Truthfulness, and not being overly confessional, are two pillars of the personal essay. At least, that’s how I’ve come to understand it.
That makes this essay — a confession on faking the personal essay — a paradox.
To those of you who’ve been following my blog since its inception a couple of months ago, you’ll agree with me, I think, when I say that I tend to present myself as fairly knowledgeable about the personal essay, and confident in my abilties to write one.
So it may come as a surprise to you that I’m writing this post.
My blog, after all, is overtly about creative nonfiction, and most of the 25 posts that I’ve published so far are personal essays. Additionally, I did do an MFA in creative nonfiction, a fact which I am wont to remind you in nearly every single one of those 25 blog posts (which I did, again, just now — did you see? — in case you’d forgotten).
Considering this, you’d be well within the normal bounds of reason to suppose that I’m qualified to say a thing or two about the personal essay. But in this, you would be wrong.
I’m not the one you took me to be.
I am not, I repeat, the patron saint of the personal essay.
Confession #1: This essay is about the struggle for honesty.
To confess a struggle is not a sin; but when that struggle is for honesty, it can bring your character and credibility into doubt. We are used to 100% confident claims, fool-proof facts that resist cross-examination, one-faced takes on how things were, and are. This is how I’ve pretty much presented myself in my blog: sure-stepped, as far as my qualifications for writing the personal essay go, anyway.
And yet, “The struggle for honesty is central to the ethos of the personal essay,” essayist Phillip Lopate claims. The personal essay needs — nay, demands — the nuance of ever digging deeper for the truth in oneself.
I’ve pretended to be a cool cucumber, while really, I’m an overripe tomato, baking in the sun.
Confession #2: This essay is ripe with confessions.
The reason, I think, that there is a stigma against confession in the personal essay is to avoid offloading an emotional burden onto the reader. It’s unfair to them, and not part of the reading contract.
And yet, here I am, confessing.
This is self-contradictory.
Confession #3: This essay is self-contradictory.
But self-contradiction may not be as problematic as it first appears. An essayist, you see, may reasonably espouse a certain amount of self-contradiction in her essay. As per well-respected essayist, Phillip Lopate, again, “The harvesting of self-contradiction is an intrinsic part of the personal essay form.”
In the very essay in which I claim truthfulness to be a tenet of the personal essay, I am also confessing that I faked it (doubly whammy!).
Confession #4: This is the essay about how I faked it.
But first, let’s back up for a few basics.
Confession #5: My initial reason for wanting to be admitted into the MFA program was so I could live in the USA.
I’d been staying in the States, off and on, for several months and had kept a careful tally of the number of day per year that my Canadian passport permitted me to be there. My max was creeping up on me though, and I was trying to figure out a way that I could extend it.
This had nothing to do with wanting to pursue a MFA degree in creative writing.
Rather, it was all about dance. I had gone to the States for a change of scenery while attempting to finish writing my family history book (a book which I discovered was quite boring when I went to proofread the manuscript). And I stayed to take advantage of the vibrant social dancing scene that I discovered there.
But in order to stay, I had to find some legitimate thing that I could do, full-time, which would grant me permission to.
The easiest thing, I came to realize, was to enroll in university.
Confession #6: Creative writing was my third choice, and the only one for which I somehow qualified.
I thought of studying literature, but quickly crossed it off the list, as I’d already completed both BA and MA degrees in it. And while I apparently could concede doing an MA without the best of intentions (think, my current MFA creative writing degree!), I drew the line before applying to a PhD program so that I could stay in the States. Those beasts are serious business.
Which left me with dance and family history — two subjects I was passionate about and had pursued for several years, but had never studied academically. I looked into programs for both of them, but realized that my experience had not qualified me for either of them (even though I had more experience in either of these than I did in the personal essay).
Creative writing was an afterthought.
Confession #7: I threw my application together in less than a month.
A little over a month before the MFA creative writing application was due, I was sitting on my couch in the USA, sipping herbal tea with a friend as she graded student papers and I worked on yet another draft of my family history book.
I happened to mention to her my latest attempt at staying — an MFA creative writing program that I’d discovered at a university nearby. The only problem was the deadline was a week away, an impossible feat to pull off, even for me. Without missing a beat, she asked why I didn’t apply at her school instead? She said they also had a MFA in creative writing. And their deadline, she added, was a whole month away.
I got to work: I ordered transcripts; hired a company to “translate” my grades into American GPA; sent in my original diplomas for inspection (at the school’s request); took the GRE, and by a fluke, passed; revamped an old paper for the academic writing sample; and somehow convinced my former professors to write me letters of recommendation. This was over Christmas. This was the easy part.
