The Problem With the Personal Essay Isn’t the Taboos we Write About
The lack of editorial ethics and accountability among practitioners and platforms remains problematic
How do you want to hear about the day I frantically thumbed my pocket English-German dictionary looking for the word “abortion”? I was 19, engaged to be married, and on a study trip staying with a penpal I had been writing to for years and who turned out to be a real-life Nazi.
No doubt you’re trying to parse this information now. Perhaps you have already formed an opinion of me without knowing anything more than what I wrote above. But hopefully you sense something on an instinctive level, a primal twitch, be that curiosity, doubt, or both.
And if something seems askew then it warrants investigation: You just have to find out whether what you suspect is true. Depending on how facts are presented to us, we will approach the topic in different emotional states. And because the line between facts and fiction is so blurred, our definition of truth is more flexible than ever.
In an attention economy, it’s no longer enough to gently lead readers to reflection, you have to dangle doubt in front of them while shocking them into emoting. Forget about empathy and compassion; outrage is the shortcut of choice.
Does anyone enjoy being told what to feel and what to think? If the mere idea of our hearts and minds being targeted by unscrupulous self-marketers doesn’t give us pause for thought, what will? When you write for a living, grabbing eyeballs is a bloodsport and the harder you milk them, the greater the financial returns. And if you want instant ROI, victimhood culture will not let you down; the more willing you are to humiliate yourself in print, the more relatable you can hope to be.
We want heroes and villains, we want monstrous, overblown versions of alternate selves to comfort us in our normalcy. And so we elevate those who embody extreme behaviors like greed but pay no heed to the thinkers and the truth seekers. Who wants to ponder alongside another when they readily admit they haven’t got any more of a clue than we do? We deify those offering confirmation bias on tap, those daring to say out loud what we’re far too ashamed to voice yet unapologetically hungering for?
Although it takes hubris to tell others what to think when your only area of expertise is yourself and how to grow your ego, it happens every day. Even in the last bastion of raw human honesty that is the personal essay, hopefuls keep auctioning off their privacy, hoping for fame and fortune.
We live vicariously through screens and the inspirational derring-do of others, seldom pausing to consider what we might achieve if only we found the courage to start stringing a few heartfelt, carefully considered words together. We prefer to worship at the digital lectern of online hacks who flash their cash, hoping their alleged good fortune might rub off on us by osmosis if we stare at them long enough.
Eventually, we turn to other humans as weather vanes — many of whom self-styled influencers rather than thought leaders — instead of figuring out the forecast for ourselves. Which we could do if only we bothered to step away from the noise and engage our brain for a moment. Therein lies the difference between writing with purpose — i.e. thinking out loud — and content-writing.
We can use the internet as a modern-day agora where we incubate a better world or we can use it for entertainment to escape reality. We can build a better reality word by word or we can watch it being built while doing none of the heavy lifting but vociferating about how horrid it is.
It’s not enough to fancy ourselves as creators, and artists, and writers — we’re not going to change our life and much less the world when all we have to contribute to the global conversation is how much we despise our very existence, revealing what we think will be most jaw-dropping thing to hear on any given day.
Several times a day if need be. Consonant to popular belief, misery does indeed like company, so much so that supplying voyeurism with a side helping of schadenfreude has spawned countless so-called content niches. Forget opening minds and winning over hearts, just make sure readers are glad they aren’t you, whatever it takes.
And then move on to the next woe, and the next, and the one after that until your particular brand of misery sells out and you go down in internet history as your most outrageous story. Because you were so busy writing about yourself you quite literally forgot (how) to live.
All life is material; living is the bun, thinking is the burger while self-awareness and accountability are the two hands that hold it together. Sure, it is quite possible to lead an anti-intellectual life that gets so comfortable those who do may not realize right away their critical thinking and creative faculties left them when that first big pay check showed up.
That personal branding tagline self-marketers love so much? It’s ketchup, a cheap junk condiment designed to mask the poor quality of the low-grade protein within. Content writing knows how to sell itself by remaining so vague it is both relatable and impervious to fact-checking at the same time. The few enquiring minds who dare scratch the thin veneer of appearance and ask for clarification will be taken to task for their arrogance as authors reckon with the image the digital mirror is suddenly reflecting back to them.
No answer will ever be forthcoming but another mind-numbing screed about how being victimized will appear in no time. In it, we will learn nothing; instead, words will stomp on our windpipe until the brain is deprived of oxygen but we’re so conditioned to mediocrity there will be no struggle.
Thanks to the internet, we’re all media now and that’s a brilliant thing in so far as everyone has a voice and can be heard without having to kowtow to gatekeepers anymore. The problem is that parlaying human disempowerment into hard cash accounts for a lot of copy online and distress dealers all have one thing in common: the words they type never encourage self-reflection or critical thinking.
But if words are the virus, they’re also the cure and we can make them matter again if we put our heads together. Thankfully, writing is very much an equal opportunity pursuit. But not in the way self-marketers are selling it; their business is to make as much noise as possible, not provide signal, doing us all a great disservice. Careless copy reinforces the very stigma misery merchants decry; they don’t care as long as they get paid.
Please don’t let that put you off and attempt to apply a modicum of gentleness to the tricky business of corralling humanness into words. Absolutely anyone who can think can write and the human condition isn’t a pathology we need to develop endless entertaining palliatives for. We could, if we felt so inclined, co-create a new culture of open-mindedness, dialogue, solidarity, and bridge-building that endures.
Our moral, intellectual, and social survival likely depends on it, at least if the rise of mindless populism across the political spectrum is anything to go by.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.