The Charm of the Personal Essay
Reading a personal essay is like enjoying a comfortable conversation with a thoughtful friend – on a porch swing, perhaps, with a summer breeze and ice-clinked glasses of lemonade, or on an evening stroll in crisp autumn air, crunching multicolored leaves underfoot. Words move at a leisurely pace, in familiar language, often playful, sometimes poking fun at oneself, and are spoken candidly but not carelessly. Your friend might share bits of wisdom or trivia, but you are primarily interested in the person herself and the interesting procession of her thoughts, not in collecting new information or forceful opinions. Besides, you know this friend (and yourself) well enough to know that opinions and observations can change tomorrow, if they have not already changed in the course of conversation.
The pedestrian, the leisurely explorer of close-to-home experience, is a common persona of personal essayists. Going on a walk has been a frequent essay subject. Related subjects, also frequently essayed, include solitude, idleness, leisure, books and reading, and nature. Why these subjects? Because most essayists have valued passive attentiveness and reflection over pontification and blind striving through life. First and foremost, an essayist candidly reflects upon himself: upon the fluctuations of his own thoughts and emotions, for example, or upon the persistent temptation to inflate himself and to strive after achievements, or upon his willful blindness to the absurdity of life in the face of death. Having developed a knack for self-reflection, the essayist notices interesting things about the world around him – things that escape the notice of others who race from one activity to another. Also, because the essayist has candidly taken stock of himself, he cannot help but consider himself with humor, consider others with goodwill, and consider life with a light heart. He or she becomes, in other words, a coveted companion for a walk.