On Personal Essays

Trigger warning: Disturbing description of childhood death.

As we pulled into the parking spot, I found what I searched for all these years. Boxes and bowls trying to look haphazard, the kind Susan and I bought for our first house, shabby-chic; mailboxes, mouths gaped like baby birds begging for worms; a ladder, handmade, stolen from a bunkbed; skis from the seventies, when I first learned to ski; one of those nylon chairs I sat in while surf-fishing with my dad; an OPEN sign like the one at the Silver Bullet, the joint we stopped at for beers after soccer. Each item triggered a memory, each memory, a story.

From my blog post “Junk Shops”

Junk Shops popped up in my stats today. Someone read my post, or more likely landed on the page after googling “surf-fishing” or “Silver Bullet” and uttered huh, what the hell is this as they clicked the back arrow in search of a more appropriate link. Maybe they read a paragraph, maybe just a sentence. Maybe they read the whole thing thinking Hey, this is pretty neat. I wonder why somebody wrote this.

The day I wrote it, I stopped by a junk shop in search of writing prompts. I found plenty, but I only wrote about the experience. I immediately forgot the whole episode, leaving all those prompts unused. Until today. I read over Junk Shops and reread that paragraph at the top of the page, knowing that the bunkbed ladder was my prompt.

Dana and I shared bunkbeds until I was eight. Then we moved to a bigger house, and I got my own room. As the older brother, Dana took the top bunk. One night I fell out of bed in my sleep and landed on my eye. When I woke in the morning, I proudly showed off my shiner to my neighbors and the strangers I met that day during my grocery-run with my mom. Had Dana ceded the top bunk to me, my plummet might have caused some serious damage.

In sixth grade, my teacher passed out a story for us to read at our desks. It was unlike anything I ever read before. It captured me from the start and held me prisoner until I finished. The author told a personal account of the death of her son. Mimicking a scene he saw in a cartoon, he strung up a bathrobe tie and hanged himself from his top bunk. His younger brother watched.

The author wrote about a routine day doing chores with the background noise of children playing in the next room. About how the author never noticed when the room grew quiet. About her life altering shock when her surviving child led her by the hand to see the strange thing that happened in his bedroom.

I don’t recall any classroom discussion after we read it, but there must have been some. It probably centered around the danger of cartoons putting stupid ideas in kids’ heads. What the teacher should have taught us that day was the power of a personal essay. Decades later, I still remember the impact of reading that first person account.

The scene, two young boys playing in their room next to a bunkbed, surely resonated with me—the connection to my past partly responsible for its effect. But also, I witnessed an author detach herself from the obvious emotion of the situation, her captivating description of the events led my thoughts where she wanted them to go. She didn’t tell me what to feel, but she made me feel it anyway. Sometimes I think my love of personal essays was forged that very day. Even though I didn’t start writing seriously for forty more years, I turned to first person nonfiction from the start.

The story of the boy hanging himself pops into my head now and then. The personal essay genre strikes me as completely outside the school curriculum that focused so heavily on novels and research writing. Presenting that writing to the class seems akin to going rogue. Sometimes I wonder if the teacher wrote it herself. A would-be blogger in an internet-free world looking for an outlet for the creative nonfiction she wrote to process the horrors in her mind.

My teacher should have used that story as a catalyst for a writing unit on personal essays. I regret the years I spent not writing, not delving into my thoughts. I think she missed her chance to give a room full of kids a powerful tool to carry forward for the rest of their lives.

12 thoughts on “On Personal Essays

  1. Conrad Aiken ‘s The Silent Secret Snow is my childhood story stored in my banks of memory. I had purchased it as a fairly young child in a giant box of books. There was also a 50’s necklace in the box. The treasures we find in the both the junk shops and the shops in our mind.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. They could’ve done it back when we were in school. I don’t know about these days. Not in K-12 anyway… too busy learning how to take standardized tests🙄
    I don’t remember any personal essays… maybe the “How I Spent Summer Break”🤷🏼‍♀️

    You’re right about her missing a chance. It might have helped kids learn to process their feelings too.

    Liked by 2 people

    • How I spent summer break was, I suppose, a personal essay, but we never got any strategies for making it good, just the assignment to write it. I remember really liking the few writing assignments I got in high school. But to the best of my memory, we never studied what makes writing good. I wish I’d gotten hooked on writing decades earlier.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What a tragic account of a mother and the two young boys’ lives. How old would you have been in sixth grade? It seems awfully young to be reading of such an experience. I think American schools and English schools work out their grades differently. Grade six would be the year before secondary school here. Our secondary/grammar schools start at Grade seven. I, too, remember writing about what I did in the school holidays. I was okay with that because it was real life. When we were told to write a fiction story, I was hopeless and had endless tears at home because I couldn’t think of anything at all to write about for homework. Nothing has changed since then (apart from the tears, at least most of the time), as I can still only write personal essays and poetry (I don’t think there is one piece of fiction in my nine years of blogging). I agree with you about that teacher missing a valuable opportunity. I wish I’d started writing a long time ago, too. I just grew up thinking ALL writing had t be fiction. P.S. I’m glad you were on the bottom bunk!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sixth grade here, I think is eleven or twelve. That’s the age where the kids start on my mountain bike team and I can imagine most of them reading something like that. I’ve really tried to get my kids interested in writing as a hobby and they are completely uninterested. I was writing a bit by the time I was in college but it was all pretty bad. As an adult I’ve written five fiction pieces. I’m proud of them and one even got published somewhere but I think they are pretty mediocre. I simply cannot think of anything to write about. I’m envious of people who can just churn out fiction. One guy I know here in town has something like twenty books published.

      Liked by 1 person

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