Inside Job: The Elegance of the Personal Essay

By Jonetta Rose Barras

Mention the personal essay and immediately minds flash back, or maybe forward, to college admission applications. It seems forever imprisoned inside that box, consistently presented within the utilitarian standard structure of five paragraphs with an introduction, body and conclusion.

I can hear it screaming, “Help me.”

Too often the narrative or personal essay is treated like the Cinderella of the American literary canon. It’s seen as shabby and undesirous; after all, it is not a book. Its limitations are too numerous and, therefore, mostly incapable of exciting or satisfying a reader’s imagination, causing readers to leave unfulfilled.

No one at Esther Productions Inc. shares that view. In fact, with our Inside Job Writing Institute, we and our partner, the Black Student Fund, are on a mission to grow more essayists.

If it is executed properly, the personal essay can be an exquisite piece of literary art. We need only consider Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That” or James Baldwin’s “Notes of A Native Son” as examples of its potential. How many times have critics cited both as among the best of American writing? More than a few high school or college English programs have them on the list of required reading.

The messages we at Esther Productions Inc. have tried to convey is that if the essay is Cinderella, it’s Cinderella at the ball. It’s Cinderella when the lost glass slipper is placed on her foot. She is no longer covered in fireplace soot or looking at a life of poverty and servitude.

Freedom and magic await.

To achieve those results, we take students on a treasure hunt, exploring and discovering what matters to them— how they feel about an issue or thing, or an experience they have had.

The Inside Job Institute, a four-week writing program for girls ages 13 to17 presented by Esther Productions, Inc., attempts first to help participants find that experience that matters—a moment in family history; a relationship, whether with a friend, teacher or an accidental encounter, that has left an impression; or a public or civic episode that lingers longer than anticipated. Then, we encourage students through discussion to explore their feelings—their connection to that occurrence or event.

One young lady, who subsequently entered our “Discovering Me…Without You” personal essay contest, wrote about the man who worked in a nearby grocery store: “I wonder whether he ever feels guilty for only being there to direct me towards the right aisle whenever I can’t find something in the store on my own,” she wrote. “We never talk about anything else. More importantly, we never talk about the reasons why we never talk about anything else.
“My father is the man who works across the street from where I live,” she added.

The writer deliberately—not accidentally—takes the reader to her interior landscape, exposing along the way anger, sadness, regrets, love and eventually the resilience that has allowed her to walk into that store at least once a week.

She squeezes the last drop—bitter and sweet—from her experience of father absence, making it nearly impossible for the reader to look away, to mute her voice, to not consider how they might react under similar circumstances. Thus, the writer not only makes the connection with the reader but takes that reader to a new, unexplored place in their own interior.

Esther Productions Inc. hopes that Inside Job Writing Institute helps participants to appreciate the essay beyond the meager confines of five paragraphs. We students understand its power to give voice to their experiences and stories—many of which are frequently not presented in books.

Ultimately, the intent of Inside Job is to ignite inextinguishable literary fires—one essay at a time.

Jonetta Rose Barras is the founder and president of Esther Productions Inc., a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit organization that uses the arts, including writing and literature, to heal, inspire and empower girls and women. With the Black Student Fund, Esther Productions Inc. presents writing institutes thorough the year focused on mastering the personal essay.


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