When You See Who I Am: On Writing Personal Essays
October 19, 2020 § 12 Comments
By Trish Cantillon
‘Writing the Personal Essay’ was the first formal writing class I’d taken since college. It was also the first nonfiction writing I’d done outside my diary. At the end of the first session, in an effort to provide inspiration for future essays, the instructor gave us ten minutes to write about anything we wanted. No prompt, just a free-write to see what developed.
Without much thought, I jotted down broad strokes of a personal story. It wasn’t anything that had been burning inside me to tell, it just appeared, and I let it out. When the timer went off, he asked who wanted to share. Many hands shot up, including mine. I had shared my fiction writing in workshops over the years and I liked reading my work aloud. I was excited to introduce myself in this way to my fellow writers. The instructor signaled for me to begin. “I was twelve when I had electrodes strapped to my arm to administer shock as part of the Schick weight loss program my parents signed me up for.”
I could see the words I was reading on the paper I’d torn from my notebook. I could hear myself reading them. But all I could feel was the swell of heat moving up my body and the shaking that had taken hold of my hands. This wasn’t some dark, closely held secret I’d finally set free. This story was just another part of a long, complicated diet resume that stretched from childhood to young adulthood. It bore no more significance to me than The Beverly Hills Diet or The Scarsdale Diet, so my physical reaction to recounting it puzzled me.
When I finished reading, a flutter of “Whoa’s” and “Oh my God’s” rose from the class. These reactions surprised me. I thought I was telling a story about what it was like to be a fat twelve-year-old in ten minutes or less, completely comfortable with my identity in that story as the one with the problem. What I revealed was a pitiful episode foisted upon a young girl by her well-meaning parents and her willingness to accept it as a normal response to her being overweight. I had been eager to share what I’d written; to share what I felt were my talents as a writer but wound up exposing the pain beneath a seemingly benign personal anecdote.
A mixture of pride and embarrassment flushed my cheeks. My fellow writers didn’t know how that moment felt for me; a strange mix of pride and sadness. I was glad that I had impressed them and my instructor with my work, but I felt a bitter sting with their sincere pity. I smiled as we shuffled out of the classroom, quickly averting their eyes so as not to invite conversation. I didn’t know what I should say.
For my entire life, including and up until that point, I carried the mantle of the fat girl. It was the part of my personal story I most identified with. It was my problem that I struggled with. That, at times, I triumphed over and, at others, was beaten down by, but all the while it was the thing that defined me. It was who I was even as I grew into a young adult and finally did find freedom from its grip. But in ten minutes that had all been upended. I experienced my story through others’ eyes and instead of it being shameful or sorrowful, I saw that I was no longer the villain. My compulsive overeating, my ill-fitting clothes, the rolls on my stomach were no longer the bad guys. But if that was really true then who was I? Who could I be?
The woman who had sat next to me in class followed me out, she was dressed in a stylish pant suit and high heels. “You’re so brave to tell that story. Ugh. Why are parents so stupid sometimes?” she said as she shook her head and passed me on her way to the elevator. I smiled back and shrugged, resisting the urge to elaborate and tell her that my parents were just trying to help. That I was desperate and so were they. That they meant well. All of that was true, of course, but I knew that it wasn’t the point anymore.
I had never thought of myself as brave or my writing as brave. For most of my life writing was just a thing I knew I liked to do. Aside from assignments in school, it was something I kept to myself; secrets stowed away in my diaries, short stories written in the late nights of summer vacation, or an occasional workshop. Until ‘Writing the Personal Essay’ I had never really considered how my writing made other people feel; or how their feelings could influence mine.
As I walked back to my car, I realized that I wasn’t just telling a story about myself. I had invited people in, and in they came with their thoughts and opinions about me and diets and parenting. It was uncomfortable and awkward to have unwittingly exposed myself that way. I didn’t like thinking about my classmates pitying me. But then my feelings of vulnerability gave way to excitement. I felt surprisingly empowered. There’s a new me that I suddenly discovered because someone else saw it. And it was time to tell her story.
Los Angeles based writer and native Angeleno, Trish Cantillon has published personal essays on The Fix, Refinery 29’s “Take Back the Beach,” The Manifest Station, The Refresh, Storgy, Brain Child Magazine Blog and Ravishly. Her fiction has appeared in Gold Man Review and Berkeley Fiction Review. She works for Dream Foundation, the first and only national organization providing end-of-life dreams to terminally ill adults.