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Personal Problems Essays

There’s a certain kind of personal essay that, for a long time, everybody seemed to hate. These essays were mostly written by women. They came off as unseemly, the writer’s judgment as flawed. They were too personal: the topics seemed insignificant, or else too important to be aired for an audience of strangers. The essays that drew the most attention tended to fall within certain categories. There were the one-off body-horror pieces, such as “My Gynecologist Found a Ball of Cat Hair in My Vagina,” published by xoJane, or a notorious lost-tampon chronicle published by Jezebel. There were essays that incited outrage for the life styles they described, like the one about pretending to live in the Victorian era, or Cat Marnell’s oeuvre. There were those that incited outrage by giving voice to horrible, uncharitable thoughts, like “My Former Friend’s Death Was a Blessing” (xoJane again) and “I’m Not Going to Pretend I’m Poor to Be Accepted by You” (Thought Catalog). Finally, there were those essays that directed outrage at society by describing incidents of sexism, abuse, or rape.

These essays began to proliferate several years ago—precisely when is hard to say, but we can, I think, date the beginning of the boom to 2008, the year that Emily Gould wrote a first-person cover story, called “Exposed,” for the Times Magazine, which was about, as the tagline put it, what she gained and lost from writing about her intimate life on the Web. Blowback followed, and so did an endless supply of imitations. By September, 2015, online first-person writing was so abundant that Laura Bennett, at Slate, could refer to a “first-person industrial complex” in a takedown of the genre. “Every site seems to have a first person vertical and a first-person editor,” Bennett, who also cited Gould’s Times story as a turning point, wrote. One could “take a safari” through various personal-essay habitats—Gawker, Jezebel, xoJane, Salon, BuzzFeed Ideas—and conclude that they were more or less the same, she argued. While she granted that not all first-person writing on the Internet was undignified, there were far too many “solo acts of sensational disclosure” that read like “reverse-engineered headlines.”

The market, in Bennett’s view, had overinflated. She was right: a year and a half later, it barely exists. BuzzFeed Ideas shut down at the end of 2015, Gawker and xoJane in 2016; Salon no longer has a personal-essays editor. Jezebel, where I used to work, doesn’t run personal essays at its former frequency—its editor-in-chief, Emma Carmichael, told me that she scarcely receives pitches for them anymore. Indie sites known for cultivating first-person writing—the Toast, the Awl, the Hairpin—have shut down or changed direction. Thought Catalog chugs along, but it seems to have lost its ability to rile up outside readers. Of course, The New Yorker and other magazines continue to publish memoir of various kinds. Just this week, The Atlantic published a first-person cover story by Alex Tizon, with the provocative headline “My Family’s Slave.” But there’s a specific sort of ultra-confessional essay, written by a person you’ve never heard of and published online, that flourished until recently and now hardly registers. The change has happened quietly, but it’s a big one: a genre that partially defined the last decade of the Internet has essentially disappeared.

What happened? To answer that, it helps to consider what gave rise to the personal essay’s ubiquity in the first place. Around 2008, several factors converged. In preceding years, private blogs and social platforms—LiveJournal, Blogspot, Facebook—trained people to write about their personal lives at length and in public. As Silvia Killingsworth, who was previously the managing editor of The New Yorker and took over the Awl and the Hairpin last year, put it to me, “People love to talk about themselves, and they were given a platform and no rules.” Then the invisible hand of the page-view economy gave them a push: Web sites generated ad revenue in direct proportion to how many “eyeballs” could be attracted to their offerings, and editorial budgets had contracted in the wake of the recession. The forms that became increasingly common—flashy personal essays, op-eds, and news aggregation—were those that could attract viral audiences on the cheap.

Sarah Hepola, who worked as Salon’s personal-essay editor, described the situation to me in an e-mail. “The boom in personal essays—at Salon, at least, but I suspect other places—was in part a response to an online climate where more content was needed at the exact moment budgets were being slashed.” When I worked as an editor at the Hairpin and Jezebel, from 2013 to 2016, I saw up close how friendly editors and ready audiences could implicitly encourage writers to submit these pieces in droves. For the first two years that I edited personal essays, I received at least a hundred first-person pitches and pieces each week.

But an ad-based publishing model built around maximizing page views quickly and cheaply creates uncomfortable incentives for writers, editors, and readers alike. Attention flows naturally to the outrageous, the harrowing, the intimate, and the recognizable, and the online personal essay began to harden into a form defined by identity and adversity—not in spite of how tricky it is to negotiate those matters in front of a crowd but precisely because of that fact. The commodification of personal experience was also women’s territory: the small budgets of popular women-focussed Web sites, and the rapidly changing conventions and constrictions surrounding women’s lives, insured it. And so many women wrote about the most difficult things that had ever happened to them and received not much in return. Most sites paid a few hundred dollars for such pieces at most; xoJane paid fifty dollars. When I began writing on the Internet, I wrote personal essays for free.

