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I favor the personal essay as a form, especially because it allows me to combine my love of nonfiction reporting with my love of the techniques of poetry and fiction. Some pieces start out in my mind as prose poems, then take on a little flesh.
Some pieces start out as bossy grammar screeds and then, I hope, express a playful, sassy, subversive self. When writing about family, I have reached for a tone that can encompass laughter, chagrin, nostalgia, and wonder.
Here are some of my favorite personal essays:
“Rereading Camus’s ‘The Plague’ Amid the Coronavirus,” in the Princeton Alumni Weekly. As we settled into the pandemic, I reach for my high-school copy of a classic to try to make meaning of disaster.
“Souvenirs,” first published by the Los Angeles Times and widely anthologized, allows me to reflect on my relationship with my mother, through the Paris we both love.
“Cutouts,” published first in Italy, A Love Story (Seal Press) and also in Best Travel Stories 2006 (Travelers Tales), remembers an affair with the painter who taught me to see. At SinandSyntax online
“On Total Risk, Freedom, Discipline,” first published in The Writer uses my writing mantra to address the perennial question of how the writer finds a way to sit down and create. At SinandSyntax online
In 2011, I was invited to write eight columns for the New York Times on how to craft a sentence. The columns launched a series called “Draft.” The final one, “The Voice of the Storyteller,” is really a how-to piece, but it shows how the craft of the personal essay can be applied in other contexts—in this case, writing about a subject I adore.
The personal essay I consider to be my all-time best is not available online, but here is a PDF. “My Father, Lost and Found,” ran in Health magazine in October 2000, shortly after my father died. It was used to anchor a very nuts-and-bolts package on caregiving for ones we love. It’s available on certain databases and in libraries that carry back issues.
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