Here’s a crackpot theory: as the world grew hot, flat, and crowded, monocultural, and globalized, the urge to hear intimate stories became particularly vital. The globe has shrunken mightily, the pundits tell us, so who are those denizens living so close and so far from us? Maybe this is why the practice of reporting on one’s life and psyche with a journalistic rigor seems especially necessary right now. To wit: Last year, as the Texas legislature moved to restrict access to abortion, women’s voices rang out with intimate stories of terminated pregnancies. Elle features director Laurie Abraham, and Diana Wiener, a 74-year old grandmother writing for Buzzfeed, wrote candidly of difficult decisions, and, with their words, torched the last shreds of abstraction from the issue of restricted choice.
We rarely write letters these days, and yet, I think there’s something epistolary in the form of the personal essay. The words “Dear friend” hover ever so faintly at the top of the page. It’s not a new form—after all, the Greeks and Romans penned autobiographies and memoirs, too—but I, for one, am grateful that our social mores no longer prohibit the public discussion of sex or grief or bodily function. And those freedoms weren’t granted, but won in a battle waged with words—beautiful, smart, strong words, such as those wielded by Cheryl Strayed, Roxane Gay, Meghan Daum and Joan Didion.
This list of recommendations, like the works crafted by these writers, is particularly personal. These voices speak to me across the void, and haunt me as I walk, long after I’ve left the page behind. I am always waiting for them to speak again.
1. Sarah Hepola
When I started reading Sarah Hepola around 2006, it was like finding a long lost friend; there she was on The Morning News, insightful and ruthless, and waiting for me. One day in 2008, on Nerve, that place where dark thoughts could be spoken aloud, she wrote about falling in love with radio announcers, and feeling crushed when Ira Glass mentioned his wife during one show. “I was thinking: Wife? What fucking wife?,” she writes. She wrote a series about crying in restaurants at a time when I was doing a lot of crying, and when Salon hired her to be their personal essays editor, I started opening more Salon tabs than ever before. (Were there tabs in 2008?; did we live in a pre-tabs world?) There, she wrote about a night when she wore Spanx undergarments on a date that she didn’t expect to get quite so physical: “Part of what is thrilling, and terrifying, and unbearably hot about sex is the dismantling of the other person’s public self, the surprise of finding out what is underneath their clothes.” Now that her memoir, Blackout: Remembering The Things I Drank to Forget, is out, everyone will know her name—but just remember, I loved her first.
2. Jiayang Fan
Jiayang Fan is a writer whom I, full disclosure, count among my friends, but I had no idea that she could write like a motherfucker back when we would steal into the fact-checking library at The New Yorker to share gummy snacks and gossip. But when her mother got sick, it unleashed a torrent of vivid and cutting words. Her best pieces, like “My Mother’s Fur,” a story of miscommunication with a home-care aid, or “Dive Nights,” about catching her father scavenging in a dumpster, follow in the tenuous footsteps of an immigrant family learning how to survive in a foreign land.
3. Meaghan O’Connell
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” Tolstoy wrote, and that’s perhaps the easiest way to explain why I love reading smart perspectives on motherhood and family. I’m less interested in the politics of cry-it-out or co-sleeping or breastfeeding, than in the simple notion that parents are human, and that parenting is a juicy manifestation of our humanity. Meaghan O’Connell’s recent pieces embody that notion. I first noticed her writing through “A Birth Story,” because it seemed like every woman in my Facebook stream had posted the link. Of her labor, she writes, “It was like doing battle, or having battle be done unto you, every seven minutes.” Now she contributes frequently to The Cut, slicing through sentiment with her broad sword.
4. Laura June
Along similar lines, I’ve been digging Laura June’s “The Parent Rap” series at The Awl. June has a toddler named Zelda, but she’s still her own person, and her essays often explore the way society has a way of locking women behind a fence labeled “Mama” and throwing away the key. “Call me Laura. Or at least, ‘Zelda’s mother,’” she writes. “I can deal with that.” If you’ve ever been curious about the way motherhood affects the relationship between individual and society, June is a brave guide to the hinterlands.
5. Ruth Margalit
I promise I’m not here just to plug my friends, but sometimes by pure coincidence, a friend is also a masterful writer, and it’s impossible not to recognize her. And, so, I give you Ruth Margalit. Another of my fellow former New Yorker fact checkers, I knew Margalit as a smart reporter, filing dispatches and analysis from her native Israel. What I didn’t know was that she had lost her mother just a few years earlier and that our trivial Hallmark holiday every May made her loss feel new all over again. Her essay “The Unmothered,” in which she discovers Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary and decides that he is her “grief buddy,” is by turns painful and funny, dark and light, and reaffirmed the notion that personal narratives can elicit the most powerful writing. Margalit has a wonderful literary ear, a true reader’s sensibility, which shines through when she writes about her misgivings about Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree or our fascination with the lives of servants in light of the Downton Abbey craze.
6. Edith Zimmerman
For six glorious weeks, I counted Edith Zimmerman as my coworker, but even if I had a time machine and was writing this before we ever met, I’d say that Zimmerman is among my favorite practitioners of personal writing. When she started The Hairpin, it became a showcase for an intimate and hilarious conversation, a tone derived from Zimmerman’s own sensibility. Even when she’s wearing a reporter’s hat, she is so obviously writing about herself, like in this classic Chris Evans profile from GQ: “In the days since my first interview with Chris Evans, I’d drunk myself under the table, snuck out of his house at five thirty in the morning, bummed a ride home off a transsexual, been teased mercilessly in front of his mother, and now—this bit in the paper. I don’t remember touching his chest, which is too bad.” Vice gave her a monthly column, because they “love her,” and she has repaid their love by writing about, among other things, joining CrossFit, a very un-Edith thing to do: “I mean I knew that TECHNICALLY I’d gained like 30 or 40 pounds—I still don’t want to get on a scale—but somehow I thought maybe it worked for me, or was the invisible kind of fat. Haha.” The line between sarcastic and funny, between cynical and sincere, is very fine, but Zimmerman occupies it fully and warmly, dwelling in her tiny house, and inviting the rest of us to squeeze in.