Temptation for his “office hours.”
In those two years reporting on that island, I learned most of what I still know about impersonal writing: how to seek input from competing sides, how to write in a clear and authoritative tone, how to mask any hint that I, the writer, have the slightest opinion on the subject or story at hand. It’s not just about avoiding the first person pronoun, I realized; to write impersonally, you must erase your self entirely from the reader’s mind.
The personal essay at one point was known as the familiar essay: Familiar implying a relationship between reader and writer, a companionship, or at least a knowledge of each other. The writer writes as if she knows her readers, as if they’ve stopped on the street to chat about the weather, perhaps, and then the weather around this time last year, and then that rainstorm that split the city in half with flooding, and then a passage about Noah that one of them read in a novel not long ago, and from there they might reach for doves and faith or back down to dry earth and the fate of one or another of their common acquaintances after that terrible storm: perhaps a stray with matted golden hair who a neighbor found barely alive after the water receded; what was her name?
Oh, yes, Stormy. The writer of the familiar essay writes in a way that allows the reader to know her, or think she does, which is to say the writer includes glimpses of her person or, in some cases, she suffuses the work with the force of her personality, but either way, her essay is one of companionship and communication.
Until the name changed. When the familiar essay became the personal essay, you got cut out, and only I remained. Complaints started soon after that. People began asking why I, the personal essay author, insist on forcing my messy self upon readers. People began tracking personal essays booms and the form’s subsequent deaths. Other people (or maybe the same ones) began talking about the most exploitive and revealing examples of the personal essay as if they were representative of the form. They made ridiculous claims about one genre being more rigorous or artful than the next. In response, defenses were proffered.
It was noted that critiques of the personal essay, and by extension memoir, are often gendered—not to mention classist and racist and homophobic. It was noted that the form’s history runs deep—back to Michel de Montaigne, or Sei Shōnagon, or Seneca, or the first person to ever write anything down. It was noted that the personal is political, and to ignore that fact is to erase history, but also society. I have little to add to those defenses except this: those who spend their time asking why personal essays remain so popular are barking up the wrong tree. A much more interesting question for the personal essay is this: Who am I?
In research my latest book—a memoir—I read and read old journals from high school, and in doing so, I found that question everywhere. Who am I? Am I real? Is any of this real? How do we know? These are the questions many of us ask when we’re young, and that some of us tend to lose track of as we age, as life crowds in and the existential get cannibalized by the practical: How do I keep this body nurtured? How do I make this person I am thrive? How do I love? How do I protect these creatures I’ve created? How do I stave off the end we all know awaits us? But if you are a writer, and especially if you’re a personal essayist, your work forces you to return to that teenage self, to that small philosopher, again and again, and ask, “Who am I?”
On the one hand, the answer seems simple. You write “I” and thus your person appears on the page. Or as the essayist Amy Fusselman writes in Idiophone: “You are a writer. You leave your body when you go to the page, you know. We’re all equally here, on the page. We’re all disembodied. We’re all just words. You and me, we’re just lined up obediently.” Though experience shows us that we are more than just words. We may need lines and sentences to carve out an existence on the page, but we quickly spill beyond whatever pronouns or descriptors or actions strive to define us.
No one gets at that contradiction better than Jorge Luis Borges. In his famous story, or essay, “Borges and I,” he contemplates the distinction, if any, between the Borges he is on the page and the man he is while writing those words on the page. “The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to,” he writes (or James E. Irby writes in his translation of Borges), before listing the ways in which his and Borges’ interests overlap, but also how Borges the author is never quite the same as Borges the person writing about his dueling selves, a contradiction he emphasizes by ending the essay with this line: “I do not know which of us has written this page.”
What Borges gestures at is sometimes called the author-narrator gap, the idea that, even in personal essay writing, when the author and the narrator are assumed to be one, there is still a gap—a crevice sometimes, a canyon in others—between who I am, right now, writing this essay (before dawn in Arizona with Oki sleeping at my feet on the morning of the midterm elections, my laptop open at a kitchen table that once belonged to my parents, drinking a cappuccino from the espresso machine I bought Marta for her birthday a month ago, listening to an airplane pass overhead, thinking about what to write next) and the person I appear to be within this essay (a characterization that lies with you).