The hard part was the following. First, I had to select a genre to specialize in – I chose creative nonfiction, as I felt that it most closely coincided with the book I had written and was hopelessly trying to make less boring. Second, I had to write a statement of intent, with the intent of convincing a committee that I wanted to study the personal essay. Third, I had to submit a portfolio of a 20 page writing sample of a personal essay.
Confession #8: To complete my creative writing portfolio, I first had to figure out what a personal essay was.
So I looked online. Luckily, I found one written by a professor in the program I was applying to. I read it. The essay kept circling around a subject, I observed, considering it from various angles. I took a cue from that, and attempted, on an entirely different topic, to do the same.
Thankfully, I already had the book I’d been laboring over for months from which I could draw material.
But imagine taking a 600 page boring manuscript in one genre and trying to convert it into an elegant thing in another genre, while simultaneously boiling it down to a mere 20 pages. There was a lot of hacking at it, changing of mind, reordering, and changing it back again, all the while accompanied by a general sinking feeling of overwhelming futility.
Confession #9: And then, I very nearly didn’t send the application in at all.
Three days before the application was due, I literally cried for hours, bemoaning my terrible writing and telling myself — and anyone who’d listen — that I’d never get in and that I wasn’t going to apply. My roommate, who occasionally stepped into a mothering role when needed, rose to the occasion and gave me a much needed talking-to and told me I was right: I would never get in if I didn’t apply.
So I got my act together, and submitted my online application on the last day, ten minutes before the midnight deadline.
I still wasn’t sure I’d written an essay.
Confession #10: When I received my letter of acceptance, I thought they’d made a mistake.
It came by email. But it was knowing I was unqualified that made me believe I hadn’t been accepted. I didn’t tell anyone about the email for a long time — was it a whole day, or a week? I can’t remember. All I know is this: I was waiting for a follow-up email to show up, revoking the acceptance, accompanied with an apology and perfectly logical explanation in beautiful nonfiction prose as to how they had sent an acceptance to me by mistake, instead of to their intended, qualified candidate.
After waiting an appropriate amount of time — followed by a hardcopy acceptance in the mail — I started to realize, in a panic, that they had actually gone ahead and accepted me.
Confession #11: And then, I calmly concluded they had accepted me because I was Canadian and thus a rare “International Student.”
From perusal online, I found that the program’s demographics listed 0% of the current students as International. So they had admitted me, I realized, to add some international diversity.
Confession #12: I also realized — with some degree of horror — that I still didn’t know what a personal essay was.
And maybe I still don’t. But, thanks to the book (now abandoned) that I wrote, I do know what a boring piece of writing sounds like. And so, to prevent this from becoming so, I’ll skip the rest of the narrative explanations between the bold, and just leave you with the juicy confessions.
Confession #13: I had never taken a course in creative nonfiction.
Confession #14 I wasn’t even sure I’d read a personal essay before starting the application.
Turns out I had. I just hadn’t realized it. In my statement of intent, I took full advantage of my recently discovered knowlege that Michel de Montaigne was a big deal in the essay world, by claiming that I’d studied him in my undergrad. (Never mind the fact that I had only read a mere five of his essays on the one day we’d sampled his oeuvre in a great books course I’d taken more than a decade previously).
Confession #15: So, after being accepted to my MFA, I signed up for an online introductory course on Writing the Personal Essay.
Confession #16: I took the course, I think, less for the sake of actually learning, and more so that I didn’t look like a complete idiot when I began my degree.
The only thing I remember about it was the first projected course outcome, the brazen claim: “You will love essays.”
Confession #17: I never completed the course.
What can I say? Packing and dancing took precedence.
Confession #18: When I began my MFA in creative nonfiction, I still didn’t know what a personal essay was.
When I got there, I discovered that many of my new colleagues were in their early to mid twenties, and had already been studying the personal essay for several years.
Why is it, I wonder, that we feel we already need to know a thing before we study it? Well, in a graduate program, you generally do need to know a little about the subject first. Which is why you generally have to apply with a statement of intent, and a portfolio.
I was thirty, and only now just beginning.
(I still don’t know how I slipped through the cracks.)
Confession #19: I tried coming clean, once, by telling a colleague the story of my unworthiness to be there.
So let me get this straight: you hadn’t known what a personal essay was, looked it up online for the application, threw words on a page, and somehow, got in?
She helpfully suggested I not repeat the story to anyone again.
Confession #20: Most of the time during my MFA, I felt like a complete poser.
Confession #21: During my MFA in creative nonfiction, I still preferred reading novels to essays.
