I love reading thoughtfully written personal essays, but they are hard to find in India: there is no dedicated magazine that is promoting, publishing, and most crucially, cultivating talent around crafting personal narratives. Wrote this note to share why I think personal essays matter.
From Phillip Lopate:
The hallmark of the personal essay is intimacy. The writer seems to be speaking directly in your ear, confiding everything from gossip to wisdom. Through sharing thoughts, memories, desires, complaints, and whimsies, the personal essayist sets up a relationship with the reader, a dialogue—a friendship, if you will, based on identification, understanding, testiness, and companionship.
At the core of the personal essay is the supposition that there is a certain unity to human experience. As Michel de Montaigne, the great innovator and patron saint of personal essayists, put it, “Every man has within himself the entire human condition.” This meant that when he was telling about himself, he was talking, to some degree, about all of us. The personal essay has an implicitly democratic bent, in the value it places on experience rather than status distinctions.
Repeating for emphasis: “Every man has within himself the entire human condition.”
If a writer can deliver honesty on paper, look at the deepest corners of their heart and mind — layers that remain hidden without deep reflection — and express what they are witnessing in words, observe and capture the everyday small things to celebrate the ordinariness of human existence, then, they can illuminate our understanding of the human condition like few other art forms can.
The value of the personal essay has been up for debate. The popular press largely avoids writing in the first person and using the “I”. Some worry if emphasising the writer’s experience of the world is a way to feed into their ego or if the form is yet another exploitative way to monetise the self and hijack attention where vulnerability becomes a commodity.
But I don’t think India is at the point where we can have this debate because no single destination magazine dedicatedly publishes thoughtfully written and tightly edited first-person narratives that capture the complexity of the rapidly transforming Indian society.
I repeat: narratives, not rambling thoughts: “this happened to me, please read this” — not that. I am talking about personal essays as a form of storytelling.
As with all forms of creative nonfiction, there are no fixed rules on what works. But there is an element of craft (technicalities of the form) that one can derive by focusing on the core objective of the personal essay: understanding ourselves and society through a specific form of knowledge — lived experience.
The personal essay respects what one feels (rational or irrational, which, btw, is a debatable terminology) and experiences in getting through life. It’s a form of truth that the science-minded objectivity-obsessed journalist may object to: what if one’s feeling does not stack up with the hard facts?
That’s possible. And yet, ironically, that’s also the beauty of this form: how individuals experience the world reveals their fears and desires, anxieties and aspirations. It lets us explore the complicated psyche of human beings. It exposes internal contradictions.
And these things matter. Especially in a multicultural, pluralistic and rapidly changing country like India — and the millions of mini-Indias within India.
The best essays make an argument, moving from the individual to the universal. The most beautiful ones do that with the power of the detail alone and no grandstanding conclusions — which we don’t even need.
According to Lopate, themes the personal essays mostly cover: “friendship, solitude, attachment to the past, childhood; talk, social manners, and the folly of fashion; city versus country life, walking, idleness, travel, hobbies; collecting, public spectacles, and entertainments; books, the vocation of writing, food, appetites, interior decor; illness, mortality.”
We don’t need to limit ourselves to these themes — the form is limitless. I would love to read stories that talk about work (and experiences at the workplace), politics (every day power games), government, education, relationships, sexuality and more. Also, a certain kind of memoir.
Remember, the form is not about revealing “bad things” or “dark secrets” — vulnerability and honesty are helpful, perhaps essential, but let’s not get formulaic. For me, what matters is a writer’s ability to rewind, observe, and express. And then see what comes out on paper.