Borges agrees that the narrator is a character, but he says the writer is a character, too, and that anytime we try to capture ourselves on the page we miss the mark. As we work to fashion a fully rendered version of ourselves, however, we are also arguably creating that self. Or as Claudia Rankine writes in Citizen, “Sometimes ‘I’ is supposed to hold what is not there until it is.”
In her essay “A Sketch of the Past,” Virginia Woolf imagines twin selves that we summon while writing: “I think that I have discovered a possible form for these notes,” she writes. “That is, to make them include the present—at least enough of the present to serve as a platform to stand upon. It would be interesting to make the two people, I now and I then, come out in contrast.” In other words, when you write about yourself, you are always present, and yet you must be present in double. If the “I now” is the author—or as close to her as we can get—then the “I then” is the person that author remembers being, a version of her in childhood, or falling in love for the first time, or drinking coffee just fifteen minutes ago, the light sky still dark, the awake children still asleep.
That bifurcation of the self works well in personal essay, and memoir, because it allows the reader to feel the younger self’s moments of pain or confusion or ecstasy without trapping us in that world. The present-tense self, the “I now,” is always there to make meaning out of the unvarnished and unprocessed perspective of who we once were—of memories that often come to us with a suddenness that Woolf compares to a shock. “This suggests that as one gets older one has a greater power through reason to provide an explanation, and that this explanation blunts the sledge-hammer force of the blow,” she writes in that same essay. “I think this is true, because though I still have the peculiarity that I receive these sudden shocks, they are now always welcome; after the first surprise, I always feel instantly that they are particularly valuable. And so I go on to suppose that the shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer.”
Hannah Arendt also envisions the self as two-in-one, but in a distinct way from either Woolf or Borges. For Arendt, the selves that comprise us are the sides of a dialogue we continually have within our (one?) self, a debate that transforms into a singular personality, or voice, once we attempt to talk to, or have a dialogue with, someone else (or, I’d argue, when we try to write an essay, personal or otherwise).
In her essay “Philosophy and Politics,” Arendt explains these dialoging selves in this way: “(E)ven if I were to live entirely by myself I would, as long as I am alive, live in the condition of plurality. I have to put up with myself, and nowhere does this I-with-myself show more clearly than in pure thought, always a dialogue between the two who I am.” And yet Arendt, like Woolf, still distinguishes between those capable of multiplicity and those without the skill of bifurcation. For Woolf, the difference lies between writers and those who can’t or won’t write, who don’t have memory “shocks” and seek to understand them, whereas for Arendt the distinction is moral. Those without an inner dialogue, she writes, are like Adolf Eichmann; they lack the ability to think.When you write about yourself, you are always present, and yet you must be present in double.
Sigmund Freud would counter, of course, that we are actually three, not two. His vision of the human psyche—superego, ego, and id—is a tripartite model that traces back to Plato, who saw the soul as a chariot, with its driver and two horses: one rational and the other its opposite. The driver, Freud’s ego, does her best to balance the rational and irrational drives of her horses and thus keep from steering off the road.
Just as, after returning from my run this morning, I found myself holding the reins of two competing urges: one yelling about how hungry she was, telling me to make breakfast first and write later; the other whispering softly, slyly, that if I don’t finish writing this essay now, it will never find its end. Such selves, critical and needy, bossy and lascivious, always inhabit us, Freud would say, even when we try to set them aside, as I am in this moment, my belly now full, my confidence returned. Even when silent, these selves simmer inside, reminding us of the absurdity of assuming that we can ever pretend to write with just one “I.”
