Why Personal Essays Have Taken Over the Internet

Get-personalEvery week for more than a decade, I’ve sat down in front of a computer and spilled out a column to appear on the pages of the newspaper. Often they’re personal in nature, an essay sparked by something that has occurred or a part of me I’ve decided to share with the world.

In the years since, dozens of essays about my life and the lives of the people I love have been shared online, stories about some of the deepest, darkest, most difficult parts of being human, from my struggles with an eating disorder to my imperfect parenting in a Pinterest-perfect world.

It’s not easy to be an essayist. You’re subject to hate screeds at every turn, people who read only pieces of your words and twist them to their own line of thinking. The cruel comments are bad enough, but worse are the trolls who track you down in other ways with comments threatening death or rape.

Female writers are at far greater risk of the attacks, an assertion supported by the statistics kept by the volunteer group Working to Halt Online Abuse, which has been so overwhelmed by calls for help since its creation in 1997 that it’s had to stop taking cases, despite its founder’s expertise in cybercrime.

Then there are those who attack the trend itself, calling it narcissistic, evidence of Americans’ increasing infatuation with ourselves. It’s true a fair amount of essays you’ll find online are just that, navel-gazing at its worst, evidence that some people write only for themselves. Sometimes it’s to hear themselves talk, other times to air dirty laundry as means of seeking attention.

Unfortunately, some of those manage to go viral and assault us with their banal nature.

It’s those that make good essays, the essays written not for oneself but for the world, all the more necessary.

What’s the difference?

As an editor for an online website, a great portion of my day is spent working my way through piles of essay submissions, deciding which pieces should be added to the mix of writing shared every day with our readers. There are dozens of reasons why an essay might be turned down, from poor writing to a tone that’s incompatible with the rest of the site, but there’s one thing that every essay accepted contains: a universal message, one that can be taken out of the most personal of stories.

No, not everyone will be able to relate to the exact details of one woman’s path from Planned Parenthood protester to sitting inside a clinic, in need of a doctor’s services. Not everyone will recall eating one’s feelings to the point of bursting, then running to a bathroom to purge themselves of the ever more troubling feelings created by a binge.

But there’s always a nugget inside, a piece of the story that screams to someone, “you are not alone.”

When people ask how it is that I’m able to lay myself bare, it’s those people I have in mind. Because for every nasty message from a bored troll in his granny’s basement who wastes 20 minutes of his day to track me down and tell me what a … ahem, words I will not use in a family newspaper … I am, are the emails, the Facebook messages and the tweets that thank me for saying what it is they’re not able to say themselves.

Sometimes I write for me, but I always write for them.

 

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