Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Art of My Essays - Part One

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 a welcome 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 a 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. A few months after we began, 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 eventual 40 or so 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 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 blogger friends who have followed me for a while are thinking not much has changed in twenty years. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

As to the reason for this trip back in time? One of the groups I joined in the writing salon, She Writes.com, 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 to do so. When I did this newsletter, even after five years and over 40 essays, I had no idea that's what I wrote. But I liked it.

One of my mentors? 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. For her kid's lunches, 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 and I had a moment to myself, 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 have it all figured out. Wouldn't that be nice.

to be continued...

Photo courtesy of Beth at Idea Gal


  1. I am inspired by your life's path, as well as your talent. Now, I wonder where I can get my hands on that Lopate book....thanks for posting this. EFH

  2. I wish I lived in a neighborhood like yours was!

  3. Wonderful. I liked Erma Bombeck, too. And Mr. L-S has yet to change a litterbox...

  4. Sounds like you could have been a stand-up comedian if the newspaper gig hadn't worked out!

  5. Another Erma Bombeck fan here!

    You think you can find another job writing for a small newspaper? Would you want to? :)

  6. These last however many years of reading your essays and novels have given me a real appreciation of your writing skills and style. And still, these old snippets had me giggling as your words and wit hit home. Ah, motherhood! You have a real talent for the personal essay, girl. I hope to see more of them.

    Submit! Submit!

  7. Those were brilliant little quips. I'd love to read the full versions of your essays. Looking forward to Part Two.

  8. This is so fun! You do take after Bombeck. Go girl.

  9. Hilarious page 5 fillers! Love Bombeck, too. I think that you do have essays down to a fine art!

  10. Julie, I always leave your post with a smile.....You really have a wonderful personality and it shows through in your writing. Am looking forward to Part 2.....:-) Hugs

  11. I enjoyed your post Julie...you seem to write with such ease, it sounds so natural and matter of fact...

  12. I always love reading your personality-filled pieces...looking forward to Part Two!

  13. I love this post! I've never really thought much about it, but it's personal essays that I enjoy reading the most - both here in blogland and in the newspaper. Even on my own blog my favorite posts are the ones I would now call Personal Essays. Like you, I didn't think of them that way (until now). I'm off to look for that 770 page book.

  14. You are so funny!!! I was thinking Erma Bombeck all the way down your list of clips before I saw her name. It seems you're called to write personal essays, and how cool that you know that. I look forward to reading more. And the book you mentioned.

  15. What a neat idea to create a neighborhood newsletter. I wonder if anyone in our neighborhood would be interested in an online one? Hmmm.

    Thanks for sharing your snippets of essays - I too was thinking of Erma as I read along - she was my mother's favorite and her books were always lying around the house. Erma always made me laugh - like your essays do.

  16. Great post Julie. As I have said before I learn more about you, Bob and the kids with every post, and we are family!

  17. Well, here's a compliment: as I read the excerpts that you wrote, I was thinking, "She was a regular Erma Bombeck for those 2200 people!"

  18. It's interesting that you mentioned Erma Bombeck at the end of your essay, as I was reading it I thought you reminded me of her...I hope you pursue broader publication.

  19. I think most of us enjoy reading about the life of others; that way we feel normal. Great stories.

  20. Why, I didn't KNOW this about you! That you had this successful newsletter back in the day. How cool is that!
    I also love the personal essay more than any other genre. Damn, I need to start writing again. You inspire me.

  21. Lovely! I thoroughly enjoyed your personal essay, part 1. And the quotations from your newsletter...hilarious. I especially liked, I have a place for everything: on the counter. That's my house to a T.

    You're a great writer. I'm glad I came over this morning, and thanks for your visit to my blog.

  22. I also love Bombeck.

    What a path you've been on!

    Nice read.

  23. This has been my favorite blog post of the day. I can completely relate! I had years of 24/7 baby and toddler care and many days where I would have gladly changed someone's flat tire just to leave the house!

    How inspiring about your paper, too. Very cool!

  24. I love to read anything you write. What a great post, not only full of your wit and wisdom, but good info for all of us. I agree with Fragrant Liar! Loved that fact that you asked your hubby not to make SO much noise in the a.m.... LOL

    I'll have to look into that book by Lopate myself...

  25. I was a big fan of Bombeck too. A hilarious woman who observed life accurately.

    Wish our neighborhood newsletter was one-tenth as lively as the one you describe. Ours revolves around the pressing issues of dogs on the loose and the schedule for road repair.

  26. You do seem to have it all together. You are so talented. Your comment that you left me yestereday really hit home, btw. The timing was perfect - I had just marched up the stairs thinking I needed to either quit blogging or cut back and start really getting serious on "the book." I opened my blog and your comment said - "you should get going on the book." Synchronicity. Thank you.

    I can't wait for part two.

  27. What a labor of love that newsletter became! Excellent post. I'm looking forward to Part II and I'm also going to look for that book.

  28. Oooh, I love to edit a newsletter like that. What a cool job!

  29. Can't tell you how much I loved this. People aks me why I am working on memoir versus a novel, your post reminds me why. I amgoing to get that book and check out that website. Thanks Jobhunter.

  30. Your neighbors were so fortunate to have such a creative neighborhood newsletter. I love the Peanut Butter and jelly comment you quoted.

    Very funny.

  31. A very strange thing happened to me. After I read your blog, I ran across this Erma Bomback Bi-annual essay competition. No kidding, it must be kismet:


  32. You are a funny lady, Bombeck style. Especially curious about the 'happenings with the sewer company"...will read your collection of personal essays in any book you write! And now I'm curious about reading The Art of the Personal Essay. Write on Julie!

  33. My first love was the essay! I still write them from time to time, but it's been a while.

    Loved your snippets and they made me laugh - reminded me of Bombeck, who was such a dear and so funny....*smiling*

  34. Your description of the old newsletter makes me want to subscribe.

    Also, I can't agree more with:

    "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."

    So true.

  35. Does the newsletter still exist? My neighborhood association puts out a little 4-pager on a quarterly basis, but it's mostly boring (yet critical) information about upcoming meetings. Would love to see a page 5 type column...

    Well, I'm off to find out exactly what a personal essay is!

  36. That's quite an achievement! 40 essays! Wow! I love the personal essay form. Don't know if I'm any good at it, but I'm most comfortable when I'm doing it. Loved the bit about wanting children and then wanting their absence. I just have to imagine old age when I can't have them around any more and any craving for their absence flies out the window.

  37. Just read part 2, came here and realized that I'd already read part 1.
    Loved the filler stories for your community newspaper!
    Now that I've read this post twice, the 770 page book you mentioned is making me think. Should I tackle it? hmmmm...


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