Last year, the New York Times ran an article entitled, “We All Have A Life. Must We All Write About It?” Personal writing has always had its critics and many have refused to consider it as a serious literary form. E.B. White, remarked that, “The essayist must be content in his self-imposed role of second class citizen … a writer who has his sights trained on the Nobel Prize or other earthly triumphs, had best write a novel, poem or play.” Despite these perceived limitations, personal essays, particularly Mormon ones as of late, continue to occupy a favoured place upon my bedside table.
The hallmark of the personal essay is its intimacy. As Mary Lythgoe Bradford has noted, “The personal essay is vulnerable. It cannot stand upon its footnotes.” This writing genre is a form of discovery; by its very nature it is modest in simply being an attempt (rooted in the French essayer, meaning exactly that, to attempt). The personal essay expresses perplexity at life’s offerings, injury and outrage which has not been voiced, expectations that could not be met, or fulfillment at arriving at unexpected places. The heat of human experience rises from the page — all claims of impartiality are dropped at the outset, all masks removed, and the essayist proceeds with unabashed subjectivity. One author noted that, “the personal essay requires blood on the page, whether it has death in it or not.”
In an Association of Mormon Letters Presidential address, Lavina Fielding Anderson noted the central element of “new” Mormon fiction, the distinguishing feature of which is its intelligent affirmation as opposed to alienation. This spiritual realism is also at the heart of my favourite Mormon personal essays:
In spiritual realism, the conflicts that a character may encounter in his or her social settings are primarily important as they provide information about the spiritual life of that person. The experiences move the person toward a greater understanding of the ambiguous nature of human good and human depravity. They affirm or challenge the reality of God. They illuminate by recording those perplexing moments when prayers are not answered and the equally perplexing moments when they are. They shoulder the burden of a community where a vision of holiness and unity stands in contrast to the inevitable pettiness and cruelties of daily living. They attempt to make sense out of human interaction that includes both deepest doubts and anger focused on a seemingly uncaring God and swelling rejoicing and gratitude focused on a seemingly loving and watchful God.
Eugene England believed that the personal essay
best expresses the Mormon theological and cultural qualities: It allows us to bear witness, in effectively artistic ways, to our personal religious and moral experience and to the development of our eternal selves as children of God and members of a covenant community … The voice is rooted in the extremes of honestly revealed feeling and experience, from doubt and inadequacy and anguish to exalted faith and love and encounters with divinity… That voice, in that genre, can, I believe not only help us develop a more valuable Mormon literary culture but may become our major contribution to world literature.
In my reading, the Mormon personal essay is intertwined with yearning for and bearing testimony — a particular and peculiar lens for interpreting the world around us. It is a sublime travelogue — a raw and vulnerable exploration that defies other literary forms and disciplines. The blood on the page infuses life into my own testimony and gives me the courage to let my own crimson drops flow.
** any and all recommendations of personal essays of all descriptions would be gratefully accepted