Jo Ann Beard: What We’re Writing When We Write Personal Essays
In Conversation with Maris Kreizman on The Maris Review Podcast
On writing personal essays:
If you write personal essays, you’re really not intending to write about yourself. You may use your own personal experience to launch the piece, but truly what you’re trying to do is make some sort of meaning or sense out of something that’s more universal than it is personal. And so when you sit down to write a personal essay, you’re casting around in your mind for the things that are pivotal moments in your life, or events that had a life-changing aspect to them.
On how the brain responds to trauma:
I haven’t had a life where my experiences are worth dwelling on for that long. So to be able to slide mentally and emotionally into someone else’s story for a year or two and be relieved of that job of mining my own life felt like a real miracle to me, and enjoyable and relaxing and exciting. … By the time I’d met Werner, maybe a decade had gone by for him since [the fire], and he had been able to process a lot of what happened just the way we process trauma—like by remembering it, telling stories about it, by getting interested in aspects of it and imagining them for himself and sort of exploring the science of it. And he was really able to explain to me a lot of stuff about what happens to human beings in those kind of traumatic moments, like explaining the brain chemistry that happens when everything slows down and the world rushes in, and you feel like you could live inside that moment for a very long time.
Jo Ann Beard is the author of the groundbreaking collection of autobiographical essays The Boys of My Youth and Festival Days and the novel, In Zanesville. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Tin House, Best American Essays, and other magazines and anthologies. She teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College.