The Art of My Personal Essays
I know well what I am fleeing from but not what I am in search of. Michel de Montaigne Twenty years ago, a new friend and I took on the editorship of our neighborhood newsletter. Probably doesn't sound like that big of a deal, but this was an eight-page monthly newsletter with a circulation of 1500. My friend, Rebekah, and I were new stay-at-home moms, in a new neighborhood, seeking sanity. The publication consisted of advertisements from mainly neighborhood residents - the insurance salesmen, Tupperware ladies, real estate agents, and home painters. Articles included happenings with the sewer company, neighborhood association news, Yard of the Month, and the pool schedule. Rebekah and I handled all aspects of the process from collecting and writing the news, advertising, copy editing, distributing, etc. We used the newsletter as an outlet while our lives took on this new role of never-a-break motherhood. Rebekah brought the journalism experience and I can't tell you what I had to offer at the time other than being a sucker for getting out of the house. (Eliminating my salary put more than few chinks in our lifestyle.) By the time we, and then co-editor, Lynda, finished this volunteer job years later, the paper had grown to 16 pages and a circulation of 2200. We had a volunteer staff of 15 people, monthly meetings, and the Austin American Statesman was calling us for news. The superintendent of schools wanted our publication on his desk as soon as it came off the press. But all that glory did have its bumps along the way. At deadline, Page 5 always had a hole. A big one. In an effort to bring some feature writing and articles of interest, I wrote a short essay on buying a new refrigerator. Had a tad of humor to it, I think, and was received well. Sample lines from a few of the Page 5 fillers: On children: What is it about our species that wants children so desperately and then delights in their absence? We put our kids to bed between 7:30 and 8. People ask why they go down so early. I reply that they need their rest, but the little voice in the back of my mind says 'Be honest, tell 'em you can't stand them anymore.' The other day while I was trying to remember my oldest child's name so I could yell at him... On housework and homemaking: I don't have particular days set up to do laundry. When my kids come downstairs and say, "Mom, we're out of underwear," I know it's time to do laundry. I've heard that the key to a neat home is to have a place for everything and to put things back in their place. I do that. I have a place for everything--on the counter. Ok, so I didn't become the ultimate homemaker. My neighbor, also a stay-at-home mom, gets up every morning and irons a shirt for her husband, fixes him breakfast, and probably kisses him goodbye at the door. At my house, as my husband irons his own shirt using the bathroom light as his guide, I wake up, ask him to not make so much noise, then roll over and go back to sleep. On pregnancy: The Ode to the Nine Month's Pregnant Woman -She lies on the couch listening to her children destroying something in the garage and thinks, 'Boy, there was a day when I would have cared what was going on out there.' Who cares if her kids eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch and dinner? She fed them, didn't she? On my husband: I don't know about the man in your house, but in my house when my husband is sick, the whole world comes to a standstill. He usually makes sure that he has worn himself down as much as he can before he decides to call a doctor or stay home. My husband has never refused to handle a diaper change or a throw-up cleanup. He has made tremendous progress from the days when changing the cat box gagged him. On getting crap for writing form Christmas letters: What they don't realize is that after you hand write 50 letters, they are all pretty much the same anyway. And those at the end of the alphabet usually get profound letters stating "How are you? We are fine. Jacob talks, Jordan walks, Bob works, and we still have the cat. Merry Christmas." Okay, so some of you who may know me are thinking not much has changed in twenty years. Yeah, yeah, yeah. As to the reason for this trip back in time? The essay group I joined here at SheWrites has been discussing the definition of the personal essay. It reminded me as to how I came about writing essays as never did I expect I might do so. Even after five years and over 40 articles for that publication, I had no idea that's what I wrote. But I liked it. My mentor? Erma Bombeck. Through her daily columns, she taught me how to survive the life mine had become. We had a difference in styles. She had a better sense of humor and a more vivid imagination. She made pork chop sandwiches with the bone still in the meat. I paid for school lunches. After the smoke of motherhood cleared somewhat due to my youngest beginning school, I consumed all 770 pages of The Art of the Personal Essay by Phillip Lopate. There, and in several writing classes, I discovered why I loved this form of expression. The discovery of self. The universal, yet personal nature of its works. My actions, my thoughts, my life, on any given day, put into words so even I could understand them. Of course, this makes it sound like I had it all figured out. Wouldn't that be nice. to be continued...

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  • Cheryl Greenfield

    Ah, since I too loved Erma Bombeck's food for fodder, I relate to all you have written here! *Grins*