When I first started writing personal essays for publication, I didn't intend to talk about myself all that much.
It sounds paradoxical, but there are actually a couple of different kinds of personal essays: the shock factor clickbait (i.e., xoJane and a LOT of Huffington Post blogs) and the heart-on-my-sleeve tell-all confessional (reminiscent of a diary entry), for example. Then there are some that reach higher---they're moving, they make the personal universal, and they're raw and honest without sounding like someone who's putting pen to paper for the first time.
The latter is obviously what I'm striving for, so I try to avoid writing the kind of essays that lack self-awareness. This means I'm selective of the topics I write about. Essays on books at the intersection of life, culture, and politics is my go-to.
Then something happened. Not long after getting engaged, my mother body-shamed me over not fitting in her wedding dress---a dress I think is hideous and have no interest in wearing.
This is the kind of personal thing I would typically avoid writing about, but the essay wouldn't leave me alone.
I didn't want to write it. I told the essay to go away. There were a couple of reasons for my aversion:
1) it's a deeply personal and vulnerable subject,
2) there was no way to write it without making my mother sound horrid (which she was in that moment of body-shaming me), and
3) I didn't want people to get the wrong idea about the kinds of writer I want to be.
And yet the essay wouldn't stop. It kept knocking on the door of my brain, begging to be let out onto paper. So despite my fears, I wrote it.
My essay "How Not to Wear Your Mother's Wedding Dress" was published last week and in the past few days I've learned that every single one of the fears I had was misguided.
Yes, it's deeply personal and vulnerable---and that's why people like it. I've never gotten more positive feedback on a piece than I have with this. I've never gotten more shares or likes on a piece. I've never gotten so much support and messages from people who felt comfortable sharing their stories of being body-shamed with me. I never would've imagined the number of people, particularly women, my story would resonate with.
No, there was no way to write the essay without making my mother sound horrid. But I'm a nonfiction writer, so it wouldn't serve me or my readers if I attempted to sugarcoat a nasty situation. The issues of body-shaming don't get nearly enough attention, especially when the body-shaming is perpetuated by one's family, so pretending it didn't happen or my mother body-shaming me didn't hurt my feelings would make the essay completely pointless. No one needs to read another lukewarm piece of writing.
No, I didn't want people to get the wrong idea about the kind of writer I want to be. But that was me judging myself, thinking an essay about a wedding dress wasn't "literary" enough.
The truth is that ANY subject can be literary because literary-ness is determined by how you write, not by what you write about.
Judging yourself over subject matter is a waste of time better spent just writing the essay.
I learned that if a piece demands to be written, write it.
Don't be afraid of what people think. Don't worry what it'll do to your "brand." Don't be afraid of making someone else look bad, especially when they deserve it. Don't worry about whether people will like it. You don't have to publish it, but if your heart tells you to write, then WRITE.
I learned that writing what you're afraid of is the best way to write. If you're not a little afraid, you're not bleeding on the page. And if you're not bleeding on the page, you're not giving it your all. And if you're not going to give it your all, it'll never work. You owe it to yourself (and your readers) to let your fear inspire you.
Because sometimes fear can be a catalyst for something beautiful.
Check out the piece for yourself and let me know what you think!