Honesty, Intimacy, and the Personal Essay

Back in July, Leslie Jamison addressed writing regrets in The New York Times’ Bookends column:

“These were my two first mistakes about honesty: I thought it meant relentless self-flagellation, and I thought it could redeem everything. I believed there was nothing self-awareness couldn’t save. My readers taught me otherwise: They often read my self-awareness as meanness or self-indulgence or delusion. It didn’t endear me to them at all. It didn’t dissolve the flaws it confessed.”

When I write prose, I don’t often write about myself; when I do, it’s as context for a broader topic. I’m afraid of confessional writing that curdles into navel-gazing, and in personal essays–because they require me to contextualize my emotions with experiences–that trap is difficult to escape. For a long time, this fear has led me to hold a barrier between myself and the reader. It’s never obscured the truth or core of my writing, but it has shielded me from true vulnerability.

Maybe that vulnerability is not always necessary, but it’s something that I crave–and I think I know why. In a 2008 interview with Identity Theory, Junot Diaz addressed this very idea: “You can’t find intimacy–you can’t find home–when you’re always hiding behind masks. Intimacy requires a certain level of vulnerability. It requires a certain level of you exposing your fragmented, contradictory self to someone else.” And isn’t intimacy an integral part of our instinct to write?

Jamison’s fixation with honesty, too, reflects that craving. As she wrote in her column, her desire to present herself at her most base was really a desire to be fully connected with her audience, so connected that they would know her at her worst. We assume, often, that our most private and essential selves are also our darkest. Yet when I think of the people I have a deeper understanding of, it’s not their worst qualities that come to mind. Instead, it’s the hidden virtues. The little things to admire. The greater landscape of character that makes it easy to forgive their flaws.

Even in this post, out of habit, I’ve restrained myself from adding personal details, from sacrificing myself to exposure. I’m trying to reconfigure the way I write prose–to approach it the same way I approach poetry, which is with an almost wild proclivity for the authentic and the emotive. And as I do, I hope to incorporate Leslie Jamison’s advice: to allow myself “complexity, interior conflict, strengths and flaws caught in tense tandem.”

How do you approach honesty in your writing? And what old habits are you seeking to change?

The creative process requires an author to balance between the parameters that give their work definition, and the freedom that gives their work spirit. As young authors, we sometimes find ourselves sticking too closely to our comfort zone, or spiraling wildly out of it–and neither approach produces our best work.

 Recently, I’ve caught myself sticking to a constant form, regardless of what best suits a piece. To combat this, I made up an exercise in which I force myself to follow a set form that differs from my norm. I do my best to express what I want to within the form I’m uncomfortable with. When I’ve gotten as far as I can with that, I start playing around with that structure, shifting it around until it says what I want it to.            

I’ve also found myself shying away from the topics that are most meaningful to me, but it’s difficult to force myself to write about things I’m so afraid of mistreating, and I don’t think it’s necessarily healthy. I’m trying to write about topics tangential to these, slowly working my way to those tender spots. 

So, a question to think about: in what ways do you restrict your own work? What methods have you tried to break out of those habits?


The dresser in the empty bedroom is stocked with pictures
from times before I was born.
I sift, shift, shiver.
Memories swelling like a gasoline rainbow lie snared in the
between morning glory and midnight insanity –
there are no absolutes.

The valleys of my spine are artifacts tumbled through time
If you trace my two halves far enough you will find
My violin string fingers trapped in the folds between
my grandmother’s garden
and the ship that houses my great uncle’s stowaway spirit.
But buried beneath the soil is a heart that will not bend to

Anchored, armored.
Come, come look at your country.

“Something Like Hope,” Haley Lee (Portfolio Gold Winner, 2014)


Cupid placed his bow upon her mouth
and left it there for safekeeping.
She guards it with a quirk of her lip;
infatuation tucked into the corner
where she holds her cigarettes.
Sweet nothings perch
on the swell of her smirk.
She tips ash forget-me-nots,
blows smoke ring love letters
around frantic first times,
bittersweet goodbyes and
better things to come.
She blows a kiss: an arrow flies.

Nailah Matthews, “Cupid’s Bow”


Goodbye little boy who gave me sausage sticks.
Goodbye pretty girl who helped me sweep.
Goodbye Happy the jindo dog.
Goodbye hibiscus plant, dangling laundry, pots of kimchi,
mechanical fan, rickety bike, black-and-white newspaper,
Things and people and places woven into my every hour.

I will miss you all.

Julie Cho, “Farewell to the South”