I love love love personal essays. Love and adore them. I have felt this way ever since 11th grade, when the best English teacher in the world explained to our AP Language class that there existed in the world such a thing as nonfiction that wasn't esoteric and boring. Prior to this point, I associated nonfiction with encyclopedias, scientific journals, reference books, and other horrible things. Discovering the creative nonfiction genre was a revelation, like digging a diamond out of a compost heap.
So it was that at age 16, I began my heated affair with creative nonfiction with Barbara Kingsolver's absolutely perfect collection, High Tide in Tucson. I can't recommend the book highly enough. I have read it multiple times over the years, and as a teacher even forced my students to read some of the essays. All of Kingsolver's work is elegant, intelligent, transformative, but personal essays allow for so much insight into the author, so much honesty about her experiences and how she views the world; they can do what fiction cannot.
This newly published collection from Ann Patchett is another great place to start if you're just dipping your toe into the creative nonfiction waters. Many of the pieces were previously published in magazines, as that is how Patchett supported herself over the years in between novels. Put together in sequence, though, they compose a surprisingly complete picture of Patchett's life, work, and love.
As the title suggests, she tells the story of her happy second marriage to a doctor named Karl, but we also learn the history of the unhappy marriage and divorce that came before it. She writes about her deep bond with her dog, Rose, as well as the pain of saying goodbye to her. A few lighter pieces are also good reads—about the time people protested her speaking at Clemson University and called her a pornographer, about when she fell back-ass-wards into opening an independent bookstore. After finishing the book, I felt I had at least a glimmer of an understanding of what it's like to be Ann Patchett, and that was pretty cool. That's what well-written personal essays can do.
If reading a novel is akin to sitting down with an author and saying, “Tell me a story,” then to read a personal essay is to ask that author, “Tell me about yourself.” Who are you—what meaningful experiences have you had in your life—what do you value most highly—how do you make sense of this life and this world?
Bottom line: Read this book, and become a vocal proponent of a genre that doesn't get much play.