Baring It All: Personal Essays Are Tough

Earlier this week, I bared it all in an essay I wrote for Nerve, on my experiences posing for a nude portrait.

Its publication was a long time coming: I first faced my fears by stripping down for a complete stranger, and then did up my essay in a frenzy of excitement and inspiration.

It was considered “too flippant,” and “not revelatory enough.” I rewrote it.

It was considered “too dark.” I rewrote it.

Nerve then got a new CEO, and my editors told me they were uncertain my essay would ever be published, because of the site’s possible new editorial direction.

I tried not to freak out.

Finally, it went up, slightly truncated. The entire process was far more traumatic than actually getting naked.

When I first started writing personal essays, I felt that nothing could be easier — or more fun — than writing about yourself. After the jump, find the reasons that baring it all (in writing) can be tougher than you think.

Being Too Close:

My first year at Emerson College, I was lucky enough to be in a personal essay workshop run by the wise and talented Kristin Lund. Unsurprisingly, the workshop was more like a group therapy session for young adults still gripped by the angst of their teen years and, when we switched over to fiction, our output was obviously thinly-veiled autobiography. Our prose was purple, and overwrought. It was the first time I attempted to write about my experiences with a sexually abusive boyfriend (the same dude mentioned in this week’s essay).

It was in this class that I learned an important lesson: You can’t write effectively about that which you’re too close to. You need to wait for some emotional distance. Otherwise, your piece will be bloated with unnecessary details, and will be revelatory to no one but yourself.

Unfortunately, some topics are always too close, and these are usually the ones we want most to tackle with our writing.

Revealing Yourself (and Others):

There are those of us who struggle with an overabundance of TMI (me). On the other end of the spectrum are those who struggle with the act of revealing just enough to give a story depth (oddly enough, also me; as seen up above, I often hide behind flippancy). Finding a nice balance can be quite the task in itself.

Going further, however, you may find it even more difficult when it comes time to write about the people in your life. Susan Johnston wrote a great post about this called The Paradox of Writing Personal Essays.

I, personally, heed the advice of Susan Shapiro, a professor at New School who told us that we would never write anything worthwhile if we kept waiting for all our subjects to die (so as to spare them the trauma and embarrassment of being revealed in our writing).

Being Revelatory:

A personal essay is not (or should not be) merely personal. The best personal essays are those that take an experience lived by one person and make them relevant to a greater audience, whether through teaching, empathy, or any number of other acts.

If you cannot achieve this, you may as well keep to writing in a locked diary.


Finding the Right Market:

While there are some holdout publications that are still in the business of publishing quality essays, the amount of these has dwindled along with the general population’s attention span.

This makes me sad.

Supplanting the essay are listicles, bullet points, charts and graphs…even the book publishing industry now shies away from the essay collection, as they find them tough to market.

For ideas of where to place your essays, check out this piece, and this one, over at mediabistro. Or, heck, take one of Sue Shapiro’s classes.

Dealing with the Editing Process:

It’s tough to see your writing ripped apart, but writers need to be a little more open to this…a little less sensitive. Editors are there to tighten and smooth out your work…to make it a good fit for their publication…to make it the best possible version of itself. It’s dangerous to get too enamored of the way you’ve strung your words together.

I know all this, yet felt sick to my stomach during the editing process described at the very beginning of this post. Because it wasn’t just about the words. It was about my personal story.

Still interested in being a personal essayist? Think you have what it takes?

Please share in the comments links to your own personal essays. Which were the toughest to write, and why?


  1. Steph, I know it’s tough to have your essay (your baby) ripped apart, but it turned out well, despite all the back and forth. The irony for me is that I got my essay ready to submit a few months ago and have heard nothing. Well, I got rejected by Modern Life, but it’s been silent otherwise. So I guess I could have written whatever I wanted about my subjects without getting their approval because it’s looking like it won’t be published. Well, maybe it will be right for an anthology or something in the future… Or maybe I’ll revist it with fresh eyes in a couple of years.

    You’ll be pleased to know that Jenny Rough, who wrote the MB market guides to personal essays, is working on updating parts 1 and 2 and creating a part 3.

    And if you have any curiosity whatsoever about other nude models, my writing instructor Kathy Rooney published a semi-autobiographical book called Live Nude Girl. She was an artists’ model at the MFA, among other places. I think she also taught at Emerson for a little while, so maybe you knew her, too?

  2. Loved the essay and this reaction piece to it. Great job Steph!

  3. Steph, the experience and advice you shared here is really relevant for writing personal essays. I took a personal essay writing class with Liza Monroy – and I’m still in touch with most of my fellow students because the work shared was so personal. The first few rounds of critiques were especially hard. Now I can’t imagine *not* getting a tough read on my personal essays.

    Also, on a posing nude subject front, you might enjoy this essay by Kelly McMasters (another great Mediabistro instructor):

    Do you think you’ll write more personal essays?

  4. As someone who has (since the late 80s) been an artist drawing nude models (first at school, then at art college, then in my continuing artistic practice in the 17 years since finishing art college) I found your essay really interesting.

    From an artist’s point of view, the focus is very much on the artwork (and it’s often an intense focus that can block out an awareness of everything else – at least for me) – and so sometimes it’s easy to forget that in the mind of the person across the room from you a whole range of other issues and thought-processes are going on completely separate from the concentration on line and shade that is occupying the artist’s mind.

  5. @Susan: Your experience makes me wish that there were more outlets for personal essays. By now, I’ve gotten into the habit of quickly repitching elsewhere if an idea is rejected but, with long-form essays, it’s becoming harder and harder to find an “elsewhere.” So I’m thrilled that Jenny’s updating her MB stuff (she sent out a message on UPOD, right?).

    @Jesaka: *loved* this essay!

    Thanks JR!

    @Paul: Honestly, I can’t believe someone as neurotic as me was ever able to pose nude. I have *way* too many issues. That and sitting still for extended periods of time is hard as hell!

  6. mary ulrich says:

    Enjoyed your post. I remember the first time my university prof. told us we would be drawing a nude model. I had been out of the convent for approx. 2 months! and didn’t know where to look. It took several classes for me to be able to calm myself enough to actually draw and not blush. The experience taught me a lot about being an objective observer, reification and all the things I needed to learn about drawing–actually a great analogy if you are reporting a news story.

    Regarding a personal essay–drawing a nude would be a completely different experience from being the nude model–another great analogy. And again, I don’t know where to look.

    My struggle is whether to make the personal essay, fiction or non-fiction. In some ways, I guess it could be comparable to the decision of an artist–charcoal? pastel? oil? realism? abstract? ….

    The story is VERY personal and maybe the story is not meant to be repeated. Let someone else draw it, someone more objective, with more talent. But then, in my soul, I remember reading, “tell the story only you can tell”(Mary Piper, I think).

    So, for the millionth time, I waffle. Fiction? Non-fiction? And I pray for courage, the divine inspiration, the push from my friends, “the nerve” to actually just write the damn thing.

  7. Hi Steph,
    Thank you for this personal and generous essay. As a writer, I especially relate to the “pain” of baring it all, and also appreciate you sharing links to potential markets for our writing. I look forward to reading more of your blogs and writings!

  8. Thank you for the kind words, Sharon, and welcome to the blog!


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