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Writing a personal essay can be a full-body activity, replete with tremors and tears and physical aches. At my personal blog, I spent seven years writing lyrical essays about life as a black woman grappling with faith, love, her career, and, eventually, motherhood. I did it because, like Joan Didion, I don't know what I think (or why I think it) until I write it. In those instances, I prefer the tolls to be paid on my own terms.(Consider webseries creator/producer Issa Rae’s Bestseller list.)Historically, the expectation of personal writing about black life seems largely rooted in exceptionalism.
Even now that I’m regularly paid to write—and now that what I write isn’t so personal—I still blog. Recently, personal essays have moved back into the spotlight: Earlier this week, Slate’s Laura Bennett wrote about the rise of personal essay writing for online publications, aptly titled, “The First-Person Industrial Complex.” Bennett identifies a trend nearly as old as the internet itself that has become newly predatory; she posits that writing about one’s most troubling experiences can be exploitative.
There’s not much money in writing about oneself, and many personal stories are packaged misleadingly for the sake of potentially going viral.
In a 2011 Publishers Weekly profile of 11 agents and editors of color, only one indicated that he’s looking for memoir submissions. But if publication of memoirs by women of color lags significantly behind those penned by white women, the disparity is even wider for black mothers. Tharps, author of Kinky Gazpacho: Love, Life and Spain, approached her agent with the idea of writing a mommy memoir.
[...] "She told me, 'Please don't do that.'" The market was glutted with these books, the agent lamented—and Tharps [...] let it go.
Sara Bivigou’s "The Bad Blood,” about living with sickle cell anemia, is compelling in that it humanizes a disease that disproportionately affects black people while heartbreakingly describing the ways people with chronic illness "cheat" themselves into behaving as though they're well.
Saeed Jones’ “How Men Fight For Their Lives,” written in 2012, before he was a National Book Critics Circle finalist, PEN Award winner, Buzzfeed’s literary editor, or publishing a memoir, was first published at The Rumpus as a standalone personal essay.No one’s paying us book advances to behave badly or to bare our souls—unless bad behavior involves trysts with married sports and music stars, as in the case of Karrine Stephens’s By the same token, some of the most compelling personal writing—harrowing or otherwise—the Internet has produced is the work of writers of color.La Toya Jordan’s “After Striking a Fixed Object,” about life after a car accident that left her disfigured, is incredible for its ability to recreate a jarring, life-altering event and the way it chronicles the long process of coping that followed.Bennett also suggests that the growing trend of pegging personal stories to the news of the day may compromise journalistic integrity."First-person essays have become the easiest way for editors to stake out some small corner of a news story and assert an on-the-ground primacy without paying for reporting," she writes.More impressively, neither author found herself pigeonholed as an “identity writer” post-publication.That might seem obvious, but it’s shocking because in so many other cases, when women of color write about their personal experiences, they’re asked to make a cottage industry of their encounters with racism and sexism.Society sees women of color’s shameless writing as proof of deviance, not a relatable and fun story to share on social media.Rarely is a black woman writer plucked from the world of online personal essay writing and offered a major publishing deal like Emily Gould, whose success Bennett attributed to her confessional blogging, or Cat Marnell, who famously netted a 0,000 advance from Simon & Schuster for a proposed memoir based on the self-destructive, drug-fueled exploits she once blogged about at XOJane and has also been known to underpay its freelancers and full-time employees, as noted in a Gawker profile on the company.They’re history-makers: Bree Newsome, Laverne Cox, Ava Du Vernay.A Goodreads list of 165 black memoirs also indicates that stories of heroism and changing the course of history predominate the small market.