It Happened to Me: 4 Nonfiction Essays to Inspire You to Write Your Own

Jane Pratt’s website, XoJane gains a lot of traffic for its honest  content that a significant population of its readership can identify with. The website isn’t your typical ‘ladyblog’ with their topics ranging from advice on “how to deal with winter snot” in their beauty section, to less lofty articles on topics like substance abuse and mental illness. More superficial articles are featured side-by-side very affecting essays, normalizing content and experiences one might shy away from.  These real-life and often unbelievable testaments often fall under their  subsection, “It Happened to Me”, which is arguably the most popular feature on the site. Again, “IHTM” posts range from the mundane, (‘It Happened to Me: I Had My Baby on Vacation’), to the controversial (It Happened to Me: I Love the Man who Hit My Mom). Now the staff at XoJane want to know what happened to you with their new IHTM contest  which closes at the end of January. Readers can submit their own personal essays to the website for a chance to win a $1,000 cash prize and have their work posted for all to read. All posts accepted by the site will be ‘raw and unedited’, meaning they’ll practically post your work as is (save for some copy-editing).

‘It Happened To Me’ and XoJane more generally, really put the onus on the writer and their own experiences which lead me to think about the art of the personal essay. Long-form essay writing is enjoying a well deserved renaissance in the digital age thanks to  blogs like longform.org, longreads.com, and The Awl (as well as its sister site, The Hairpin). Poignant, non-fiction personal accounts are utterly refreshing in an age where our thoughts can be pared down to just 140 characters. Tuesday’s art post comes to us in the spirit and much beloved endurance of the personal essay. Below are just a few non-fiction essays that run the gamut of arts and social justice. They range in both sources and message, including musings on New York, identity, and the art of making art.

1) “Isn’t It Romantic?” from David Rakoff’s Half Empty

Frankly, I could write an entire Friday 5 on David Rakoff’s essays alone. However, for the sake of diversity I’ve chosen his beautiful essay, “ Isn’t It Romantic?” included in his last collection, Half Empty. While it’s often referred to as the ‘Rent’ essay after Rakoff read an excerpt slamming the musical on This American Life, it reveals so much more. Rakoff tackles the difficult and completely self-loathing process of writing well (and making art in general) as he traces his own pitfalls via apartments he’s lived in and the job’s he’s held. It’s all tied together beautifully with the line (which undermines the entire premise of ‘Rent’), “the only thing that makes one an artist is making art”. Rakoff’s ability to describe, in excruciatingly familiar and painful detail, the moment when inspiration strikes in the middle of the night and we resist the urge to write it down(why would you? It’s so genius you’d never forget it) only to forget that profound idea entirely the next morning. The late writer so expertly describes not just the creative process, but how we as artists seem to sabotage our own creativity, paralyzed by the feeling that anything we write will never amount to our own expectations. This acknowledgement is deeply humanizing and encouraging inasmuch as Rakoff’s own biting wit and cynicism can be:

“Creativity demands an ability to be with oneself at one’s least attractive, that is sometimes easier just to do nothing. Writing…always starts out as shit: an infant of monstrous aspect, bawling, ugly, and terrible. And it stays terrible for a long, long time–sometimes forever. Unlike cooking, for example, where largely edible, if raw, ingredients are assembled, cut, heated and otherwise manipulated into something both digestible and palatable, writing is closer to having to reverse-engineer a meal out of rotten food.”

2) “I Used to Love Her, But I Had to Flee Her: On Leaving New York” by Cord Jefferson on Gawker

Laguna Beach, CA is not New York City.

Cord Jefferson is one of the strongest voices writing about sociocultural politics today.The former senior editor of GOOD Magazine and current West Coast editor of Gawker is often recognized for writing on intersections of race, gender, pop culture, and politics. However this essay, equally as poignant as those he’s written on race, appears to be a bittersweet valentine to the city while simultaneously breaking up with it for Los Angeles. Instead of the typical articles decrying New York’s rough exterior and praising a city of sun, Jefferson delves deeper into an idea of what cities are supposed to do for us, as well as how they are unfairly perceived. Jefferson asks how these myths of cities are developed and perpetuated and further, what great lengths do we go through to protect them? The piece really touches on a breaking point that isn’t necessarily a particular ‘enough!’ moment, but rather the realization that we are defending the ‘New York is the center of the Universe’ mantra at our own cost. As Jefferson discovers, sometimes New York isn’t as fabulous as we believe; sometimes a west coast city serves our needs better despite its own false representation. As a New York transplant from a city just shy of an hour below L.A, I found Jefferson’s reservations about New York all too relatable, honest, and funny:

