Somewhere along my MFA, it became clear to me that in order to write good personal essays, I needed first to have meaningful experiences. Or rather, I needed to continually be having meaningful experiences. It was an ongoing requirement.
Maybe it was because of something one of my professors said, the one who actively encouraged each of us to use our essays as opportunities for experience. To use his example, he told us that if we were going to write an essay “On Mountains” he expected, somewhere in the essay, to actually see us on a mountain. Sometimes, it was merely a matter of including a scene in which we’d previously been on a mountain. Other times, it required us to go out and climb one.
It became commonplace, at least in my mind, that when I wrote an essay, there would be an accompanying voice ringing through my head, like an odd sort of spell-check — an experience check, for essayists: “Do you need to now go and experience this thing more fully that you are writing about, for the sake of the essay?” Several times during my MFA, I did things “for the sake of the essay.” I was not only being trained to write essays: I was learning to live life more meaningfully, through experience.
Experience, after all, is at the heart of the essay. The word “essay” comes from the French verb essayer which, roughly translated, means to attempt, or try. How better do we attempt and try than through our experience?
Yet experience doesn’t need to be profound to be meaningful.
And meaningful experience doesn’t need to be epic in order to be valuable.
I think about some of the things I’ve done in my life which I consider “epic” — that six week cycling tour of Canada’s West Coast, or the time I hiked 200 miles in the UK — and I realize that while these experiences were big undertakings, and certain aspects of them have made their way into some of my personal essays, my essays are not about the trips. Or rather, the epic-ness of the trips are not the focus of my essays. (Unless, of course, I were to write an essay about epics, in which case I’d probably take the subversive view of things).
One of the most meaningful experiences I had in the UK was not climbing mountains or visiting countless museums, estates, or castles (though I did these things, too). Rather, it was finding a small variety of flower that used to grow in the front lawn of a home I lived in growing up.
The essays I’ve published so far on the blog are about everyday things: buying books, organizing books, my relationship with books in general, and my reading practices. And yet, none of these essays is really about those things. They may be about books and reading on an ancillary level. But they are really about something else: the idiosyncrasies of human nature, the associations of the mind, our comic tendencies, and the way we are changed by someone else’s quiet example. They are, indeed, about commonplace experiences.
Personal essays are often about commonplace things: commonplace subjects, in commonplace locales, having commonplace experiences. What transforms these commonplaces into art is the uncommon reflection on them by an astute mind.
Personal essays, more than any other literary genre of writing I know, require the writer to be retrospective about his or her own experience. Michel de Montaigne, widely regarded as the “father of the essay,” wrote three books of them, with his final and quintessential essay titled “On Experience” (or “Of Experience,” depending on which translation you are using).
Experiences and experience are not the same thing. Experiences are things which happen. Experience is what we learn from them. This is true no less for Montaigne, who took seemingly small occurrences which happened in order to better understand himself, and thus, the world.
From my own experience in reading essays, and writing my own, I’ve learned the need to have meaningful experiences. But unmeaningful experiences can work just as well. So can misadventure experiences. And little experiences. And they need not be good (i.e. what we tend to regard as positive) experiences in order to be good experience. A former roommate used to say that you could have a good date, or a good story. But a good essay, I’d wager, could come from either.
In Alexander Smith’s “On the Writing of Essays,” he identifies the essayist’s “main gift is an eye to discover the suggestiveness of common things; to find a sermon in the most unpromising texts.” Virginia Woolf wrote about a moth dying; G. K. Chesterton about chasing after a hat. These each were small, seemingly insignificant experiences. But they were the vehicles through which profound thought — and excellent essays — were born.
“A quick ear and eye, an ability to discern the infinite suggestiveness of common things, a brooding meditative spirit,” writes Smith, “are all that the essayist requires to start business with.”
And so, maybe writing essays isn’t so much about having meaningful experiences, after all, but in recognizing that every experience, in some way, has the potential for meaning.
Indeed, I’ve found that some of the most meaningful experiences of all occur when I sit down to write an essay, and find that I can reflect on an old experience in a new way.
Question: What kind of commonplace experiences do you find meaning in?
I feel like you have hit on something I am growing to appreciate in fictional writing, too. Anybody can write a common trope based off of their own experience reading what others have written, but lacking their own experience, they will necessarily be confined to reiterating worn metaphors or, if intentionally deviating from customary descriptions, branching into a territory of the imagination which may sometimes encompass irrelevance through inaccuracy, if one does not have any personal experience to express. On the other hand, there is value in writing what one knows, but writing can become limiting and pedestrian if writers do not write about what they may not know yet, but want to know.
In my current work in progress, I have a character riding bareback. I have done some basic riding myself, but I have never ridden bareback. I can draft the experience from my imagination, which captures the excitement of exploring new imaginative territory, but if I want my descriptions to be insightful, I have to take it further. I can start with examining photos and videos of others doing so, and reading explanations, but at best, this gives me experience with observing others’ experiences. If I want to say something new, profound, or even just authentic, ideally I will seek to ride bareback myself before I finalize these passages.
I’m glad that you related this post to fiction writing as well. I hadn’t before considered some of the points you brought up, and especially like what you said about the need to write about what we don’t yet know, “but want to know.”
And thanks for sharing the example of your character riding bareback, and how you might go about writing it. I like the mixture of methods you’ve identified that could be used to do so: imagination, research and observation (examining photos and videos), and experience. I’m gratified that what is important in nonfiction writing could be equally valuable in fiction writing as well: “If I want to say something new, profound, or even just authentic, ideally I will seek to ride bareback myself before I finalize these passages.”
It occurs to me that the same is true for including methods in creative nonfiction which are often used in fiction writing. While personal essays are usually rooted in personal experience, they don’t always include enough imagining and research. I think the two genres have a lot they can learn from each other.
Thanks for your comment!
[…] things, a brooding meditative spirit are all that the essayist requires to start business with.” Heather Thomson connects this to her own writing “recognizing that every experience, in some way, has the […]