For some writers, these essays led to better-paying work. But for many the thrill of reaching an audience had to suffice. And placing a delicate part of your life in the hands of strangers didn’t always turn out to be so thrilling. Personal essays cry out for identification and connection; what their authors often got was distancing and shame. Bennett pegged her Slate piece to an essay that Carmichael and I edited at Jezebel, written by a woman who had met her father for the first time as a teen-ager and engaged, under emotional coercion, in a brief sexual relationship with him. Bennett deemed the personal-essay economy a “dangerous force for the people who participate in it.”

By that point, writers, editors, and readers had become suspicious of one another, and the factors that produced the personal-essay boom had started to give way. Some of the online publishers that survive have shifted to video and sponsored posts and Facebook partnerships to shore up revenue. Aggregation and op-eds—the infamous, abundant takes—continue to thrive, although the takes have perhaps cooled a bit. Personal essays have evidently been deemed not worth the trouble. Even those of us who like the genre aren’t generally mourning its sudden disappearance from the mainstream of the Internet. “First-person writing should not be cheap, and it should not be written or edited quickly,” Gould wrote to me. “And it should be published in a way that protects writers rather than hanging them out to dry on the most-emailed list.”

There are still a few outlets that cultivate a more subtle and sober iteration of this kind of first-person writing, some of them connected to book publishing. There’s Hazlitt, launched by Random House Canada, and Lenny Letter, which now has a publishing imprint, and Catapult, which describes itself as a book publisher with a daily online magazine. (The managing editor of Catapult is Nicole Chung, who previously worked for the Toast.) But the genre’s biggest migration has been to TinyLetter, an e-mail newsletter platform. Gould, who writes a newsletter called Can’t Complain, suggested that TinyLetters are doing what personal blogs did fifteen years ago: allowing writers to work on their own terms and reach “small readerships in an intimate, private-feeling, still public enough way.” Carrie Frye, formerly the managing editor of the Awl, also has a TinyLetter. She told me that it seemed like “writers—particularly female writers—had said, ‘O.K., I’m going to make an Internet on which my essays go out in pneumatic tubes to just who I want them to go to, and no one else.’ ”

It’s clear, in any case, that the personal-essay boom is over. If it had already peaked by the time Bennett wrote about it, in the fall of 2015, we can locate its hard endpoint about a year later, in November of last year. After the Presidential election, many favored personal-essay subjects—relationships, self-image, intimate struggle—seemed to hit a new low in broader social relevance. “I feel like the 2016 election was a reckoning for journalism,” Hepola wrote to me. “We missed the story. Part of why we missed it might have been this over-reliance on ‘how I feel about the day’s news’—and now the journalism world recognizes that we need to re-invest in reporting.” Killingsworth echoed this, talking about her work at the Awl and the Hairpin: “I want to encourage people to talk about mostly anything other than themselves.”

There’s been a broader shift in attitudes about this sort of writing, which always endured plenty of vitriol. Put simply, the personal is no longer political in quite the same way that it was. Many profiles of Trump voters positioned personal stories as explanations for a terrible collective act; meanwhile, Clinton’s purported reliance on identity politics has been heavily criticized. Individual perspectives do not, at the moment, seem like a trustworthy way to get to the bottom of a subject. (Even Tizon’s piece, which was published posthumously and uses his damning closeness to his subject as a way to elucidate the otherwise invisible captivities of the Filipino katulong servant class, prompted an immediate backlash—which then prompted a backlash to the backlash, mainly among those who think Western readers have misunderstood Tizon’s understanding of his own position.) Writers seem less interested in mustering their own centrality than they were, and readers seem less excited at the prospect of being irritated by individual civilian personalities. “The political landscape has been so phantasmagoric that even the most sensationally interesting personal essays have lost some currency when not tied head-on to the news,” Bennett said in an e-mail. “There just hasn’t been much oxygen left for the kinds of essays that feel marginal or navel-gazey.” These days, she tends to see pitches “that center on systemic rather than personal trauma,” she added, “or on orienting personal trauma in our berserk new reality.”

No more lost-tampon essays, in other words, in the age of Donald Trump. And yet I find myself missing aspects of the personal-essay Internet that the flashiest examples tended to obscure. I still think of the form as a valuable on-ramp, an immediate and vivid indication of a writer’s instincts—one that is accessible to first-time writers and young people who haven’t developed experience or connections. The Internet made the personal essay worse, as it does for most things. But I am moved by the negotiation of vulnerability. I never got tired of coming across a writerly style that seemed to exist for no good reason. I loved watching people try to figure out if they had something to say.

