Personal Essays that Will Gut You


In between projects, I’ve been finding myself writing personal essays. In the past six months, I’ve written five of them and published two (here and here; fingers crossed for a couple more that are currently being read by editors at two of my?bucket-list publications). Writing these essays has felt like a good way to stretch my muscles a bit, the way a fiction writer might work on flash fiction between novels (my friend Katie Williams tells me she does this). And of course, when I’m writing personal essays, I’m also reading them.?I feel lately like my world has been defined by these little written testimonials; essays have been finding me and demanding to be read. If you’re looking for them, personal essays are everywhere.

A well-written?essay is a very powerful thing. You might see yourself in it, or you find yourself opened to an experience you’ve never had. Often, a personal essay can be both funny and tragic at the same time. A well-written one has the power to gut you like a good break-up song. And they’re more efficient than a book: often, you get a memoir’s worth of experience condensed into 1,200 words or less.

So today,?I wanted to share a few of the essays that I’ve read recently. Some are not newly published, but were new to me.?Get yourself a cup of tea and ten minutes, and try one out.

“The Feast of Pain,” by Tim Kreider (New York Times, April 26, 2014).?

Melancholic, hysterical, about everything and nothing, and very real. Excerpt: “I?m not just ghoulishly thriving off others? pain; I?m happy to offer up my own if it?s any use or consolation. A friend of mine lost her father a few weeks ago, and still lies awake at night sick with guilt, torturing herself by wondering what she should have done differently in his last hours. I ventured to confess to her, incommensurate to her own grief though it was, that I still wake up in the night panicking that I might?ve accidentally killed my cat with a flea fogger, even though the cat was 19 years old and obviously moribund. To my relief, this delighted her. She now uses ?flea fogger? as mental shorthand to stop herself from second-guessing herself into insanity.”

“Why I’m Okay with Having Only One Child” by Andrea Meyer (, November 5, 2013 (and recently reposted on CNN Parents)

The title says it all?but not really. Excerpt: “After eight hours of drug-induced labor, I gave birth to a beautiful, lifeless four-pound baby girl we named Nina. After holding her, singing to her, and finally crying endless, helpless tears, I went home with Harlan, the delivery nurse?s command?’Come back and have another baby with us’?ringing in my ears.”

“Newly Wed and Quickly Unraveling,” by Wendy Ortiz (New York Times Modern Love column, July 26, 2012).

A woman recently wed to a man quickly discovers she is not straight. Excerpt: “After the first of the new year, I came out to my husband. I turned over in bed to face him, and the sobs burst out of me and pooled between us. My chest heaved, my face was wet and contorted, but I forced the words out, finally, despite the pain. He sat up in bed, brought his hands to his face, and wailed. I knew neither of us would sleep that night and possibly many more nights.”

“My First Story,” by Charles McLeod (The Quivering Pen, September 9, 2013).

I’ve blogged this one before, because Charlie is a friend of mine. And it’s worth a re-read.?Excerpt: “He?d gone in for a routine operation to have a vein removed from his leg. ?The night before, unbeknownst to him or anyone else, he?d had an embolism in his intestine, and was dying from sepsis, his own waste poisoning him. ?He went into a coma the next morning, and died while I was on a plane from Washington, DC to Detroit, trying to get back home. ?While I can?t know for sure if he ever read my story, my guess?an educated one?is that he did not.”

“Why Did I Keep Such a Terrible Secret for So Long?” by Amy Jo Burns (Dame, undated, but recent).

A testimonial and a coming-out about childhood sexual abuse. Excerpt: “I shared it because exploring my own regret led me to discover the ways in which I still can be strong. I shared it because the story doesn?t belong to me. It belongs to many other girls who were just like me in Mercury and in hundreds of other towns, those who dared not say a word, so scared were they of the consequences. I shared it because people in my hometown were more outraged that the girls had spoken up than they were that a serious crime had been committed.”

“Difference Maker” by Meghan Daum (The New Yorker, September 29, 2014 issue)

This essay chewed me up and spit me out. I read it out loud to my husband on a recent road trip, though I kept having to stop because I was crying too hard. It’s just beautiful. Excerpt: “And as I lay on that bed it occurred to me, terrifyingly, that all of it might not be enough. Maybe such pleasures, while pleasurable enough, were merely trimmings on a nonexistent tree. Maybe nothing?not a baby or the lack of a baby, not a beautiful house, not rewarding work?was ever going to make us anything other than the chronically dissatisfied, perpetual second-guessers we already were. ‘I?m sorry,’ I said. I meant this a million times over. To this day, there is nothing I?ve ever been sorrier about than my inability to make my husband a father.”

Do you have a favorite essay, or essayist?

Two Great Memoirs

I don’t know whether I intentionally, always, return to memoir, but I do, and I just busted out two great reads in less than a week: Augusten Burroughs’s recovery memoir Dry and Anne Lamott’s journal of the first year of her son’s life, Operating Instructions.

DryReading both reminded me why I love personal narrative. There are so many ways to tell your story. Burroughs does it with clipped honesty and humor, with edginess, with sarcasm, and throughout, with this amazing and very real sense of self-deprecation, like: “You won’t believe how badly I fucked up, but keep reading and I’ll tell you.” You’ll want to keep reading. His fuck-ups are epic.

Lamott hits the same nerve, but her writing is much more raw, and so intensely personal it’s at times almost cringe-worthy. As a mother who survived the first year of her own son’s life, I was laughing and gasping and remembering the whole way, remembering the wonderful parts and the soul-crushing parts, and at the end I had a big, big old cry. In part this is because in addition to the story of the baby Sam, the book is about addiction and loss and tragedy, and it just filled me with fear. It’s very well done.

They both are. Add them to your list!