10 Writers of Personal Essays For Your Heart and Brain

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Personal writing, about yourself and your heartbrain, is hard and weird in a different way than other writing is hard and weird. It helps soothe the inner angst you’re writing about while somehow also making it 10,000 times worse, you question whether the fact that you want to write about your own self and life at all means you’re a total narcissistic jerk. And even if you ever finally like something you write, you’re not sure if you can show it to anyone, because of that thing you mentioned about your ex/roommate/dad/TA/boss. It can be hard to even get started, because the best way to learn how to write is to read, and by definition your choices are pretty limited when it comes to personal writing. Barring breaking into someone’s house or an Emily Dickinson posthumous situation, we can really only read public writing, stuff that was meant for our consumption, which isn’t always what we’re trying to write. But hey, we work with what we’ve got. There’s still been some amazing personal writing whose authors have deemed it fit for public consumption. Some of these essays are so personal and intimate it’s like the writer is cracking their own chest open, and some are more preoccupied with other topics, giving us a less direct view into the writer’s brain, but all are worth reading.

James Baldwin

Baldwin is my one true love, so bear with me. Notes of a Native Son is generally better known, and I guess technically TFNT might be more “political,” but no one knew the personal was political better than James Baldwin, and The Fire Next Time is incredible.

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Notes of a Native Son

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The Fire Next Time

Joan Didion

Like Baldwin, Didion is also well known for her fiction, and like Baldwin, many of her essays veer towards political commentary. But they’re beautiful portraits both of the author and of the country and time she lives in, and you’ll definitely walk away with a powerful sense of the author. The Year of Magical Thinking is something I find myself thinking about again and again, and opening over and over. It’s super heartbreaking and super good.

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The Year of Magical Thinking

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Slouching Towards Bethlehem

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The White Album

Caroline Knapp

I think I first heard about Appetites through Riese, and when I finally read it, I was constantly gripped by the desire to write out passages from it on little bits of notebook paper and tape them up on all of my walls, which is something I do when a book is making me go insane, which is something only really good books do. This is a hard read (and may be triggering for some!) but I think does what the best personal writing does — it’s unquestionably and intimately about Knapp and her life, but is also about the lives of thousands of other people, and speaks expansively about a collective experience while remaining specific and moving. Jesus, this book.

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Appetites

Mishna Wolff

As somebody with a fraught relationship with their father, I am a total sucker for writing on the subject. Wolff’s memoir is a masterpiece; it’s really sort of the biography of a relationship, of growing up with and in spite of her father. It’s a lot of things — an investigation into racialized experiences, a snapshot of a particular time in America, a meditation on families, but mostly it’s about loving but also being really frustrated with a weird, sad, crazy-making dad. Something for everybody in here, really.

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I’m Down

David Foster Wallace

I don’t know, maybe you’ve heard of this guy. I guess he was a big deal or whatever. Actually I’ve pretty much only read DFW’s fiction (still haven’t finished Infinite Jest! Pray for me!) but it seems like if you’re going to dip your toe into people writing about their feelings about things that happened, I guess this is something worth reading.

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Consider the Lobster

Dorothy Allison

This book should have been called “You’re Really Gonna Want To Be Best Friends With Dorothy Allison.” If you want lessons in writing unflinchingly and also in being a total badass, this is the lady to turn to.

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Two or Three Things I Know For Sure

David Sedaris

Again, this is maybe a familiar name by this point. I feel like everyone either loves David Sedaris or is totally over him. I don’t read him very much any more, but once I saw him read live and it was really good and afterwards at the book signing he had a plastic grocery bag and gave everyone little tchotchkes out of it. I got a brown plastic spoon with a handle shaped like a monkey, which I still have. Also, I really like that one essay of his about the parrot.

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Naked

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Me Talk Pretty One Day

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Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim

Zadie Smith

I think that as a fiction writer, Zadie Smith has one of the most astute eyes for human behavior and thought that I’ve ever seen, and I am super fascinated by what that writerly gaze would be like when turned inward. I think her essay-writing might tend to be more about the external world than about herself, but I can’t imagine not enjoying anything that Zadie Smith has written.

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Changing My Mind

Megan Daum

I also became aware of this via Riese. She is essentially a walking talking Things I Read That I Love.

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My Misspent  Youth

Emily Gould

There are a lot of ways in which my life is different from Emily Gould’s — I’ve never worked for Gawker or lived in NYC, I’ve never been in New York Magazine, I don’t have any tattoos, etc. To me, this makes it even more impressive when Gould succeeds in hitting me upside the heads with moments of intense resonance. I first read this book alone in my apartment when I had moved to a city where I didn’t know anyone else, and when I read this passage I wrote it down:

“He grabbed the sides of my face and held them between his long, cold hands, forcing me to look straight into his eyes, and he was wide open to me in a way that you can only be when you’re twenty-three and it’s only the first or second or third time you’ve done this.”

