Though I’m an editor who works primarily with personal essays, I’m most attracted to first-person writing that is not strictly “about” the self. So what, I wonder, when reading about even the most bizarre or unjust or relatable thing that happened to you—not because I’m callous, but because a story that ends with it happened to me is like deplaning when you’ve only taxied down the runway.
What I’m recommending, I suppose, is decentering the personal in your personal essay. Consider the self as just one more tool in your kit, on par with the other variables in the piece—literary texts, cultural objects, themes, trends, news hooks, whatever. Treat them all as equal conduits to the essay’s bigger questions. How does that change your answer to the question: What is this piece about? Such a shift, I’ve found, always makes the answer more interesting.
I also love to watch a writer venture, hand outstretched, toward a subject or question that compels them and then realize, partway there, that they can only truly grasp it if they reveal something about themselves first. So that’s what I’d advocate. That, and—always—adding more jokes.
—Tajja Isen, editor in chief, Catapult