  • Virginia Kearney 4 days agofrom United States

    Elvira, if your topic is about a person with potenital, you are probably not doing a problem solution essay. You are writing a reflection essay and I have an article which gives all of the instructions you will need, including information about how to do the introduction. Here is the link to that article:https://owlcation.com/humanities/How-to-Write-a-Re...

  • Elvira 4 days ago

    How can I start writing my essay topic is about Aperson with potential.I don't know how to start.can you please help me?

  • Virginia Kearney 3 weeks agofrom United States

    Kanika--It is a good idea to turn your topic into a question and an answer. Here are some examples:

    What is the effect of divorce on young children (or teenagers or college students)? Your answer would be your thesis. Another topic idea could be:

    What is the effect of divorce on men (or women)?

    What is the effect of divorce on a person's work? See my article on how to write a cause effect paper.

  • Kanika 3 weeks ago

    Can you help me to find topic sentence on,Effect of divorce?

  • Virginia Kearney 4 weeks agofrom United States

  • Sayed Abid sadat 4 weeks ago

    Hi! I need your help to select my topic on information technology to write my artical. thank you

  • Virginia Kearney 6 weeks agofrom United States

    Hi Mr. Johnson, I have everything you might need for writing a college essay on my website. You can look on my profile page or search for my articles on: choosing a topic; writing a thesis and topic sentences; how to organize and write different kinds of essays; using commas and semicolons correctly; easy words to use as sentence starters to write better essays and much more. I have over 100 articles about writing to help you out!

  • Dick Johnson 6 weeks ago

    Hi! I Have An Assignment I Have To Do In My College Class On Friday And I Was Looking For Some Advise! Thanks!

  • Richard Cranium 6 weeks ago

    This website helped my child with her homework.

  • Virginia Kearney 7 weeks agofrom United States

    I have many articles on different subjects for you to look at. Many of the ones in this article would work fine but you can also look at my articles which are specifically for high school students. A good paper idea is one that interests you and it will be easier to write if you immediately can think of your opinion on that topic and some examples you can use from your own life, something you've read, current news or an example from literature, a movie or another video.

  • Stupid Pickle 7 weeks ago

    I have to write an essay for English is there any topics that you would recommend for a high school freshman

  • tommy wensyel 2 months ago

    this article was very helpful and it wasn t bias my english teacher wanted us to write an essay. it was really helpful i got a lot of good ideas

  • Jawaher 2 months ago

    How can get out bad relationship

  • Virginia Kearney 3 months agofrom United States

    Hi Trang--I have a lot of information to help you write your paper. Look for my articles about how to write argument, problem solution and proposal papers. In order to discuss two solutions, you just need to think about two possible answers to the question that have not yet been done. For example, in the question "How can students get enough good sleep each night?" two good answers that are equal would be: making a schedule for work and sleep, and using a technology device like a cell phone or fitbit that tracks sleep patterns.

  • Trang Phan 3 months ago

    my writing teacher asks me to choose a pro-solution topic that is practically related to student life. After that i have to draw out two solutions which are equal to each other.It means that both of them can not be currently done. it seems so difficult

  • sssssss 4 months ago

    How can healthcare be ensured for everyone around the world?

  • Damtaodu 5 months ago

    How do one respond to new challenges and adapting to a different environment, living without familiar amenities, interacting with new and different types of people and studying intensively among others.

  • Virginia Kearney 6 months agofrom United States

    Hi Kashymawoh--I'm glad you've decided on a topic for your essay. You can find everything you need to know about writing it by looking at my other articles on writing problem solution essays and writing argument essays. If you don't see the link for that, search in my profile, which you can find on the top right of the page.

  • kashymawoh 6 months ago

    hi Virginia, i am writing an essay on solving unemployment issues in Nigeria, kindly assist me.

  • Virginia Kearney 7 months agofrom United States

    Hi Cassandra! After you choose your topic, be sure to look at my article about how to write a solution essay. I give all the instructions you should need. If you want help revising or with punctuation, you can find articles on those topic too.

  • Cassandra Pines 7 months ago

    I need to write a 6-7 page essay about a social movement. I don't know how to start

  • Virginia Kearney 9 months agofrom United States

    Hi, Sparsh, Your best help would be to look at my other articles about how to write problem solution essays and argument essays. You might also like to look at my articles on Toulmin, Rogerian and Classical argument strategies. These articles include specific instruction on how to organize and outline your essay as well as how to argue effectively for your solution. In addition, they provide samples with commentary on why these work. Finally, you ought to look at my articles on how to write a great thesis and topic sentences. You can find these by searching for my name on Letterpile, or by looking on my profile page. I have over 100 articles on writing to help you out.

