How Personal Essays Inspired Me in my First Post-Grad Year

Nowadays I know the true reason I read is to feel less alone, to make a connection with a consciousness other than my own.”

Zadie Smith, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays

From multiple moves, uncertainty about my career goals, to sticky friendship situations, and more free time than I’ve ever had before, personal essays have kept me centered during my first year beyond college graduation.

Why personal essays, you might ask, and  why not seductive language and deeply complicated metaphorical fiction to distract me from real life? Well, because this year I needed to know  that someone else had felt something akin to what I’ve been feeling. Although fictions borrow from real life and sometimes perfectly capture real life, they still, at the end of the day, are not real. Fictional pieces normally inspire me and they still do, but I’ve chosen to read the writing of people who have done what I am doing, people who have been twenty two, people who are honest about their struggles and the struggles of the world, and people who share the gritty, the grimy, and the self reflective.

When choosing reading this year, I needed to feel like the writer was speaking directly to me, selfish as this may be.  I wanted to “tell myself stories in order to live,” but not just any old stories, true accounts of life. So I turned to some ladies I’ve long respected for my own varied reasons: Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Lena Dunham, and Zadie Smith. And I chose to take some of their advice.  Though they aren’t all millennials facing the real world (like everyone does eventually) they each had some wisdom to share, much of which I could relate to in some sense or another.

From Joan I learned a little bit about self respect. Nora informed me on what getting old is like  and made me feel more appreciative for being 22 and not 50. Lena gave me some down and dirty dating advice, and Zadie, well, Zadie taught me about loss. Without their sage wisdom, without the realization that someone else had struggled like me, I am not sure this year would be as survived as it has been.


Here are some highlights:

Joan’s classic “On Self Respect” seemed like the perfect place to start, because how could one amount to anything without a bit of respect for oneself. She states, “The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others—who are after all deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation, which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara, is something people with courage can do without.” Our reputations are nothing if we do not know in our hearts when and where we have done our best. Joan informed me that self respect is a discipline, and I believe wholeheartedly that it is something we must work at to maintain. When you are on your own in the world for the first time, believing in yourself isn’t always the simplest thing, but sometimes it’s the greatest thing you’ve got.

Ephron explained how ugly a neck can be after years of carrying around a head upon it. She helped me see that not only is it OK to feel bad about something that may seem as superfluous and vain as a neck, but also that we should not take for granted these little vanities while they still exist for us. She ends her title essay, “I Feel Bad About my Neck”  with the audacious statement, “Of course it’s true that now that I am older, I’m wise and sage and mellow. And it’s also true that I honestly do understand just what matters in life. But guess what? It’s my neck.” Even if a neck seems trivial or unimportant to someone else, the issue, whatever it is that is frustrating you, is yours, and yours to fret about.

And when it comes to dating, Dunham told stories of jerks past and dating pitfalls in her essay, “Girls & Jerks.” Her most influential quote (at least for me) spoke to the way I internalize the value others place upon me. What she says (in a mini monologue seemingly meant for herself) hit home for me, “When someone shows you how little you mean to them and you keep coming back for more, before you know it you start to mean less to yourself… Being treated like shit is not an amusing game or a transgressive intellectual experiment. It’s something you accept, condone, and learn to believe you deserve. ” For me, in a loving relationship, it is important to avoid wasting time on people who do not value my time or my intricacies. I need to be adored and treasured, and that’s ok.


Finally, Smith expressed exactly how I felt when my great aunt passed this fall. Smith refused to see her father’s body after he died, I was out of town for my aunt’s funeral. She reflects on the choice to miss the death moment and the narratives we attempt to fashion around something static, something that is only an ending. In “Dead Man Laughing” she recalls, “As it was, I missed the death, I missed the body, I got the dust and from these facts I tried to extrapolate a story, as writers will, but found myself instead, in a kind of stasis. A moment in which nothing happened, and keeps not happening, forever.” That is the pain of death, after it there is nothing else, but at least she understood the nothingness I felt, the tears that accomplished little, the tears that could not bring her back. That’s the thing, death is that quick moment in which one person goes in and no one comes out and because there is nothing left, it’s tempting to pretend that nothing happened and sometimes that’s what gets me through.

It’s the knowing that others think and feel these ways that helps, their words are not how-to manuals or instructions on how to live necessarily, they just make me feel and know that I am not alone.

What reads have helped you during a rough time?




*The cited works in this article can be read in their respective volumes:

Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion (“On Self Respect” was first published in Vogue)

I Feel Bad About My Neck and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman by Nora Ephron

Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham

Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith


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