James Pencil
Every quarter, I swear that I’m going to quit teaching the personal essay.

Every quarter I teach it again.

I’m an adjunct college instructor not just at a community college—“junior” colleges, they used to call them: colleges designed for high-school dropouts, single parents, out-of-work mechanics and millworkers and refugees of all kinds, all this mixed together with four or five bright-eyed, motivated, Running Start high-school-students (they show up having actually bought the books, the idiots, and they actually lean forward in their seats ready to learn, charmingly unaware that they’re about to get a real education, through their classmates, in what life looks like when you don’t get an education)—but at an extension site of the community college. Our extension-site campus is so small—tucked here in the inner corner of the wet, forested Olympic Peninsula—that it’s just one building, and not even a full building. The top floor stands empty; the basement was a former morgue. We utilize the four rooms on the ground floor, plus an eight-person computer lab, and an office where Maggie sits. She’s the friendly registrar / office manager / janitor / computer technician / car mechanic / maintenance worker. She also fills in as an instructor when a faculty member is sick.

We offer four classes: English composition, English literature, basic math, and political science. We used to offer history, I’m told, but it was cut for budgetary reasons. So was biology, physics, advanced math, philosophy, sociology, accounting, chemistry, and environmental science. All the tenured faculty were moved to the main campus, and the top floor was shuttered. I’m told the floor is haunted by the ghosts of people from around the turn of the century, but whenever I heard chairs being dragged around up there, or desks being moved, I know it’s merely the ghosts of the former professors, and the ghostly hopes of a lost generation of students, vanished into ghostly budgets.

But I digress.

Of the four classes we still offer, I teach the English classes. I’ve taught here for a couple of years, and one of the essays I teach is the personal essay. It’s about using the stories of your life to generate work compelling to an outside reader, using such literary tropes as action, background, development, climactic scenes, denouements, horizontal movement, vertical movement, sensory detail, character development, setting, tension/conflict, want/obstacle, theme, etc.

We read a lot of great essays by contemporary essayists, and I mix in references to Lion King, Cinderella, Harry Potter, Titanic (which becomes a recurring meme) and—lately—the Twilight series, which is set in maybe the only place in the world—Forks—that is darker than where we are, and it’s not that far away, either. In any sense of the word.

In this last batch of personal essays, one young man whose parents have moved seven times in the past four years writes about hiding under his bed, watching while his father beat up his mother.

In this last batch of personal essays, a young woman with a six-year-old daughter writes about what it’s like to be impregnated by her father at the age of thirteen.

In this last batch of personal essays, a young woman writes about the time her mother, who was off her meds, served her chilled antifreeze in a glass, instead of Hawaiian punch. The writer describes the inside of the hospital room as “clean and spare the way our home never was. I never wanted to leave. The nurses brought me things. I wanted them to stay by my side.”

I’m never prepared to receive these, even though I get them every quarter.

Jason—a tall, hulking man who sits buried in his coat in the back of the room, and who generally uses his time in prison as a frame to write his research essays—writes about having psoriasis as a child, and how his father’s girlfriend would call him “elephant skin.” She would hit him with a broomstick and then lock him in the closet. He writes about beating up a classmate at the age of nine. He writes about juvenile detention. He writes about beating his wife. He writes about going to prison. But mostly, it keeps coming back to his stepmom, and about the things that happened to him as a child. “I don’t think you should ever treat a child that way,” he wrote, near the end. “People who treat children that way shuld be locked up.”

My contribution: I circle “shuld” and write a tiny o above it. Then I draw a tiny arrow from the o down to the middle of the word.

I like to feel that I’m making a difference in people’s lives.

I sit naked on the cold tile of my own bathroom floor—wind snapping the window frame, rain running in capillaries down the dark window—and I think, it’s not worth it, this essay assignment. Not for me. Not for them. I’m not a trained therapist. I’m a trained comma-splice-finder. I should replace the personal essay with a summary/strong response essay, I think, or a persuasive essay on, you know, stem cells: pros and cons. Global climate change. The electoral college.

We go over “gray” vs. “grey.” We go over the possessive apostrophe.

“The sky was gray,” they write, “and I tied a rubber hose around my upper arm to make the vanes bulge.”

Veins, I write, helpfully.

“We arrived at Russ’s house, and bought the stuff from his father’s friend. We knew it was good stuff because it was pure white, like powdered milk.”

