One Year to a Writing Life – February – Personal Essay

The second chapter in A Year to a Writing Life features the personal essay. This is a genre I haven’t had much experience with, unless you count blogging and those tedious “What did you do during the summer break?” assignments they kept giving me at school.

The exercises in this chapter were quite different from in the first chapter. Instead of being a string of different activities around one theme or idea, these exercises all involved working on the same text. The first exercise was to write about an event from your life in a 15 minute freewrite. Exercise two was to rewrite the piece adding elements of story and exercise three was to rewrite it again adding elements of poetry. The fourth and last exercise was to leave the piece for a while and come back to it later for a last round of editing. I found this setup to be a bit tricky. First of all, I wrote the scene as a story already on my first draft (because honestly, it didn’t cross my mind not to) which made exercise two a bit vague for me. Additionally, I didn’t really like doing, so to say, themed edits where the focus is on one aspect. It felt counter-intuitive to me, so I really just ended up doing general edits three times, taking a break of a few days before the final edit. For this reason, I’ll settle for showing you the first draft and how it turned out after the fourth exercise but not the stages in-between. They weren’t really all that different anyway.

I ended up picking an event from my childhood to write about, mainly because my initial reaction was to pick an event out of my love-life and I then decided that felt a bit cliched. The event took place when I was about 7 or 8 years old (I can’t quite remember). Here is my first draft for exercise one:

It was spring, and in the middle of the schoolyard I was turned, against my will, into a tree.

My friend was older. Bossy, charismatic, cruel and wonderful, she knew everything about everything. One of the things she knew was, which she confided in me by the swings, that in her past life she had been Pippi Longstocking. Needless to say, I was impressed. Pippi was, after all, famous. When my friend told me that in my past life I and been Annika, Pippi’s soft-spoken friend, I swelled with pride. This marvelous promotion lasted I don’t know how long, certainly not the entirety of the lunch recess. I did something, gods know what mistake I made, and my friend was upset.

“You weren’t Annika in your past life, you were a tree!” She told me, thundering.

The punishment was magic; reality altered. I could feel the constraints of that past life take over me and began to panic.

“No, please!” In my mind’s eye, I saw myself locked in the trunk of a giant birch, arms pinned to my chest, screams unable to penetrate the thick bark. I had never felt dread like that before. “Please, I don’t want to be a tree in my past life. Don’t make me be a tree in my past life! I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”

Whatever it was I had done wrong, I begged forgiveness. After what seemed like an eternity she relented. Merciful, she declared me once again Annika in my past life, and I felt the ring of bark around my chest loosen. Till this day, I’ve never really felt claustrophobia except when thinking of that moment.

And here’s the final piece:

On a fine spring morning many years ago, I was briefly and ruthlessly turned into a tree.

It was in the middle of the schoolyard, during recess. I was playing with a friend by the swings. My friend was older. She was bossy, charismatic, cruel and wonderful. I was small, erratic and naive. She knew everything about everything, and everything she ever told me was true. I drank her words up like fridge-cold milk.

“Did you know…” She told me. “That in my past life I was Pippi Longstocking?”

Needless to say, I was impressed. Pippi was, after all, famous. When my friend went on to tell me that in my past life I had been Annika, Pippi’s soft-spoken friend, I swelled with pride.

This marvelous promotion lasted I don’t know how long, certainly not the entirety of the lunch recess. I did something wrong, made some awful mistake, and my friend got upset.

“You weren’t Annika in your past life!” She told me, thundering. “You were a tree!”

The punishment was magic; reality altered. I could feel the constraints of that past life wrap around me and I began to panic.

“No, please!” I cried, teary and afraid.

In my mind’s eye, I saw myself locked inside the trunk of a giant birch, arms pinned to my chest, screams unable to penetrate the thick bark. I had never felt dread like that before.

“Please, I don’t want to be a tree in my past life. Don’t make me be a tree in my past life! I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”

Whatever it was I had done wrong, I begged forgiveness for it. After what seemed like an eternity she relented. Merciful, she declared me once again Annika in my past life, and I felt the ring of bark around my chest loosen.

Truth can be an awful thing, particularly for those to whom everything is true. It may have been one of the briefest truths I’ve ever know but to this day I’ve never experienced claustrophobia except when thinking of that moment of arboreal dread.

I’m… happy-ish with it. It was fun to write, I’ll say that much. I didn’t enjoy these exercises as much as the ones from the first chapter, probably because these were less varied and dynamic. I  enjoyed trying the personal essay and creative non-fiction in general, but I felt the chapter was a bit repetitive; it outlined more or less the same instructions about the genre several times over which made it feel a bit dry.

Chapter three is called Opinion and Travel Essays. Sounds like a lot to put in one chapter, but it should be fun!

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