When I started writing personal essays on the internet, I was half embarrassed, half proud. Even though I grew up in a generation that’s supposedly all about oversharing and facebooking and nonstop blabby social connectedness, I’d still learned that privacy is a virtue, modesty is preferable, and you shouldn’t air your dirty laundry. But I also wanted to talk about things that felt relevant but had been kept quiet. And I wanted to share those things with other women, because I had a sneaking suspicion that I might be facing some of the same challenges that girls and women all over the world deal with, even if those challenges at times felt intensely, well, personal. Even if they felt too small and mundane for the news. I came into personal essay writing open-minded, scared, and determined.
And then I read the comments.
But it wasn’t just the comments. Someone (who kept him or herself anonymous) tried to get me fired from my synagogue job after reading an essay I’d written about a complicated romantic situation. The message was clear: no one who works at a religious institution should write about her love life. I was a whore, wrote commenters. I was never going to be happy. Never going to find love. I was going to ruin every man who came near me. Personal attacks were the result of personal writing. Afraid and humiliated, I apologized to the synagogue president and cried all night.
That was years ago. Since then, I’ve watched critics and commenters alike chastise personal essayists for their vulnerability, their supposed self-centeredness, their apparent fame-mongering. Even as the personal essay as an art form becomes more popular, its detractors are ready with scathing criticisms that suggest it is worthless, superficial, and, god forbid, easy. And it’s interesting that most of the criticism is lobbed at women. Often young women. Because more often than not, it is young women who write personal essays.