Spectacles of the Mind

Manda Frederick

I'm startled by her question. I'm often startled by my students, especially lately, because of the revealing nature of the personal essay assignment. The truth is, even though I'm glad to have the chance to teach it to my students, I've always questioned the place of the personal essay in an academic environment.

When French Renaissance writer Michel Montaigne lost his closest friend—a friend with whom he'd exchanged scores of letters—Montaigne, the fountainhead of the personal essay, began writing self-examining works about the world sifted through his own lens, his own judgment to an imagined audience—he wrote to no one and everyone all at once in an attempt to compensate for the loss of his friend, the loss of an understanding mind with which to share ideas. So the success of these essays rests on an important assumption: “Every man has, within himself, the entire human condition.” In modern times, a personal essayist—that is, a writer who follows Montaigne's example and sets out to examine herself and her experiences through the essay—has an idea of what she's getting herself into; an essayist knowingly engages in the difficult task of confronting herself on the page. For this reason, I should have known better than to assign such a thing to my novice students. An essayist knows she's pitting her own judgments against the world. By tossing herself head-first into the realm of general human understanding, she knows what she's after: to learn something about herself, from herself, before she hits the bottom.

But the “essay” in an academic setting is a different sort of thing. An essay as an assignment presumes that the audience is not imagined, but is the teacher—the figure that taught the student what she knows. The student pits her ideas against the teacher's judgment. The student acts on the assumption that we are all taught through our academic careers: that every student has, within herself, the ability to succeed by doing what is asked of her and demonstrating she has been taught something. I realize this is why my students are having such a hard time with the task of writing a personal essay: I'm asking them to do an entirely different thing than they have had to do. And, for some of them, the impacts after their head-long leaps are hard. I am sitting across from Ellie as I watch her tumble down into herself—and I really have no idea what to do. This is not the kind of thing I had expected my assignment to prompt.

Ellie had asked me if I'd ever had my stomach pumped in a hopeful tone, like maybe I'll say yes, as though she asked me if I like Indian food, and if I do say yes, maybe we could go somewhere, sometime, and eat it together.

But I can't say, I have, in fact, had my stomach pumped. I can only imagine it: a probing tube fed through her self-loathing throat toward the stomach, the esophagus softly hugging it. The tube wrestles bile away from the belly. The stomach is a clenched mouth under the rib cage as it tightens with every pump, as a machine attempts to swallow what has already been swallowed. I open my mouth and almost tell her that I swallowed my own pills when I was the age she is now. But I close my mouth because I would be embarrassed to tell her that I threw them up. The pills were hardy and my stomach was not. But Ellie's stomach was strong. Her stomach was strong when her eleven-year-old body was weak as she shuddered against bathroom tile wailing for a classmate, her first boyfriend, who committed suicide. Tiles crossed beneath her as sharply as the circumstances that brought her to that point—at the point of what Ellie called her lonely junction. But Ellie didn't ask me if I swallowed my own prescription. She asked me if I'd ever had my stomach pumped. So I say, “No.”

 I regret encouraging Ellie to think through this issue—because I arrived somewhere, as a teacher, perhaps, that I didn't wish to. I regret prompting her to showcase her mind in its marvels—and, in this case, its miseries. I don't want her to make a spectacle of her consciousness making sense of its own chaos—a spectacle, which, I have no right as her composition instructor to witness—the personal essay is a personal experience for a reason.

I want to squeeze her close to me and tell her, I know, Ellie. Believe me, I know. I know you are tired and over-extended by no fault but your own. I know you generally look great outside, but you feel terrible inside and this utter exhaustion is why you quit showering this week; maybe someone will notice you are, in every sense, a crumpled mess, even though you'd rather be caught dead than be seen in public like this, because right now, you'd rather be caught dead than any other way. As her teacher, I don’t think that saying this is an appropriate thing to do. I am, while I sit across from her, in the process of our meeting, trying to learn what to do. Teaching the personal essay is a lot like writing the personal essay, it seems. I've been trying to get my students to learn something from or about themselves; I wasn't expecting to do the same.

The personal essay, to me, is a standing invitation to get serious with yourself and your experiences, which is a very hard thing to do—one of the hardest things I've personally ever done. An invitation you could accept when you were ready, and if you were never ready, so be it. An invitation I had made, clumsily, as a first-time teacher, mandatory to twenty-five of my students because it is thought, in composition pedagogy, that the personal essay gives students a chance to “simply” write about themselves. The personal essay is supposed to be an “easy” way for students to get writing so that they can transition into the “serious” papers. But it isn't simple, actually. It isn't easy.

When you realize you've made a mistake that affects a lot of other people, you might feel panic and embarrassment, which is precisely how I feel sitting in front of my red-faced eighteen-year-old student who is taking this course only as a required step toward a degree in biology. From Ellie, I got exactly what I had asked for. It was supposed to be difficult for her, but it wasn't supposed to be this hard.

But like an invitation that's already been extended, I couldn't take it back.

And, anyway, this is what I'd been pushing my students to do all quarter. And when I didn't think my encouragement was strong enough to shove them over the edge of “safe” writing, I used other, more substantial voices to make the message loud and clear. For instance, I had the students read a short segment of writing from Annie Dillard, who urges writers: “Push it. Examine all things intensely and relentlessly...do not leave it, do not course over it, as if it were understood, but instead follow it down until you see it in the mystery of its specificity and strength.” And that's exactly what Ellie has done, following this thing all the way down until she almost can't stand it. And I admire her right now, not as an instructor who might admire a student who has done a good job, but as a writer and a human being trying to make sense of things. Mostly, I admire her for doing what I try so very hard to do in my own writing: she's facing the big issues in her life. And unlike me (and many other essayists I know), she is even confronting her own confusion about the whole mess by meeting with me to try to resolve it, whereas I would have abandoned the essay altogether, for no reason other than this: it is easier to quit writing than it is to keep thinking. But you must keep thinking.

And Ellie must keep thinking. But, still, I have no idea what to say to her. She's in the thick of this process, and I don't feel it's right to bring her back or push her forward. So I do what teachers do: I ask her teacherly questions about her introduction and conclusion; I tell her to double check her transitions when she's done; I remind her not to over use semi-colons like she sometimes does. I, again, support her choice of topic and tell her if she wants me to review her rough draft that she can e-mail it to me. But as she's heading out, I feel I should say something more. So I do what fellow-essayists do, what friends do: I say that it's okay if writing her essay is scary. It'll be good to get it down, I say. I point out that in Dillard's short segment on writing, she supports her argument that, even if it is difficult, the world must be examined deeply—Dillard gives us reminder, an encouragement: she says you must “admire the world for never ending on you.” And, even if you think it might, the world really doesn't end on you.

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