If you read closely, you’ll notice that I just wrote both “I” and “we”—as if they were one. In some ways they are. The writer Lee Martin writes about the importance of defining the self in personal essay in relation to one’s role within a larger clan, be it your family, the town you grew up, your teammates, workmates, tribal citizens, fellow queers or Black poets or QAnon fanatics or—in the memoir I just finished writing—high school classmates. Martin urges writers to use the character of their clan as an identity that they both claim and push up against. “Ancient Greek drama becomes an interesting way of thinking about how this works,” he writes. “In those plays a chorus provided a cultural backdrop from which a single actor spoke. The voice of that actor was more personal, more lyric, giving the drama a more textured sound of an individual speaking from and being considered by a community.”
A perfect example of clan-writing as personal writing is the Latin American tradition of testimonio, and a master of that form is Rigoberta Menchú, who opens her autobiography with this line: “My name is Rigoberta Menchú. What has happened to me has happened to many other people too: my story is the story of all poor Guatemalans. My personal experience is the reality of a whole people.”
I read Menchú for the first time in high school, but I reread her when I went to Guatemala in my early thirties. This was after leaving my job as a newspaper reporter, after selling all my belongings, and driving from Houston to Iowa City, where I settled into the quiet routine of a graduate student: studying and writing essays and memoir and literary journalism.
I had the summers free that year for the first time since college, and I went to Guatemala to study Spanish, but also, while I was there, to learn more about the country itself, specifically about the Guatemalan Civil War, a thirty-six-year war in which more than two hundred thousand people were killed, many of them indigenous people like Menchú’s family. That war began because people in the United States was sufficiently scared of Communism, which is to say of losing power and influence in the world, that they maneuvered a ”regime change” in Guatemala in 1954, toppling a democratically elected president and installing a dictator who would remain faithful to this country, or rather my country.
The possessive feels important here. It acknowledges another fact of personal writing: we are never actually singular. Our fates and our opportunities are influenced by who we are and where we come from, and those histories in turn shape the fates and opportunities of others. The personal can feel like an imposition on the reader or a literary weakness akin to confession but owning it is also a way of taking responsibility for the rolling tide of history upon which you, and I, ride.
Another distinction: the personal essay centers the person writing (me!) but it is not by nature about that person. That’s the territory of memoir. Vivian Gornick argues in The Situation and the Story that memoir uses the world to understand the self while the essay uses the self to understand the world, a distinction I quite like. The self, in this envisioning, is like the camera lens within the personal essay.
We need her because she is essential to how we capture the situation we’re writing about and the story that shapes it. “The persona in a nonfiction narrative is an unsurrogated one,” Gornick writes. “Here the writer must identify openly with those very same defenses and embarrassments that the novelist or the poet is once removed from. Yet the creation of such a persona is vital in an essay or a memoir. It is the instrument of illumination. Without it there is neither subject nor story. To achieve it, the writer of memoir or essay undergoes an apprenticeship as soul-searching as any undergone by novelist or poet: the twin struggle to know not only why one is speaking but who is speaking.”
You’ll notice that Gornick uses words like “persona” here and “creation,” implying, yet again, that the self who appears on the page in a personal essay is as at least in part an invention. That’s a framing that Philip Lopate repeats in his essay on the subject, “On the Necessity of Turning Oneself into a Character.” “I,” is just a word, he writes, while the self has a history, personality, bad hair days, unreasonable fears, shame.
So how do we translate ourselves? Or as he and Gornick phrase the question, how do we create ourselves within the essay? Lopate advises that you first find distance from that self, that you learn to appreciate her quirks and failings with a degree of bemusement instead of shame, and that you try as much as possible to put that character who is you into a scene, show her doing or saying something, so that her personality shines via action, dialogue, conflict.
But I would add—and I tell my students this, too—that we also need a degree of vulnerability when writing personal essays, so that the reader will trust us enough to open up themselves, so that we will feel familiar to them: fallible, human. Like me telling you right now that I have no idea what to write about next. Or more honestly, I have too many ideas. I want to return to the self and that messy problem of who we are, and how hard that is to define.