Great use of the possessive apostrophe, I write.

The personal essay is the one essay in which the self-consciousness goes away. They aren’t trying to write to avoid errors. They’re telling their stories, and the language becomes a part of that. But at the cost of getting into difficult places.

One young woman, adopted from China by a Christian family, writes about how she didn’t want to go to church one morning. Her mother comes into her room screaming at her and calling her a devil worshipper. Even viewed through the filter of hyperbolic teenage writing (she’s a Running Start student), the sentence “‘We took you out of China to get you away from the Prince of Darkness, but you’ve brought him with you into our home,’ my mother told me”, isn’t worth it. I don’t want to know that this kind of thing is going on. In this town, or in any town.  A later line: “My adopted parents never hug me, but I don’t care.”

I go over the concept of “backstory,” and Jason, sitting in the back, raises his hand. “Yes?” I ask, knowing that he’ll probably, as usual, ask a question about something that I just went over not two minutes earlier.

“So what you’re saying, is, the horizontal movement is sort of the, you know, chronological timeline for the piece? and the vertical movement is what opens the space up for like, sitting around and talking about the bigger themes? Like the way people talk when they’re sitting outside, smoking, and they just talk about whatever? But like, that’s all you really remember about the party? The part where you’re talking?”

He’ll do that, sometimes. Come out of nowhere with a bright, insightful comment. There’s a motivated, curious, activated person there, who just had all the curiosity beaten out of him way back when by some sadistic woman who probably had something similar happen to her way back when.

People who treat children that way shuld be locked up.

You wouldn’t believe what people do to kids. I’m not even talking about molestation, here. I’m talking about molestation of a daughter, with promises from the father that he’ll leave her mommy and they’ll be together, forever, until the father finds out that the daughter let the dog out, and the dog disapears, and so you punish her with steel wool.

I write, in the margins: disappears. Remember to use spell check!

            The way this essay opens is that the narrator is watching her grandmother from a basement window. Her grandmother lovingly plants tulip bulbs with a gloved thumb, how she tenderly sculpts the loamy soil. The grandmother keels over, suddenly, and falls on her side, and the narrator screams, and runs upstairs, knowing that if something—anything—happens to her grandmother, she’ll have to go back to her father—and how that can’t, can’t, happen—and she gets upstairs, and runs out to the lawn (all this is mixed with backstory of her previous home life) and she gets outside and her grandmother is okay; she hasn’t had a heart attack after all, she just “felt a little dizzy, dear,” and she sits up, and she’s okay, and I—as the reader—I’m sitting at my kitchen table, freaked out as much as the narrator, and the only thing that happened in the essay, horizontally, is that some old woman fell over.

That’s the power of the personal essay.

This is why I keep teaching the damn thing.

The power of the personal essay for the writer is that it says, to the world, I lived. This is my life. And as the writer I’m in control of my life, and in control of the narrative.

The power to the reader is that it allows the reader to step into the writers skin, and be that person.

It’s not therapy, but it’s power. And maybe that’s enough. Except it’s dangerous, too, because all these memories come up, and then hey, guess what? We’re onto the next unit! The persuasive essay! Gotta keep going!

The high-school homecoming king-turned-drug-addict-turned-weightlifting-instructor-turned-construction worker-turned-full-time student writes the first draft of his personal essay about the time he put his booted toes through the mouth of a drunk kid at a party.

“I did it for fun,” he writes. “I did it because I wanted to feel powerful. I did it because I wanted to dominate him. The kids teeth fell around my boot like snow.”

“This isn’t going to work,” I tell him, drawing an X through the whole paragraph. You need vertical movement. You need to discuss why you felt like you needed to be in control, to dominate. None of this works. Go more into your past. You’re going to need to try again.”

“Dude, I spent two hours on that.”

“I like the image of the teeth falling around the narrator’s boot like snow,” I say. “You can keep that. That’s it, everything else has to go.” I pause. “And alright is two words,” I say. “And mix your long sentences with short ones, like we talked about, for maximum effect. And I want more of the setting. And I want more of the sense of smell. And I want it all done by Tuesday, or the paper isn’t going to pass.”

And they say I can’t do therapy.

Sometimes we look at example of failed (anonymous) essays, and how and why they fail.

Too much discursive summary; lack of sensory detail; lack of characterization; telling, instead of showing; reliance upon adverbs to carry the weight of the dialogue; a hastily tacked on moral, or life lesson at the end.

