Pursuing the Personal
On the elusive, often unsuccessful form of the essay.
By Will Lyman
“The essay stages an encounter between an ‘I’ and the world in which that ‘I’ resides,” writes American essayist Leslie Jamison in the introduction to the 2017 edition of The Best American Essays. Her essay is one that I’ve returned to over the years, as it so deftly identifies the purpose of the form.
I see many students investigating how Columbia is experienced, how it lives in our bodies and the minutiae of our lives, through the innocuous genre of the essay. The personal essay is a misfit in the realm of literature—one distinct and, arguably, secondary to its popular sisters, poetry and fiction. The essay is intimate, swirling, and argumentative. It chronicles a writer’s best attempt at wrestling with a problem or a question. Publications like The Blue and White and The Columbia Daily Spectator are the primary producers of student personal essays on campus, and thus function as repositories for the collisions of the self into the world. They document how we respond to the dizzying experience of attending a sprawling and, at times, bewildering university.
Yet, the personal essay is an exhausted form on this campus. It easily lends itself to laziness and solipsism because it allows the writer to supplement argumentative content with their personal experience. The resulting work is often narrow in scope and refuses to consider the wealth of previous media on the topic. It is a quality I attribute to youth: the belief that anything that didn’t happen to us is unintelligible. It is for this reason that many personal essays written by young people are meandering, self-absorbed, and utterly dishonest.
American essayism, as we know it today, grew out of the anxiety and malaise following World War II. An explosion of literary journals led to the mass popularity of the form, which saw writers interrogating the American ideal as it formed around them. Notable works from this period are now staples of many Columbia syllabi: Reinhold Neibuhr’s “Humor and Faith” (1946), James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village” (1953), Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp’” (1964), and Joan Didion’s “On the Morning After the Sixties” (1970).
Yet, these post-war texts were far from the first evolution of the personal essay genre. In the 16th century, Montaigne, the self-proclaimed father of the genre, sought to intimately reflect the process of human thinking in his writing. His approach is interrogative, self-questioning, and chiefly concerned with representing a composite self. He writes about defecation in the same searching, exploratory manner that he weighs rationality and metaphysics. He argues that to cleave off any element of human experience is to distance oneself from inquiry. We are made up of our sensuousness, frustration, and uncertainty. Montaigne’s essays perfectly capture the collision of the self and the world it inhabits.
Since Montaigne, writers on the margins have ensured the prevalence of the form. Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison recognized the capacity of the genre for personal confession and cultural criticism, positioning the essay as a useful political tool for Black writers. Adrienne Rich and Betty Friedan came to the forefront of the genre in the 1970s, laying the groundwork for the ensuing women’s movement. It is thus no surprise that, in the present day, students turn to the essay to deliver cutting social critiques of the educational institution they inhabit.
Jamison explains: “Particularity is the native tongue of the essay.” The genre exists through specificity, a pinprick precision on images, experiences, and symbols that help distill nebulous concepts into digestible, human particulars. The most successful essays take aim at an abstract concept—a political ideology, a media phenomenon, or a human woe like death and fulfillment—and deliver an understanding of the idea through a relevant personal experience.
This same particularity sits at the heart of Ning Chang’s “Being the Rabbit,” which whittles the wave of anti-Asian violence into a single image: SWAT teams swarming Monterey Park in the wake of a mass shooting while “Happy Year of the Rabbit” banners hang in the background. In Ariel Gilbert’s essay for the Spectator, “From a BLM fist to two fingers,” which ran this past February, he documents his two experiences being racially profiled by public safety officers during his first year. He describes a protest on Low Steps filled with raised fists in an ode to the Black Lives Matter movement. Gilbert, seeing this, raises two fingers to represent public safety’s disrespect of him and others. These essays succeed because they situate the authors’ personal experience as a drop in the ocean. They provide a representative image while keeping the focus on a larger phenomenon. The self is in correct proportion to the world it inhabits.
“The personal is political,” Jamison continues. She writes shortly after the inauguration of Donald Trump and explores the purpose of the essay in a time when our country was—perhaps for the first time in many of our lives—openly asserting the hostile, chauvinistic principles that have always governed it. The collection grapples with the anger, fear, and uncertainty of living at the mercy of an untrustworthy governmental institution.
Indeed, the personal essay remains a popular vehicle for recounting personal encounters with institutional obstacles. On campus, many student essays grapple with a profound sense of disillusionment with Columbia. From disappointing decisions like refusing to bargain with the Graduate Workers’ contract terms to full-blown cartoon villainy in trying to evict a preschool in Harlem, I’ve often found myself knocking on the foundation of my trust in the University and finding it hollow. We have every reason to be skeptical; it has undoubtedly been a strange time to study here. Yet, I see many people misinterpreting Columbia’s recent moral transgressions as a purely contemporary phenomenon. While the challenges to our college experience have catalyzed a loss of faith in the University’s administration, it is perhaps the inevitable disillusionment from the hope and awe of a prospective student—the effect of moving from distance to proximity. The institutional greed and injustice we’re encountering is not unique to the past four years. Rather, it is an inevitable component of coming of age under American institutions—as those that claim to prioritize advancing knowledge, greater human understanding, and serving society, are often more concerned with profit and expansion.
