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Exploring Genres: The Personal Essay

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Maybe it’s just me, but the personal essay seems to be having a moment. Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams is showing up on the New York Times Bestseller list, something few personal essay collections do.

Or maybe I’m just paying attention more. The personal essay is a form whose definition is constantly shifting. My assumptions about what constitutes a personal essay in the past have always been very narrow, falling somewhere near the old college application essay tree. But I’m starting to realize that the personal essay can encompass a whole lot more. Are feature articles on Slate part of the genre? Can a book-length memoir be part of the personal essay format? What about narrative nonfiction; is that synonymous with the personal essay? What about cultural critiques, like Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs? Those essays have a personal element to them. And is The Best American Essays series actually the best? Can the Personal Essay genre actually be all of these things?

The internet gods were unhelpful when I tried to Google “personal essay.” I mostly got recommendations for college applicants. There are classes for learning how to write the personal essay and then how to sell said essay to a publication or two. But for someone like me who just wants to know more, the biggest question is this:

Where do I start?

I asked this question of my fellow Rioters and other bookterneters and received a few helpful suggestions:

The Memoir Project by Marion Roach Smith
I Just Lately Started Buying Wings: Missives from the Other Side of Silence by Kim Dana Kupperman
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

These are great, but I want more. I’ve always loved memoirs and I am always drawn to pieces I think are personal essays in magazines like The Atlantic. But if I ask for a definition, am I just limiting myself to the breadth of what’s out there? So I ask again, Where do I start?

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