A well-crafted, insightful personal essay can stick in the mind for years after you first read it. I’ve never forgotten The Crane Wife, as one example, and I currently can’t stop thinking about this one (though admittedly the latter is more cultural criticism with elements of a personal essay woven into it). It’s a small thrill to see a creative non-fiction piece doing the rounds on Twitter, particularly when it in some way addresses the craft of writing itself, which is often a safe bet. Writers are fundamentally self-absorbed. It’s part of the job.
So when I saw an essay with the headline “My boyfriend, a writer, broke up with me because I’m a writer” being shared with breathless praise on Monday, I delighted in the promise of the title. Writers behaving badly to one another? Yes please! Into my veins without delay! I dearly wanted to find it as profound as many of the writerly women I follow on social media did. But God, I was disappointed.
As someone who habitually writes about her own life, working out precisely why the piece didn’t work for me was a useful exercise. When it comes to publishing personal essays, it’s the writer’s job to analyse the everyday, render the accidental significant, make the mundane meaningful. But the writer should also demonstrate self-awareness. Show us you understand that few situations in life are the work of one person alone. And as far as relationships are concerned, most of the time – though certainly not always, I grant you – both people in a couple have choices. Sometimes a bad break-up is just a bad break-up, whether the people involved are writers or not.
Personal writing tends to fail when the author shies away from committing to a central thesis, and this is true of Kaplan’s essay. Some writers can pull off the trick of inviting you to watch them think, and the pleasure of reading them comes from the winding path they lead you on rather than the destination – Heather Havrilesky of ‘Ask Polly’ fame is my go-to example of this, and I’m sure you can think of plenty more. But this piece offers neither destination nor scenic route; what exactly is Kaplan trying to impart? Is it an account of a break-up? Is it about being part of a writer couple? Is it about how women shrink themselves – sand down their corners to appease the nearest man, make themselves plastic-smooth so there’s nothing for him to catch himself on? It’s certainly about some guy’s obsession with Nora Ephron, but even that is discussed in a manner that feels trite and self-serving.
There’s just no coherent thread running through Kaplan’s piece. In fact, I felt at times the whole thing had been written purely to give a home to the following perfectly adequate image:
“The ability to bend an inch at a time while seeming to stand up straight is a useful and gendered skill. Most women I know do it regularly. They bend until they’re pretzeled and then blame themselves for the body aches”.
And there are several other lines in the piece that upon first reading seem important or wise – profound, even – but fall apart on closer inspection. Take this one: “In any relationship, there is an expectation of privacy. There is also an expectation of respect. Violate the latter and you relinquish your right to the former.” Violate which one to relinquish what? It’s never a good sign when you have to read something twice in order to take it in. And that’s before you register the frankly absurd leap that’s being made. You can choose to address a partner’s lack of respect however you like – they don’t automatically forfeit their right to privacy, it’s a bizarre false equivalence.
Another: “The more I share about our relationship and breakup, the more vindicated he will feel in his fears. But if I don’t write about it, he succeeds in forcing my silence… It’s a trap.” If it is a trap, it’s very much one of the writer’s own construction. If you’re going to write about your own life, you need to have a bit of a backbone about it. Being able to write and having a platform for your work is a privilege, and it’s detrimental to both your writing and your life to forget this. You have the power and ability to shape the narrative; in a sense, you’ve already won. How much power you concede, and how far you let the people around you dictate what you can and cannot write about, is a responsibility that rests entirely with you.
Without a doubt, there are costs specific to being a female writer. Kaplan’s not wrong: there are still far too many men who refuse to take writing by women seriously. Anything perceived as ‘women’s writing’ still gets undermined and disrespected. And at the same time, if you are a woman who writes about your own experiences, you’re often treated as though your ability to express things elegantly grants you a kind of superior wisdom and you take on the role of agony aunt. You’re also likely to acquire online followers who assume, maddeningly, that because you write about carefully chosen parts of your life, you are personal friends of theirs. But these costs are built into the privilege. We get to put our thoughts down and have strangers read them. We control narratives; we don’t get to control how those narratives land.