This I felt especially guilty about. But I couldn’t write novels — I’d tried that years before (that was prior to my discovery that I couldn’t write family history biography-memoirs, either).
Confession #22: I never published anything while in my MFA, personal essay or otherwise.
I dutifully sent my essays out to several journals — as was required as part of our program — and, not unexpectedly, received their rejection notices in reply. This offered a strange sort of relief: I wouldn’t want some journal to make the same mistake my school had.
Confession #23: One of my creative writing students won a creative nonfiction prize in a contest in which I didn’t even place.
Which is just as well. It would have been even more embarrassing if he had recognized my name as being one of the runners-up.
Confession #24: Upon completing my MFA, I submitted my “best essay” to my university’s undergraduate journal for publication. It was rejected.
That was a low point.
But it also substantiated what I already had known, all along: I didn’t know how to write personal essays.
And so you have it, my true account of how I faked the personal essay.
I genuinely hope it hasn’t given you reasonable reasons to doubt your confidence in my abilities. (“The struggle for honesty is central to the ethos of the personal essay,” right?)
Of course, by the time I actually got to the MFA program, I was serious enough about studying the genre that my dance life all but disappeared (I went from dancing 3 or 4 times a week, to 2 or 3 times per month.)
And after my acceptance, I bought two thick anthologies of personal essays (or rather, two editions of the same book). Since many of the essays overlapped, it meant I’d read the vast majority of two whole books of essays by the time the first fall classes rolled around.
I never intended on being dishonest about faking the personal essay. And I didn’t consider myself being dishonest at the time. But I nevertheless still felt my non-qualification keenly. I couldn’t accept praise for my writing as genuine (from professors or fellow classmates). I could not concede that any of my writing was actually good.
I have not truly returned to that old family history attempt at a book, though I’ve glanced at it again. What has surprised me by those glances, however, is to discover sections in it that are more essayistic than memoirist. I’ve since wondered if maybe it wasn’t as boring as I’d thought, after all.
Since completing my MFA, I have written more personal essays than I ever did in an equal amount of time during it. And I finally managed to land an essay for publication — in the same undergraduate journal that had previously rejected my “best” one.
Confession #25: There is something very liberating in finally writing this essay, as confessional and contradictory as it may be.
I was drawn to the MFA program for one main (literary) reason — to figure out how to re-write my book, and I came away with quite another. Yes, in the process, I’d fallen in love with the personal essay, which I have been writing ever since. (Turns out the first objective in that unfinished course was fulfilled, after all.)
Question: How do you navigate this great paradox of the personal essay: tell the truth, but don’t reveal too much?
Personally, I’m way too wordy. I think if I just focus on a smaller story or aspect of a story, it’s easier to reveal a truth without feeling exposed. So for example using the setting, the emotions, the interactions in a very narrow moment, can reveal a principle or truth that I want to talk about without being a tell-all. I was just in the Province of PEI this past autumn for my anniversary, it was SO lovely. 🙂 I’m excited to read here, so keep sharing your writing wisdom! I don’t even know what many of these writing terms mean! But I know that I love to write, or rather I love the written word. Whether that means I can wrangle my thoughts into something coherent is another matter entirely. 😉 Amy
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That’s a great point, Amy, about narrowing the focus. It’s something I have to remind myself to do almost constantly, as it’s easy for me to get carried away. I don’t need to say everything I know on a subject, but rather, just create something that might be small, but interesting nonetheless (while at the same time, of course, given my genre, being true!).
From an earlier quick perusal of your own blog, I saw that you also have written about PEI. I look forward to taking a better look!
Thanks for sharing your enthusiasm for writing. We’re all just trying to “wrangle [our] thoughts into something coherent,” as you say. Easier done when we’re trying together. Thanks for your comment and support! 🙂
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I’m happy to have stumbled across the personal essay as a writing form I seem to be more comfortable with. Fiction is always more of a struggle for me. I have a reader in mind: Generation X women primarily, men secondly, and my purpose is to entertain. But most important is the point I’m trying to make. Occasionally, I start writing notes on my topic and my overall point is unclear – it seems to rise to the surface as I’m drafting.
A lot of what you wrote resonated with me. I’m much more comfortable with the personal essay, too! Usually when I write notes for an essay, I’m not sure what direction it’s going to take, either. I had a professor in my MFA that told me that if I already knew exactly where my essay was going, it would probably not make a very good essay. He said that good essays are born from the essayist discovering something in the process of writing. I might be at the other extreme at times, knowing too little about what the point of my essay is. I think you’re in good company with discovering your point while drafting – seems like that’s what the great essayists do, too! Thanks for your comment!
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