I received an entry form for a personal essay contest in the mail recently. The form promised several thousand dollars in prizes, as well as judging by very esteemed people capable of judging essays. I was mildly intrigued until the small print informed me of the ungodly entry fee.
Perhaps no other form of writing has frustrated me as much as the personal essay. The essay has provided both an extreme high and extreme low in my writing career.
The first time I received recognition for my writing was for an essay.
(Small Sidenote – Actually, the first recognition I received for writing was in Mrs. Sherwood’s third grade class. Entitled “Snoopy’s Big Match,” this fine piece of fiction detailed Snoopy the Ace Tennis Player mowing through a variety of 1970’s tennis superstars. I even drew a picture of Snoopy at the top. Mrs. Sherwood wrote “Nice job!” across Snoopy’s nose. A friend of mine found this years later and suggested that perhaps the “Nice job!” comment referred to the fact that I was starting to spell correctly and that I had mastered the difference between lowercase and uppercase letters. I guess we’ll never know.)
Anyway, in 1995 I entered an undergraduate essay contest sponsored by my university. The theme was “Reading That I’ve Loved.” Corny, perhaps, but very broad. In the back of my Linguistics class, I composed an essay discussing Little Golden books, Joan Collins novels (they belonged to my mom, I swear) and The Great Gatsby.
I was invited to attend the awards reception, read my essay in front of about a hundred people and pick up my $150 winner’s check. The attention of the crowd, the applause at the end of my reading and the recognition of being a winner intoxicated me. As I dumped that $150 into beers and margaritas at the campus pub that night with friends, I figured I was well on my way.
Four years later, a rejection letter brought me back down to earth.
I ran my first marathon three years ago, keeping a journal of my training and thoughts, figuring there would be a good story in there somewhere. There is nothing quite like the exhilaration of finishing 26.2 miles mixed with the agony of not being able to feel anything south of your waist. I turned that mix of accomplishment and pain into an essay and fired it off to a magazine that regularly prints stories along this line.
The essay came back seven weeks later, thanks but no thanks, with the following scrawled at the bottom: “This just doesn’t seem personal enough for me.”
Training solo at four in the morning in a snowstorm isn’t personal enough? Describing the agony of knots the size of apples in my thighs isn’t personal enough? Sharing the emotion of crossing the finish line after navigating a war zone-like finish area of bodies that didn’t finish isn’t personal enough? Wearing shorts way too short for any man to wear with pride isn’t personal enough?
As my anger subsided, it became clear to me that the personal essay is rarely going to be as personal for the reader as it is for the writer. Sure, it may resonate because of a shared experience or emotion, but the story may not mean as much to the reader simply because the writer was the one that lived the story that he or she is telling. The reader is getting it second hand.
And while the comment that I received may have been ill-phrased (maybe they could’ve written “Please! This is terrible!” or “We would not print this in a hundred years. Please query us again in the hundred and first year.”), the meaning behind it was simple: the piece didn’t work for them. A writer has to learn to accept that.
But maybe if I’d sent them my Snoopy piece...