There is a peculiar kind of writing produced, almost exclusively, by the females of the species. Its genus, as Philip Lopate describes it, is the personal essay: the essay that talks to everyone, about all of us, from firsthand experience. Its trademark is the talkiness, the voice that whispers and chatters about the innermost workings of the mind attached to the mouth. The personal essay is confessional writing, with the crucial presumption that one mind, digging, exposing, confessing, can synthesize them all. Which is to say, per Lopate: The personal essayist puts faith in the unity of human experience. For these writers, navel-gazing is never a sin.
On to the women: Their writing is fierce, reluctant, and terse. Each bare-boned sentence sounds like it has hours of anguish behind it. They are coy, but don’t accuse them of flirtation. Their fear is to be branded a woman writer. Their heroines are Vivian Gornick and Joan Didion. To write their essays, you must be schooled in the arts of utter self-seriousness and self-deprecation. You must be obsessed with the pursuit of truth-telling, yet convinced that every word you write, in some minute way, is a lie. Workshops are emerging, at colleges across the country, in pursuit of this very particular craft: the hesitant specification of the universal. Their teachers and students seem overcome by the necessity of instruction. Even this must feel like a fraud.
“I have been sitting chin in hand in front of the typewriter, staring out at the snow. Trying to be honest with myself, trying to figure out why writing this seems to me so dangerous an act, filled with fear and shame, and why it seems so necessary.” So Adrienne Rich prefaces her prose revelations about the mundane confusions of growing up in an upper-middle-class family. Behind every essay that claws at the inside for outward significance is the suspicion that the writer’s mind is entirely vacant. She mines through the particulars of loves lost and socks missing and—with the peculiar anxiety of the woman who hates last year’s diary—finds everything to cry about and nothing to write. This is where instruction begins. Bard’s Susan Rogers tells her students to start writing precisely where they find no story: with the moth, like Virginia Woolf’s, that collapsed on the window ledge. The moment that the novel would die is the same one that the essay begins.
Students come to Rogers’s workshop exploding with the wrong ideas. They have stories to tell and their hearts will burst if they don’t tell them. So she made a rule: no drugs, sex, or violence, at least not in the first essays. She explains this delicately. “I think about myself when I was 20, and every little bump and heartbreak felt as if the whole world could crack open.” Rachel DeWoskin, an NYU instructor and author of the memoir Foreign Babes in Beijing, puts the problem plainly: “I don’t teach self-help writing. This isn’t a therapy session.”
Rogers, the editor of two women’s nonfiction collections, tells her students to read one particular essay, “The Fourth State of Matter” by Jo Ann Beard. The author dimly awakens to the silence of her house, the slow demise of her dog, and the massacre of her co-workers by a deranged graduate student, all at even keel. These men, she writes, were “space physicists, guys who spend days on end with their heads poked through the fabric of the sky, listening to the sounds of the universe. Guys whose own lives are ticking like alarm clocks getting ready to go off, although none of us is aware of it yet.”
Danielle Seltzer, a senior at NYU, dreams of being an essayist: one small transistor in the universe is one way to put it, although the natural inclination of the essayist is to place this language everywhere but beside her own name. Seltzer puts what Rogers calls the problem of scale—the desire to speak with the magnitude of stars when you’re living in a small room—the following way. A lot of women in the workshops she takes want to tell the stories they believe speak for themselves, the ones in which abuse and disorder play out on the page. The presumption is, suffering has already occurred and what’s left is the simple act of transcription. The art of divining, withholding, and crumbling is replaced with mechanical confession. The burden of proving worthy of empathy is confused with the anguish of experience. “Sometimes these stories seem like they’re the hardest to write about,” Seltzer says. “But the fact that they’re difficult to write about doesn’t necessarily make them more interesting.” She says she’s saving her most complex stories for the moment when depth of feeling and eloquence reach a more perfect equanimity. She turns this over. “Maybe I’m just protecting myself.”
The secret, essayists tell each other, is to keep your secrets close. Let each fraction of confession or retraction bear the weight, by its very frugality, of a lived confession. Make a microcosm of signs and portents out of a recovered sock. Women gravitate toward the personal essay, says one instructor at Brown, because of its unlimited agency. Tell the story, or withhold it: It’s precisely when you’re most silent that we’re all ears. Other writers, even ones who admit they’re teaching nearly all women, decline to address the gender question. Call it the essayist’s prerogative. Lydia Davis, in The End of the Story, writes it like this: “There was a good deal of talk, but that talk was in the pages of our notebooks, and was therefore silent, unless we chose to open our notebooks and read.”