Why Personal Essays?

Author Scott Russell Sanders spoke to BYU students at the Nan O. Grass lecture about the need for writing and the merits of personal essays.

PROVO, Utah (Nov. 3, 2017)—“The one overarching thing I want to say . . . is that writing of all forms –poetry, fiction, essays, science articles . . .  is a form of disciplined thinking,” began Scott Russell Sanders at the Annual Nan O. Grass lecture at BYU. He continued, “It’s more valuable now, it’s more necessary now, I would argue, than ever before because no previous generation has lived in a society which so thoroughly interferes with sustained thinking.”

Sanders said that sustained thinking was valuable as a means to figure out how to relate to others and think about what we want our society to look like. He advocated writing as “sustained tension” on a subject. It could be a concrete subject, such as a memory or an experience, or something more abstract, such as a question or an emotion.

For Sanders, writing to make sense of an experience led him to stumble accidentally upon the personal essay, the genre he focused on during his lecture. He told the story of taking his 11-month-old, Jesse, with him on a short hiking trip. As they climbed the trail, he described passing through a layer of low-lying clouds and looking down on them from the top of the mountain they had climbed. All they could see were mountaintops breaking through the cloud layer. Sanders described the scene as “very beautiful, but very spooky.”

But suddenly, he said, he became overwhelmed with terror. “It was completely irrational,” he remembered. “I had no idea what the terror was about.” He quickly put Jesse into his pack and ran down the mountain to the car. The next day, he still couldn’t explain the strange experience that had happened to him on the mountain, so he decided to write about it hoping to gain some clarity.

As he wrote, Sanders realized that he was terrified of Jesse’s mortality. He said, “It was the fact that he will one day die that terrified me. It was the discovery . . . that you and your partner . . . have not only passed life into this person, you’ve passed death into this person.” He had suddenly become aware of, “that image of these neurons connecting together in his brain . . . he was like those clouds – as ephemeral, in a cosmic sense, as those clouds.”

If asked what he was writing at the time he wrote that first personal essay, Sanders said he would have described it as a letter to strangers.  The designation of the audience as strangers, Sanders stressed, is very important when writing a personal essay. “You have to remember your audience doesn’t know what you know. [They] only [know] what you tell [them].”

The importance of personal essays for Sanders is that they enable a person to work through an experience or emotion and come to terms with it during the process of writing. “What makes an essay personal,” Sanders explained. “Is that there is something at stake for the person telling you the story.”

There is always something in a personal essay that seeks to be understood by the essay’s author. After that one experience with Jesse he didn’t understand, Sanders kept writing personal essays, because, “I only really understood [the experience], and created a container for that experience by writing about it.”

—Olivia Madsen (BA French language, ’17)

Olivia covers events for the English Department for the College of Humanities. She is pursuing a degree in French language with a minor in writing and rhetoric.