“When I moved out of New York, I knew at the time that it was the best decision for my career and pocketbook. Only now have I come to realize how important leaving was for my sanity, as well. Not that I was afflicted with claustrophobia or exhaustion or any of the pseudo-ailments with which so many hypochondriac New Yorkers diagnose themselves. Rather, I’d deliberately forgotten that life outside New York is just as pure and valid as life inside New York, which is a hazard of the City just the same as street crime, and one that’s far more prevalent.

New York makes it easy to forget that there are millions of people with hundreds of interests-NASCAR, surfing, raising chickens, owning land-for whom a tiny constellation of concrete boroughs that are frozen for half the year is not adequate. New York makes it easy to forget that many Americans would probably find paying $950 for a 10-by-10 room overlooking garbage cans either unaffordable or unappealing, or both. New York makes it easy to forget that the vast majority of people in the world don’t read Gawker, The Awl, the Observer, the New Yorker or even the New York Times, and that that doesn’t necessarily make those people uninformed.”

3) “How To Be Black” by Madison Moore on Thought Catalog

This next essay comes from Madison Moore who serves as a staff writer for the website Thought Catalog. Thought Catalog is another writing-based website geared towards promoting non-fiction essays and articles. Users submit their content, which covers movies, top five lists, and opinion pieces, to the self-declared  “nobrow and nonpartisan” site where, “culture is [their] politics”. Moore’s essay definitely falls in line with that directive. “How To Be Black” is an essay that reads as an instructive list that brusquely confronts  the many problems of fulfilling a false stereotype. While Moore may be speaking to a black experience specifically, the overall theme of wavering between racial expectations is expansive. The essay is at once funny (“Really love or really hate Tyler Perry movies”) and uncomfortable (“get asked every summer if black people tan”). Either way Moore’s short missive is equal parts affecting, thought provoking, and familiar:

“Get laughed at in elementary, junior, and high school by all your black friends because you “talk white.” Philosophize for years about what it means to “talk white.” Have an identity crisis. Go away to college or boarding school and have your new white friends swear up and down you’re nothing like the way black people are “supposed” to be. What happened to you?  Go home with your new white friends during holidays, play the role of Model Black.”

4) “Kanye West is Better at His Job Than I Am at Mine (But I’m Way Better at Being a Fake-Ass Feminist)” by Kiese Laymon on Gawker

Kanye West

This final essay comes again from the media website Gawker, here writer Kiese Laymon offers a review of Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album as a conduit to offer deeper insight on masculinity. This essay isn’t the typical and expected missive about misogyny and rap music, rather it speaks to the uncomfortable question of what it means to be an ally to someone you routinely oppress. For Laymon his allegiance to feminism is complicated in the ways he remains silent either in the face of oppression, or only touting his political platform in the presence of women. Laymon weaves together his conversations with his misogynistic step-grandfather, his own role speaking about identity politics as an academic, and the narrative of Kanye West which all seem to dovetail into his realization that, “[he] is a wannabe black feminist who is really bad at loving women that who are really good at loving [him]”. In this way one becomes lost in the gray area between Laymon, his grandmother’s partner, and West. Are the three completely separate or do they represent a scale of consciousness? Laymon’s piece causes one to (uncomfortably) question  both the motives behind, and the limits of, solidarity:

*Note: some explicit language ahead

I couldn’t wait to tell some men –- but only when in the presence of women — how sexism, like racism and that annoying American inclination to cling to innocence, was as present in our blood as oxygen. When asked to prove it, I’d dutifully spit some sorry-sounding mash up of Michael Eric Dyson, Cornel West and Mark Anthony Neal. But just like them, I never said that I know I’m sexist, misogynist and typical because I routinely fuck up the lives of women in ways that they can rarely fuck up my life. I never said that I’ve used black feminism as a convenient shield, a wonderful sleep aid, and a rusted shank to emotionally injure human beings who would do everything to avoid emotionally injuring me.

 

Whether it’s cultural commentary or the frustrations of making art, nonfiction essays celebrate themes we all wrestle with. Hopefully those above  inspired you to take pen to paper and write your own musings—then submit them to XoJane with a chance to win!