“The best essays resist summary,” I say. “The best essays raise questions, but suggest no answers. The best essays show life in all its oil-and-water complexity, and leave it at that.”

Jason waves his hand frantically.

“What?” I ask, tiredly.

“It’s like chickens,” he says, enthusiastically. “Chickens, it’s like how they run around? In their coop. And they seem like they’re just birds, but when you work with them, and get to know them, they develop personalities. So, you’re saying, you know, that we should do the same thing with our characters?”

The personal essay is the most important essay—I’ve come to believe—that we teach.

A woman writes about splitting custody of her son with the father—a meth-using tattoo artist. We look over the essay together, and I can’t even imagine what the son is going through. In ten or twenty years, I’ll probably be looking at the son’s essay, as he writes the trajectory of how he ended up in prison. The cycle continues, and all I do is watch, and murmur, and comment on the overuse of the words “really” and “very.”

“This is a comma splice,” I explain to her.

Here’s a young man I taught once. By the age of seventeen he’d had five foster parents and had survived things I can’t even write about. He now lived on his own in a one-room apartment in a meth-addled “neighborhood.” In this sense, “neighborhood” meaning clapboard houses, rusted cars, loud music or eerie silence, dogs, and trash. He was working two jobs, and was going to the local high school, and was on the wrestling team, and was trying to date a Christian girl and be a good boyfriend in order to impress her father, and he’d also saved up the requisite money to sign up for this Running Start class (since the college, due to budget cuts, now charges students per class.) Anyway, for the personal essay he wrote fifteen pages of the second and final time he ran away. He wrote of an attempted, failed suicide. He wrote about the way “the dark fell on the leaves as I ran.”

“This is part one of a three-part essay,” he told me.

Honestly, the mere fact that he’s in class on any given day is a victory. Not to mention turning in work.

“It’s not where you are that counts,” I find myself saying, offhand, one class period, to a collection of yawns, “It’s what you’ve overcome to get there.”

I meet with this student in my office. He’s writing part three and he says it’s now a five-part essay. “Like Shakespeare,” he says. “Figure if it worked for him, it’ll work for me.”

But I never get his final essay. On the day it’s due he doesn’t show. He doesn’t show the next class period, either. And no one knows what happened to him. He’s not at the high school anymore either, a fellow student tells me.

I take this one harder than most. I always tell myself I don’t care, but this is the night that I find myself lying on the bathroom floor, shaking, and not able to stop, like a leaf, in a high wind.

My wife finds me there, and sits there with me, her hand on my ankle.

The next day she suggests that I see a therapist myself. “There’s a lot of internalizing you’re doing,” she says. “And you don’t have the training to handle it.”

I mumble something about how it doesn’t matter, about how the only thing that matters is the writing itself. The conflict, the crisis moment, and the importance of the open-ended resolution.

Jordan Hartt is a writer, writing teacher, and community organizer. He has taught at Peninsula College for five years.



Post a comment
  1. December 29, 2013

    Wow, this is stunning and heartbreaking. Thank you.

  2. December 30, 2013

    I know. I teach at Highline CC. This was my version:

  3. December 31, 2013

    I took a writing class there in 1978. The prof asked to meet with me for advice on how to reach the other students, then cried because she felt like she wasn’t getting through. It wasn’t that she wasn’t getting through. It’s that they were seeping into her. Writing does this. Authentic writing. Too many verys and all.

  4. lucas #
    December 31, 2013

    I had to re-read this. And I was still fighting back the tears.

    Very powerful, and please don’t stop teaching this course. Your students need it more than you realize.

  5. December 31, 2013

    Wow. Powerful. Thank you for writing this.

  6. January 2, 2014

    And I think I can write! You’re brilliant. I want to take your class.

  7. karen #
    January 3, 2014

    Gut-reaching (and wrenching) article. You must be a great teacher to elicit the stories from the students. They need to tell them to let them out from the darkness. Makes me wonder about an anthology of these essays. Keep teaching. Your students need you.

  8. Sam Ligon #
    January 10, 2014

    Damn. This is killer.

    I love this: “The personal essay is the most important essay—I’ve come to believe—that we teach.”

    Me, too.

    Great piece….

  9. ssenyonga Godfrey #
    February 26, 2014

    great pc ,keep th writing dear

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