by Alexandra Guhde, PsyD
NOT A PERSONAL ESSAY
"The political landscape has been so phantasmagoric that even the most sensationally interesting personal essays have lost some currency when not tied head-on to the news..."
--Laura Bennet, of Slate, in an email to Jia Tolentino, of The New Yorker
In her recent New Yorker article, "The Personal-Essay Boom is Over," Jia Tolentino describes the rapidly declining arc of first-person narratives in modern journalism. The "boom," which began in the mid-aughts after the mushrooming of the blogosphere, had a distinctly feminine feel -- not merely because many of the articles were written by women, but because personal essays are unabashed in filtering cultural observations through the Subjective (with a capital S). In personal essays, the perspective is interior, and the facts are feeling-ful.
Tolentino makes good points about the too-public ways these essays were received and the work exploited or devalued. (Alas, typical treatment of the feminine.) But, as a psychologist -- and writer of posts for the NCSPP -- I was most interested in Tolentino's observations of the journalistic shift of emphasis from personal to "systemic trauma." Popular storytelling has changed lately, significantly. The personal is held separate from the political.
In my previous Potential Space piece, I mentioned my disgruntlement and frustration at feeling compelled to write about Donald Trump. These days, all sentences seem to lead back to his-story; an unappealing object, and one that feels to many of us -- shadow-selves notwithstanding -- well outside the personal realm. Not to mention the sentences themselves are ugly, little more than word-cudgels: mean, narrow, and un-pliable. We are all but required to use fighting words, because fight we must. Stories revolving around the annealing, awakening, or healing of the Self (with a capital S) have come to seem naive, or even, sadly, selfish.
But, in troubled times, we need our poetry, our beauty, more than ever. We need our tensile sentences, capable of stretching from the shadows to the empyrean. We need our connective stories. We need our essays, which test the mettle of the Self (with a capital S). And now, especially now, we need our interiority.