Painting the Personal Essay

[img_assist|nid=631|title=Gerbera Daisy by BJ Burtone © 2006|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=101]On a warm Friday morning at the Philadelphia Art Museum, twelve men and women gather to hear a lecture on Mary Cassatt’s painting A Woman and Girl Driving. We’re art apostles, staked out on tiny, collapsible, green vinyl, aluminum stools. Some of the listeners are painters; others, like me, would be hard-pressed to sketch more than a stick figure. In Cassatt’s painting, all that is visible of the horse leading the carriage is its hindquarter—crudely rendered—as if the woman and girl-child in the carriage will leave the painting, pass out of our line of vision on their way to who knows where. But the most compelling aspect of this painting isn’t the light or the color (so many pinks) or even the grim determination on the woman’s face. Rather, it’s a small thing: the little girl’s hand braced on the carriage door. I can’t take my eyes off it. Her grip suggests trepidation. Look up to her closed pale face, her lackluster gaze—no play, no childish delight—focused straight ahead and that hand becomes emblematic, the tone signature of this particular Cassatt.

Although we’ll learn that the little girl is Degas’ niece, that the woman is Cassatt’s sister, Lydia, and she was dying when Cassatt painted her, we don’t need to know these details to sense the urgency or the shadow of death in the painting. The girl’s hand, placed in the forefront, cues the viewer visually and emotionally.

We cloddish writers lacking the talent to paint the personal essay of our dying sister and her friend’s niece on a carriage ride must rely on words to cue our readers.

What makes a good personal essay? The personal essay seems to be the hot new form, but it is one of the oldest forms of writing, like poetry, and—like poetry—it relies on metaphor, rhythm, voice and specific detail. A writer of personal essays should read them actively with a mind and an ear tuned to nuance, shape, variety and style. My students groan when they hear this unalterable dictate, but will a novelist ever be born from a writer who doesn’t read novels? It would be something close to a miracle if a fine personal essay emerged from a writer ignorant of its long tradition. A good place to begin is with Phillip Lopate’s excellent anthology, The Art of The Personal Essay.

That said, the personal essay, often takes as its subject the everyday and the small—a walk in the park, a carriage ride, a morning at the museum—then explores it for meaning and depth. It doesn’t “sweat” as Toni Morrison has said; it doesn’t need to include every single detail of an event or experience in meticulous linear order. It’s insignificant whether I walked or took a taxi to the museum, what I wore, what I ate for breakfast. Instead, the personal essayist chooses details, thoughts, and images judiciously, like Cassatt, to suggest by what it puts in (the little girl’s hand), and what it leaves out (the whole horse), what the body remembers.

The personal essay is intimate and conversational, which is not to be confused with confessional and vulgar. I’ve admitted to you that I can’t draw, that I’m an “apostle of art,” that I attend spotlight lectures at the museum on Friday mornings. I’ve addressed “you” informally, co-opted you into my morning, as though I’ve touched your arm and whispered, “Look at the little girl’s hand.”

Unlike its formal, academic counterpart, the beauty of the personal essay arises from the essayist’s willingness to question his or her experience, to explore the “whys” rather than tell the “hows,” to even go so far as to ask, “Why is the groomsman seated on the back of the carriage, facing away from us?” As Lopate points out, “much of what characterizes true essayists is the ability to draw out a point through example, list, simile, small variation, exaggeration, whatever. The natural order of things—groomsman driving, woman and child seated in back—has been reversed. Though we haven’t experienced the carriage ride, we shiver with recognition: life is full of unwanted reversals. The best personal essays are honest. “The personal essayist must above all be a reliable narrator,” [This is Lopate (not White) from The Art of The Personal Essay]. “We must trust his or her core sincerity.” Essayists set up counter-themes. Any M.F.K. Fisher essay on food is also always about family and emotional hunger.

So you visit a museum. You cannot forget the little girl’s hand in the painting and how it made you feel. Your editor asks you to write an essay about how to write personal essays. Here it is.
Denise Gess (Not Tony ‘N Tina) is the author of two critically-acclaimed novels, Good Deeds (1984) and Red Whiskey Blues (1989) and the co-author of the non-fiction book Firestorm At Peshtigo: A Town, Its People and The Deadliest Fire in American History (2002). Her short fiction has appeared in the North American Review and has been anthologized in The Horizon Reader. She’s working on a collection of essays entitled Bad For Boys from which the title essay will appear in Wild River Review. She is also a member of the Philadelphia Stories editorial board.

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