I also want to talk about my students, one in particular, who wrote an essay in the form of a letter (an epistolary essay: another form for another day) and thanked an author we had read that week, Lacy Johnson, for the vulnerability she showed in her memoir The Other Side. My student told Johnson that the strength in such vulnerability helped her realize that she, too, might write with that kind of trust in the reader, a knowledge that opening up could be a form of coalition-building with the reader, rather than the threat of exposure. Which means, again, that the personal essay, or essays that say “I,” are also essays about you.
Who you are shapes who I am or will be. Your identity, real or imagined, can change the writer’s emotional state, dialect, even her understanding of herself. We tend to think of this phenomenon in situations of extreme familiarity, which is to say family. James Baldwin’s famous essay addressed to his nephew, “The Fire Next Time,” or Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book inspired by that essay, Between the World and Me, in which he writes to his son about being a Black man in America, and by extension about this country itself. The intimacy in works like these shapes the story being told, but also the self—Baldwins’ and Coates’—that we come to know while reading.When we write “I” in the personal essay it is a philosophical act as much as it is a creative one.
If you imagine your readers as hostile or limited in some way, however, another self transformation occurs. My favorite examples of this is Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, a book-length essay in which she addresses imagined tourists who have visited or might one day visit her native Antigua for a vacation. “An ugly thing, that is what you are when you become a tourist, an ugly, empty thing, a stupid thing, a piece of rubbish pausing here and there to gaze at this and taste that,” Kincaid writes, “and it will never occur to you that the people who inhabit this place in which you have just paused cannot stand you, that behind their closed doors they laugh at your strangeness (you do not look the way they look); the physical sight of you does not please them; you have bad manners (it is their custom to eat their food with their hands; you try eating their way, you look silly; you try eating the way you always eat, you look silly); they do not like the way you speak (you have an accent); they collapse helpless from laughter, mimicking the way they imagine you must look at you carry out some everyday bodily function.”
Kincaid’s tone in A Small Place has alternatively been described as angry, confrontational and heartbroken, but what is undeniable is that the self she is on the page would be quite different if she were writing to fellow Antiguans, or if she were writing about another subject, gardening, say, or time. The power of this book-length essay—and it’s one of my favorites—is that Kincaid isn’t talking about Antigua to people who know Antigua: she’s talking to those who might consider the country she’s from, “a small place”—and she wants them to see how it isn’t, or if it is, it’s because they’ve made it that way.
All of which forces me now to consider you, my imagined readers, but my subject—the personal essay—and how the two of you are influencing me. I’ve noticed, for starters, that my prose is at times bit more arch than it would be if the subject were more emotionally delicate, or quotidian. I also have not yet shared much of real importance with you about me. All you’ve seen thus far is me walking my dog, or me writing at this kitchen table as October slips into November, as we watch yet another election pass, yet another morning break.
It would feel inappropriate in this setting, and with this company, to mention, say, the recent death of my uncle or me talking to my father afterward, him saying how close they once were and how divisive the past ten years have been. Their differences were political—brothers torn apart by what they think is or was happening in this country that we share. My dad tried to mend the tear several times. He decided at one point just to listen instead of argue—but that hardly lasted. Now the opportunity is gone. He’s the last of his clan, my dad. And that feels tragic to me, whether I meant to slip into that emotion or not.
The leaf blowers are blowing again. It’s late afternoon on a Monday in November. Oki is still fast asleep. I’m at my desk, looking out at two citrus trees—pomelo and orange—thinking about a friend of mine in Chicago and how in a voicemail she recently left me I could hear the crunching of leaves. If I’m honest—and I should be, as personal essays are generally thought of as true—I am still lost about who I am, on this page, or in this chair, part of this larger world that also includes each of you.
What I am convinced of is that when we write “I” in the personal essay it is a philosophical act as much as it is a creative one. It is an investigation, and an excavation, of the self but also our shared existence. That is no small feat. Fiction writers have their narrators and poets their speakers, but personal essayists have the self, staring back at me from this page I’ve just written, this paragraph, this sentence, this slip of a word, I.
To Name the Bigger Lie: A Memoir in Two Stories by Sarah Viren is available from Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.