Because at the time I was twenty-three, and it spoke to me. I am no longer twenty-three, and it still speaks to me. What I’m trying to say is that it’s not easy to write about twenty-three in a way that makes sense to both twenty-three-olds and non-twenty-three-year-olds, so this is a book worth reading. I really wish I could sit down with Gould over sandwiches and talk with her about Liz Phair.

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And The Heart Says Whatever

 

There are so many more! What personal essays/writers do you recommend?

Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1097 articles for us.

12 Comments

  1. Yes yes yes to Joan Didion. And David Sedaris. And i haven’t yet read Caroline Knapp, but I just looked up Appetites and it’s now at the top of my long “books to read” list.

    I love Alison Bechdel (she’s great because she writes graphic novels and is super gay, y’all may have heard of her already). Try Fun Home, for starters.

    One of my friends had a lovely English teacher named Eireann Corrigan who wrote a (potentially triggering) about her teenage years that I reread until the pages turned soft at the corners. It’s called You Remind Me Of You: A Poetry Memoir.

    Augusten Burroughs is another famous one – he wrote Running With Scissors, as well as A Wolf at the Table, which is about his relationship with his father and absolutely hearbreaking.

  2. One of the best things Autostraddle ever did for me was introduce me to Emily Gould. I read “And the Heart Says Whatever” at a time when I really needed it, so that was a gift.

    I would also recommend Jo Ann Beard’s “The Boys of My Youth” and Sloane Crosley’s books.

  3. i noticed that autostraddle was frequently recommending “and the heart says whatever” and so i decided to read it a couple of years ago. am i the only one who thought it was terrible?! the author came off as incredibly narcissistic and obnoxious with zero self-awareness. i thought the writing itself was pretty bad and the anecdotes were long-winded and uninteresting. i just have never understood autostraddle’s obsession with this book, especially since other books/authors recommended on here are generally stellar.

    meghan daum, for example, is an excellent writer, so thank you for introducing me to her! emily gould on the other hand… yeah, i really don’t get it.

    • I mean, I can definitely SEE the criticism, especially of the anecdotes being kind of uninteresting. Like, yes, I definitely did get sick of hearing about her boyfriend situation with that Joseph guy, who seemed kind of uninteresting to begin with. However, a lot of it for me was her perspective, and reading it at a time when I needed to read about someone who, like me, was going through her 20s, when I think we’re all at least a little narcissistic and obnoxious and un-self-aware. And as someone who likes to write personal essays and creative non-fiction, I know that a big part of it is the “warts and all” approach. She’s not a character; she’s an actual human, and she was telling us how she thought and acted at these times. It was incredibly honest, and that takes courage, I think. I’d like to assume that she realizes that some of the things she did back then were kind of shitty, but her mindset then was that of not being self-aware, and she accomplished bringing that out in her recollections of past events.

      I have to admit being a little defensive about her writing style as well, because she kind of had a conversational, informal way about her writing, with little flecks of relatable insights and moments of, “Oh, someone else thinks this too,” and that’s kind of my style of writing as well. So I was relieved to hear that ANYONE, anywhere, thought that was good writing, because I’d been hearing the opposite for a long time. It definitely is different, and I wouldn’t describe it as fitting in with a modern “literary” style, but I personally think there’s a certain charm in a no-frills, conversational, very honest, bare bones writing style like that.

    • Yeah, I mean, I read the whole thing fairly quickly (also on AS’s recommendation) — like most competent internet writing, it went down easily enough — but I did not find it particularly resonant or well-written. And I actually hate the strain of knee-jerk criticism that’s like “oh how self-involved and terrible that a privileged young woman is writing about her ordinary experiences” (cf. Girls, which I liked a lot, having seen only the first season) but my final reaction was more or less “ennnhh, I’m not sure I understand why that was a book?”

      It seems possible that the love for it is partly a being-a-young-woman-of-a-certain-type-at-a-time-in-New-York thing, though? Whereas I have never lived in New York and don’t have much in common with Emily Gould.

  4. Love all of these, and can I recommend anything by E. B. White? Changed my life when my English teacher gave us Once More to the Lake in high school.

  5. I’ve been reading lots of Baldwin at the moment and came across this quote from a 1984 interview when he was asked what advice he’d give to a gay person about to come out the closet:
    ‘Best advice I ever got was an old friend of mine, a black friend, who said you have to go the way your blood beats. If you don’t live the only life you have, you won’t live some other life, you won’t live any life at all.’

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