The Personal Essay by Janet R. Kirchheimer
My essay teacher looks like one of the Bee Gees.
My essay teacher looks like one of the Bee Gees. Maurice to be exact. British accent. Round glasses too. I don’t ask if his name was Gibb before he changed it to what it is now, or if a lot of British have that look. This is the first class, so he tells us the essay is all about taking chances, how it’s not tied to the dramatic arc the way fiction is, how the essay is like those wooden Russian dolls, one inside the other, except each one opens to a bigger and bigger doll. Any questions?
Well, I want to ask him to sing Saturday Night Fever. That would be dramatic and chancy all in one. If an essay is supposed to open out and get bigger, and you’re supposed to learn something by the end, then why shouldn’t I ask if he really is one of the Bee Gees? But I don’t say anything. It’s not polite.
The essay form, he continues, can start with an anecdote and meander. But I’m not paying enough attention to write this down. I’m busy copying the names of all the Bee Gees songs I can remember in my new notebook while lyrics keep popping into my head. Mike was my boyfriend at the time “How Deep is Your Love” came out, and I copied the lyrics down on fancy stationery and left it under the windshield of his car while he was working with some friends putting in a pool, then his mother came by with his lunch, found the note, read it, and gave it to him two days later. Needless to say, the relationship didn’t last.
My ears perk up when he begins to talk about the essay as a dialectic of self-questioning. I’ve got a whole lot of self-questions. But then he adds that it’s okay to blur reality a bit, so I’m feeling a whole lot better about paying $400 for this class.
I figure there must be something I learned from the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, from white leisure suits, KC and the Sunshine Band, Jane Fonda going for the burn, Tom Cruise playing volleyball in Top Gun shirtless, Stephen King’s Cujo, Donna Summer and that orgasm song, but I’ll be damned if I know what it is.
I’m still struggling, trying really hard to concentrate on his further musings about the essay form, when he says he once heard some famous writer say that the essay is a haven for the private idiosyncratic voice in an era of anonymous babble, and I’m thinking maybe I’m onto a form that will work for me.
–Janet R. Kirchheimer is a poet and essay writer living in New York City.