One of my unshakeable beliefs about writing is that your work will only ever be as emotionally intelligent as you are – and writers therefore have a duty to develop their emotional intelligence as far as they can, to work it like a muscle. Interrogate your feelings at every turn, alone or with a therapist if finances allow. ‘What exactly am I feeling and more importantly, why might I feel that way? What’s driving this response?’ As you become better at charting your own emotional landscape, you’re more able to chart other people’s. Over time you become more able to trust yourself, to know what you can and cannot live with. And compassion for yourself begets compassion for others, making it easier to tell the difference between genuinely interesting bad behaviour, and unremarkable human insecurity. Which in turn makes you more discerning about which events from your life you make meaningful on the page.
Away from the page, you need do nothing with this compassion – I am not for one moment saying anyone is obliged to demonstrate compassion for a terrible ex-partner when they’re out in the world. Far more women should tolerate far less, in my opinion. But compassion, and ideally an advanced understanding of humanity in all its darknesses, should always be present in your work, even if they’re just quietly haunting the wings. Which is why personal essays that discuss someone else’s flaws at length should carry at least a small acknowledgement of the writer’s. If you’re not prepared to declare your own fallibility in your work, even implicitly, I’d question your authority to write personal essays at all. Because someone who doesn’t understand themselves has no hope of truly understanding other people, and without that insight, you have very little to offer the reader.
Back in 2019, I published a short, blisteringly angry piece about female rage and four specific times I’ve swallowed it down to appease men. Within twenty minutes of it going live, a former friend messaged me to say he knew part of it was about him and that he would now be cutting contact with me. I was shaken, but unsurprised. Months earlier, he had confessed to having feelings for me and I’d tried to turn him down gently and kindly. He didn’t take my rejection well and over a period of nearly a full year, he messaged, he called, he sent a four-thousand-word email detailing my various flaws and the ways I’d apparently wronged him, and left several comments on my blog that were longer than the blog posts themselves.
But it was cruel of me to publish that piece when I did. It was unnecessarily provocative. It would have been wiser to wait a few weeks so I could publish with a cool head, rather than out of frustration at his refusal to accept my ‘no’. Even though what I’d written about him was vague, and unless you were a close friend of mine, you wouldn’t have been able to identify him, I understood his fury. Being in possession of a moderate talent for writing and a small but loyal audience put me in a position of minor privilege, so I could see perfectly why he felt the way he did. If I was entitled to make my version of events public, then he was entitled to his anger. A part of me had been gagging to piss him off and his cutting contact was a consequence I could absolutely live with.
Incidentally, he didn’t even manage to follow through on that; we met at a party barely two months later and he forced me into a conversation. Sometimes an awful man is just an awful man, whether you write about him or not.
How do you conclude your critique of an essay when the essay itself commits to precisely nothing? We have to guess at Kaplan’s own conclusions because they’re simply not clear. Yes, we can assume that the overarching message of the piece is “some men don’t take women’s achievements seriously, even those of women they claim to love” – or even “some men will never respect women’s writing” – but we shouldn’t need to assume. Tell us something we don’t know; it is literally your job.
A personal essay should take the reader from one point to another. The most important motivation for writing such an essay should always be: I learned something. Something has changed for me. I understand something now that I didn’t before. So I think that’s what needles me most about this piece: there’s no complexity, no convincing acknowledgment of the fact that writers may be in control of narratives but they’re still deeply flawed human beings – essentially, there’s no evidence of growth. To leave your reader thinking, “why did I read that? No light was shed here,” is self-indulgent at best, an abandonment of your duty as a writer at worst. If someone’s going to give up their time to read about your break-up, there should be something in your writing for them to take away. Otherwise, they may as well be reading your diary.