by Grace Elliott
I am trying to learn how to write personal essays. For years, I have struggled with how to write true stories about myself. I worry about the lack of special in my life, the lack of event.
“The point is not the events,” I tell myself now as I try to learn how to write essays. “The point is the frame.”
In the examples I have found in the books and magazines I revere, these pieces lead with an anecdote that could happen to anyone and move forward into stories that have only happened to this one person but which speak to something larger in the culture.
I am sure I have events in my life like that.
I start an essay about a teacher I had in high school. The one who taught English when I was in 9th grade and creative writing when I was in 12th. We were both new that first year—his first year teaching, and my first year learning, at the school—and both gathered our armor around us—oversized Mickey Mouse t-shirts for me, bad jokes and an awkward guffaw for him. We connected, too, over fictions. In 9th grade, when I turned in a short story about a girl whose parents had divorced, he pulled me out of class and said it was remarkable and that I had earned a never-before-given grade of check plus plus. “This is really good,” he told me.
I gave him stories about divorce every week for the rest of the school year.
When I write this anecdote, though, I have to acknowledge all the stories I am lucky to not have to tell. This is not, I write in the essay, a narrative about a teacher who abused me, or who even made a pass at me.
But it is, I want to make clear, a story about men in power. And he was my teacher, and I was his student.
I return to the examples I have to learn from—the women who have paved the way to tell all kinds of stories: Melissa Febos, Roxane Gay, Maggie Nelson. I study the way they transition smoothly between the events of their lives—the rising action—and the research they have done on the topic that the rising action illustrates.
I have never felt that I am all that good at research—I remind myself of that as I write. True, I attended a research university, but it is one best known for its football team and fierce black and gold mascot.
Besides, I know that my story is ordinary—that it would drown beneath the weight of the number of girls and women facing harassment in their schools, the sheer quantity of people told, subliminally and overtly, that they are not good enough for what they want to do.
So I look away from the research.
Instead, I remind the reader that this teacher was my teacher again my senior year. By that time, I need to add, he had a reputation for being hapless, had become a teacher who had to tell the kids in his creative writing class that this would not be a frat—even though there were 12 boys and 2 girls enrolled—and that he was not their fraternity brother—even though it had gotten around the school that he was desperate to be one of the boys.
I knew that the class was a joke. We all knew it. Even he had to have, since he felt the need to declare that it was not. But his was the only creative writing course in the school—the only place to practice writing fiction, to study the structure of poems, and to learn how to write a personal essay.
“It will not be a joke,” he continued to declare, though he made cracks about Hemingway’s fish and women’s vaginas. “This is serious,” he kept saying, even after the other girl in the class stopped bothering to show up.
“What’s the point?” she asked me.
The point was to learn. I wanted to learn. I handed in my fictions and my poems and I tried to write essays to apply for colleges. I wrote them for Penn and Princeton and UVA, all the colleges except for the one football school, with its black and gold mascot, which did not require an essay at all.
I am not supposed to stop here. The personal stories I have read continue right through the rising action. There is no room for a break—no place for the writer to question if her story is worth telling. In the essay that I am writing, I am supposed to be drawing a portrait of a wide classroom with of 13 small desks, where 12 boys and 1 girl sit around the teacher who stands in the center of their circle.
But I have never really learned how to write personal essays. That is not what I got from that class.
“Can’t you just picture it?” is what I remember my teacher saying in the last quarter of my senior year, when I told everyone about the research university I would be attending. “The camera pans over the football field, and there’s Grace, in a black and gold bikini cheering them on.”
I can picture it, I have told him in the dozens of personal essays I have never written. I can picture what every boy in that room, my teacher included, was imagining: the bookish girl stripped of her baggy shirts, undressed and slapped into the striped string bikini. I can picture the way they imagined her cheering—throwing herself up and down so that her boobs bounced freely against the bare expanse of her body.
“I learned a lot,” I wish I had told him at the end of the year, when he gave me the school’s creative writing prize. I think that everyone in that class learned much more than he’d intended.
Even if I’ve since had to teach myself how to write a personal essay.
Grace Elliott is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn. She has previously been published on Electric Literature and Joyland.