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Among my favorites is Natalia Ginzburg’s first published in 1962.In it, Ginzburg employs repetition, counterpoint, and hyperbole to describe the ways in which she is inferior to her almost preternaturally astute and accomplished, though rather imperious, husband, only inserting glimpses of his weaknesses after we’re just about convinced he possesses none.
In “The Personal Essay: A Form of Discovery,” His introduction to , Epstein writes “Literary forms, like stocks, rise and fall, not in value of course, but in prestige.” Might the reflective personal essay be on its way out?
Will there no longer exist room in our nonfiction universe for both narrative and reflective personal essays?
Though I’ve enjoyed many narrative personal essays, such as the chilling “Angry Winter,” by Loren Eiseley, my deepest appreciation is reserved for the personal essay.
Am I to be deprived of this type of essay, which I not only enjoy reading, but write?
A more recent reflective personal essay that I cherish is Daphne Merkin’s, in 1991.
In this essay, Merkin has left a favorite scarf in a New York City taxi she’s just alighted from.On the other hand, a reflective personal essay is true first person writing that explores a topic or idea, without being required to follow a narrative arc, include a climax, or come to a conclusion. Essayist Phillip Lopate, editor of , considers personal essays the “incomplete or tentative treatment of a topic.” He goes on to point out the personal essay’s “digression and promiscuous meanderings,” which I consider the hallmark of reflective personal essays.Roaming in the wake of the writer’s seemingly disordered thoughts, even down blind alleys towards apparent dead ends, feels comfortably like my own mental journeying.In the narrative form the essayist tells what happened—instead of inviting readers to make of his mental journey what they will.A major difference between narrative and reflective personal essays could be that the former appears incident driven, the latter, idea driven.Like a fictional story, a narrative personal essay can “recount a string of events,” as essayist and editor Joseph Epstein writes in his Forward to .As in a fictional story, a narrative personal essay includes an inciting incident (or catalyst), conflict, obstacles placed in the path of the main character (or, in the case of a personal essay, the narrator), a climax, and a resolution.In narrative personal essays, I often feel rushed to arrive at and over that pesky narrative arc that looms like a hurdle on an otherwise level path; There’s the unfolding of the plot and the determined trot towards the climax and resolution.An email from an editor made it clear where his interest lay. [Italics mine.] The writer of the narrative personal essay is discouraged from wondering, meandering, or doubling back to poke at inchoate thoughts, or to reconsider questions that refuse to be easily, even glibly, settled.I guess I’m also asking: Has the personal essay evolved beyond me? I cut my teeth on reflective personal essays written in the 1930s through the 1960s, decidedly less hurried times.Essays from that era feel relaxed and loosely structured, like the casual suits men wore in nineteen forties movies set in Hollywood or Havana.