I Can’t Write a Personal Essay

Written By: Lucinda Kempe

            In 2010, I attended my first writer’s conference at Stony Brook University and signed up for something called Personal Essay. The assignment arrived ahead of time via email – write a 1,500-word essay on something personal. I’d been writing in a diary since 1973, when I was fourteen. I had no idea what an essay was but enlisted an editor’s help, and so arrived at the workshop with a fully-edited piece. When I read the opening sentence, “Stark raving terror hits me when I have to perform” aloud the teacher shot my modifier-laden opening from the sky.


“Whammies,” he said, “go at the beginning of a piece, not the end.”


Encarta defines whammy as, “Jinx or hex or something with unpleasant or damaging consequences.” Whammies were my life. I didn’t know which one to put first. I jumbled them all in – the southern Gothic homestead in the Garden District; the absent, schizophrenic father who hanged himself when I was fifteen; the mother and grandmother, former debutantes and bibliophiles with a laissez faire attitude towards everything except literature, who preferred reading to parenting. Then I added the lonely only kid-me whose best friend was her diary; the phalanx of Greek sailors trooping from the bars on Decatur to our house; the junkets to allergists, dentists, gynecologists, shrinks, and my failures—the eighteen-year-old draughtsman thrown out of the Academia De Belle Arte in Florence; the twenty-one-year-old beginning violinist at Loyola University; the thirty-year-old wannabe actor in New York, and, lastly, the confessions of my multiple sexual adventures.


I spent the rest of the conference entrapping anonymous writers to listen to my rewrites. Soon, my listeners revolted. The second they saw me coming, they changed direction. I ran back and forth to the toilet where I asked myself: “To pee or not to pee?” And I ran to and fro my parked car, grabbed a Kleenex from the readied box and blew. The commute from Kings Park wasn’t fun. On the parkway, I kept taking the wrong turn. The numbers of the campus literati grew: Seriously Published Authors a/k/a “Real Writers”, poets, actors, playwrights, and degree-toting MFA-ers, Hamptonites with Maserati’s, sexy women in high-heeled pumps, toned men in silk Bermuda’s, top-shelf Margaritas made with Cointreau. . .. Hell, I can’t drink. I moaned to my sponsor, who unhelpfully said, “Buck up.” As the participant writers Saturday reading neared, I panicked.


“I can’t read in front of the beautiful people crowd. “You don’t have a paying job. You’re a Long Island housewife, a mother of two teenagers with corresponding cats and a dog. You’ve one published credit in a non-paying zine! You’re plankton swimming into to the orca’s jaws!”


The Call


Should I call? What if he’s not there? He said he wouldn’t call back if we ask what to write about.


I dial his number.


“Hello, Roger speaking.”


“Hello! It’s Lucinda . . .  from the workshop?” I say.


“Oh, yes. Hello, Lucinda. How are you?”


“Delightful. No, I’m delicious. No, I’m stumped.”


“Are you taking notes?”


“Oh, yes, sir. I’m taking very nice notes, sir.”


“So you aren’t phoning to ask me what to write about?”


“Certainly not.”


“Excellent. What can I do for you?”


“Do you like bread pudding?”


“Bread pudding?”


“I make it well.”


“Sounds like a good topic. Keep writing. Oops, the other phone is ringing. Gotta go! See you Monday.”


“Yes. See you. Good-by.”


Great, bread pudding!


I read the scene in class.


“Very clever, Lucinda, but take me out!” said the teacher.


The class laughed, but not me. Cry wolf reverberated off the page.


The lectures on craft sounded familiar. In one, a writer told an anecdote about his friend who had written a memoir. In it, the friend wrote a novel about himself and a memoir about all the other characters. That made sense and rang a bell. Recently, my daughter refused to listen to any more of my stories.


“Mama, no. Your stories are all the same. The dad’s a suicide, the mother’s mean, and the daughter’s a nut. They’re all about you.”


Sigh. Me writing about me presented a problem.


