ENGL‑CRWR 2010 The Personal Essay

You have gathered and weighed the evidence carefully; now, in a tone of calm authority, you will write an academic essay that changes the reader’s understanding of King Lear’s Fool or the Treaty of Versailles or the neurobiology of altruism as measured in two double-blind trials. At no point will you use the personal pronoun, I, or make any reference to your own life. If you express doubts about the depth, completeness, or value of your knowledge, you do so only to strengthen your case by strategically anticipating and refuting the reader’s objections. In the personal essay, you can drop this pretense of intellectual mastery– in fact, you must. As Roxane Gay writes, “what I know and what I feel are two very different things.” The personal essay is as much about what you feel as what you know, what you live as what you learn in the library. Here it is possible to essayer in the original sense of that word—to try, to attempt—with no guarantee that you’ll stay on topic or come to a tidy conclusion. In this genre, what you intuit is as important as what you’ve got figured out, and if you don’t surprise yourself or change your mind as you write then you’re probably not going to hold a reader’s attention. People have been writing essays for hundreds of years, at least since 1580 when the French aristocrat Michel de Montaigne published the first edition of his collected works under the title Essais, which went on to influence generations of writers, from Descartes to Virginia Woolf. The spirit of Montaigne is alive and well in our time, and arguably the personal essay has never been so popular. This class offers you the opportunity to read some of the most interesting practitioners of this form, and to make a few attempts of your own.