Nearly everything I’ve written for The Blue and White I now find silly. My time here has been characterized by a discontent which evades attempts to pinpoint its origin. In response, I’d muse about the loneliness that pervaded my experience of campus life, how it took the form of empty classrooms and EC-party angst. Hearing others talk about my essays made me certain of the fact that they were hollow gestures at meaning. They expressed my wish to feel complex, artful, externalized, and circulated. Chief among these essays was my NSOP issue Blue Note “How to Disappear,” which was, at best, my attempt to grant myself some tragic figure status for not having the college lay itself at my feet as I’d expected. For this reason, my essays soured upon publication. With others’ eyes on them, they shrugged off their disguises and revealed themselves to be meandering and self-indulgent—two cardinal sins of personal essays. Essays ask the question: Why are we doing what we’re doing? Most of the time, I had no answers.
For many, the personal essay is the threshold one must cross to guarantee admission to a University. The Common App essay sits at the heart of the college admissions process, and thus tasks high-schoolers with espousing meaning from their young lives. It asks one to position themself as the Next Best American Thinker, with prompts that roughly translate to questions like: Who are you? Why do you matter? What have you overcome? What have you accomplished?
The Common App essay introduces the genre of the personal essay to high schoolers across the nation as an arena in which they prove their excellence, not where they question their own limitations. I’ve tutored kids on their Common App essays, and I’ve repeatedly encountered the same central obstacle: an impulse to write toward a mould or an ideal, and away from the temperate reality of the self. Many of us experience an exhaustion with personal writing, as it demands an examination and understanding of the self that is exhaustive.
Inexperience is the hurdle which one must overcome to write a successful essay. In forming a comprehensive, exploratory essay, all things must be considered: You must research the topic, ground your inquiry in experience, and question your own argumentation. When you’re young, there is simply less time to familiarize yourself with the legion of work that came before you. It is what leads us to say things like “our country is more divided than ever,” when we’ve had a civil war. I’ve sat in pitch meetings that seriously consider writing about “sad girls”' as a novel creation of TikTok, as if the melancholic, apathetic female figure hasn’t existed since medieval folklore, then reimagined in the romance novel, then parodied in widely known works like Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. This is the form’s most common pitfall: a refusal to see that one’s experience of the world is not revolutionary just because they’re living it for the first time.
In his May 1963 profile in LIFE Magazine, “The Doom and Glory of Knowing Who You Are,” essayist James Baldwin put it best: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”
In examining the world through personal experience, there exists such a thing as too personal, too self-encased. Unsuccessful essays often refuse to examine their own shortcomings and limitations. I’m stressing the importance of a canon, of the Core, of tradition—rooting ourselves in the past as a means of refuting the egotism of the present. There is comfort in knowing our woes don’t belong solely to us. I think of it like jazz—an artistic tradition that privileges improvisation, soul, and the self in conversation with others, particularly those musicians who paved the way before you. To be a good jazz musician, you have to listen.
Avian Muñoz’s aptly titled essay, “Conservatives invited me, a progressive, to their convention. Here’s what happened,” published in the Spectator this January, describes the author’s participation in the David Network’s annual conference in Washington D.C.—a space that celebrates right-wing thought. Ultimately, he concludes that “while the David Network and conservative thinkers claim their right to promulgate their fabricated culture war, we can claim our right to dismiss them.” Dismissal is Muñoz’s dominant strategy, as the piece fails to engage with the content of the convention in favor of broadly discussing conservative hysteria. The essay’s title promises an exploratory narrative, one that promises action and engagement on the part of the author. Yet, Muñoz’s piece makes for a largely unsatisfying read.
In response to Muñoz, Luke Seminara of the Columbia Independent penned an essay titled “On the So-Called Right to Dismiss Conservatives.” Seminara asserts that “conservatism is far more abstract and intellectual” than Muñoz has portrayed it, and that the Spectator essay refuses to engage with the content of the David Network conference. While Seminara does identify the deficiencies of Muñoz’s piece, he resorts to condescension. The essay reads like a hit piece on Muñoz, complete with mocking quotations of the piece and digs at Muñoz’s editor position at the Spectator. It’s too personal.
Muñoz and Seminara’s essays both demonstrate common faults in the form. They write not about the event that ties them together, but about extraneous grievances. In doing so, they become caricatures themselves, as they refuse to see each other as more than a representative identity of an entire cultural whole that they detest and that alienates them. Their pieces lack self-awareness and a true desire to examine the ideological divide they contend with. In doing so, they waste the potential for any real understanding.
Personal writing suffers when there is no attempt to branch beyond one’s field of vision. To borrow from Jamison’s lexicon, the “I” should recognize its place in the world it encounters—accounting for its lack of omniscience and potential bias. It is this self-awareness that gives the genre its unparalleled capacity for inquiry. It’s the whole point. When we refuse to look beyond ourselves, we poison our ability to communicate.