In one early draft, I wrote an exchange between my Id and me that my editor hated. “Stop all the diddling. Rome burns,” she said. In another, I included a bit about an armoire, which came up north after my mother died. Don’t read that sentence. The furniture didn’t walk from New Orleans. Now, I’m digressing or should I say, diverting. I’m the mistress of diversion. I’ve got memoir-itus. I need a doctor. Doctor? Uh-oh. I’ve just moved into confession. Look, I recognize the impulse for crucifixion.


“Speak from the heart or sink,” the acting coach said in the workshop on presentation.


Okay, the diddle-fiddle-Rome-is-Burning non-essayist par excellance is me.


“Lucinda has the habit to “play the result”,” said my acting teacher and mentor, Ivan Uttal, succinctly nailing my approach to life.


Playing the result—projecting a character’s behavior that hasn’t happened yet—is something I’ve done my entire life. Why the ghost conjuring, the inserting of mentors who tell me what to do, or not to do, or even how I’m doing?


I moved to Manhattan in the fall of 1990.  “I’m off to pursue the theater,” I dramatically exclaimed. I was thirty years old. Once settled, I auditioned for a place in The Actor’s Studio using a monologue from Richard Greenberg’s Life Under Water. I had successfully performed the role of Amy Beth under Ivan’s direction—he was a graduate of the director’s unit of The Actor’s Studio—in New Orleans. In the play, Amy Beth is a young woman battling self-image, addiction, and emotional problems. In her monologue, she confesses to Kip, a boy she just met, about the incident that hospitalized her—she peeled the skin of her face off. Immediately after the confession, they make love.


Standing center stage at The Studio, I began the lines, and, to my horror, the words flattened. In seconds, a voice from in the auditorium cut me off, “Thank you very much.”


Ivan cast well. He chose actors whose real lives mirrored the characters they played. Life, Amy Beth said, was like an absurd gymnastic event she was too clumsy to perform. I was Amy Beth—the private confessions, the impulsive sexuality with strangers, and inflicting self-harm in order to feel. At nineteen, I’d hospitalized myself in the East Feliciana State Hospital in Mandeville, an infamous “state asylum”, for cutting. Ivan was one of the few men in my life who’d made me feel safe. Without him, I shut down.


I’d imagined I could act and hide.


After the audition, I raced back to my 8th floor studio apartment in the East Village and to my new husband of a few months, cancelled my dreams and had the first of our two children instead. My mother unexpectedly died just before the millennium. I flew home, dismantled the house Mama called “The Crises Center”, had her cremated, and crammed the plastic baggy of ashes, tied with a twisty and a dog tag, into an urn and together we traveled home together to LaGuardia.


For the next nine months, I drank until I got the shakes, the shits and a non-stop headache. Then pregnant with words, I stopped drinking, and for ten sober months, I wrote about living with Mama and Mamoo in the downstairs apartment in the family-owned house on Chestnut Street, and my absent father, who’d lived with his mother on Jackson Avenue, until his suicide the summer I was fifteen. At five hundred pages, I stalled. Not another word came. I returned to the only writing I knew—in a diary, and I returned to drinking, mothering, and being a wife on and off until reality imploded eight years later. Inadvertently, I’d recreated the dysfunctional childhood home I’d fled. Sobriety and a therapist gave me the courage to examine myself and to reexamine what I’d written.


It was a mess. So was I. Like with acting, I’d imagined I could write and hide.


In A.A. Milne’s story, In Which Pooh and Piglet Go Hunting and Nearly Catch a Woozle, Pooh and Piglet take a saunter in the snow. “Ah!” they exclaim. “Oh no! A woozle!” they say noticing an increasing number of tracks alongside their own.  Exhausted and frightened, they get lost. They were scaring themselves to death by the sight of their own footsteps.


Just like me, except I didn’t have Christopher Robin to save me. I had to save myself. But something wonderful happened during the conference. I let of who I was and became what I’d wanted to be. Namely, my own person, a writer, with something to say.


Lastly, after all my compositional angst, I’ll never forget what the teacher, who gave me the title of my essay, said the first day of class.


“We never learn to write.”


Thank God. What a relief!