  • SPARSH AGARWAL 9 months ago

    Hey Virginia,

    I am preparing for writing section of PCAT exam. In the writing section, there are generally problem solution essays. It is my humble request if you could provide me with a source where there are more of problem solution sample essays, so that I can prepare accordingly and practice writing on the problems mentioned above.

    Regards

    Sparsh

  • Virginia Kearney 11 months agofrom United States

    Problems with health can be related to disease or preventative measures like diet and exercise. Here are some easy health-related topics: How can a person with Celiac disease best manage their diet? How can students best exercise and eat to be healthy? What are the best strategies to avoid illness? How can people avoid heart disease? What is the best way to stay healthy if you have diabetes?

  • poo 11 months ago

    i want a health related topic. like people should be concerned about their health. but what problem can i state?

  • Stevie Glenn 12 months agofrom Minneapolis

    Great topics on education! Good sources for quick education articles.

  • Chris Velo 14 months ago

    Thank you for all the topics to write on; I would read one section thinking that I couldn't write anything only to discover a few points I had to make into a quick essay.

  • Virginia Kearney 14 months agofrom United States

    Hi Colleen--I'd suggest you look at my Non-Profit Research Paper article for help.https://hubpages.com/literature/Research-Paper-on-...

  • Colleen 14 months ago

    Hello Virgina,

    I have a Critical Analysis & Research Writing paper due the assignment is A Good for A Community: A Research Based-Solution Essay I am having the most difficult time with this. Can you help?

  • Virginia Kearney 15 months agofrom United States

    KyLie--That is an interesting idea. The departmental final exam for my students included a question about this topic. I will see if I can add some to the list.

  • KyLie 15 months ago

    I would like some topics on the death of Harambe the gorilla....

  • Karla 16 months ago

    Should have a topic about animal abuse or cruelty!

  • Bangladesh Page 2 years ago

    Here is a lot of topics to write on. It really makes me think to write something on the topics. There are some topics here I never thought that an essay can be written! Thanks for sharing.

  • Virginia Kearney 2 years agofrom United States

    Hi Zero, I don't exactly understand what you want. Perhaps you mean you want to write an essay about "How to find a good job?" or "Solving the difficult problem of finding a good job?"

  • Virginia Kearney 2 years agofrom United States

    Hi mtariqsattar--I actually have also written articles about how to write essays of many types. You can search for this on Hubpages or just look for the links next to my topic ideas articles.

  • Tariq Sattar 2 years agofrom Karachi

    Hi there VirginiaLynne, I don't know how to start but you nailed it and you seem to possess command over topics. You do justify what you have said in your profile.

    Anyway, I enjoyed reading your hub - it is helpful to those who are seeking to teach essay at the college or university level, and those who want to writer such a genre of essay. That is problem-solution essay.

    I would ask though about the tips to writing an essay quickly and accurately at the same time. How should you as an essay writer achieve both ends?

  • Virginia Kearney 2 years agofrom United States

    Thanks for the ideas Jaime--I may think about putting some solution ideas into another article.

  • b.s.s 2 years ago

    Wow!! What a great topics

  • Virginia Kearney 2 years agofrom United States

    So glad Symphony Dunbar that you are using my site to get good ideas. You must be doing a good job writing those essays too!

  • Symphony Dunbar 2 years ago

    I love this site. I come on here, get a topic, write an essay, get an A+, just like that!

  • sera 3 years ago

    Thanks it helped so much

  • Maria Cuevas 3 years ago

    I would really like environment issues. It is very passionate among many.

  • Virginia Kearney 3 years agofrom United States

    Hi Justin--Glad this helped you. I have a 5th grade daughter and two daughters in 7th. I used to teach 6th grade myself and know that you are learning a lot about writing!

  • justin 3 years ago

    I really like the questions for the problem and solution it makes me want to improve some mistakes I made.P.S. I'm a 6th grader.

  • Tessa 3 years ago

    Awesome website! I'm definitely going to use one of these topics. Helped a lot. Thanks!!!!!

  • Hyder 3 years ago

    How "Education is solution all our problem" I want to write essay this topic anyone help me

  • Ova ELai 3 years ago

    I would like a topic on counselling a teenage who thinks is having a sexually transmitted disease or HIV

  • Virginia Kearney 3 years agofrom United States

    Thanks Ashley--I will write some topics about that!

  • Ashley 3 years ago

    Military life topics would be great!

  • djelke16 3 years ago

    Great topics! Thank you so much.

  • Dottie 4 years ago

    Thank you! This was so helpful!

  • Rachel 4 years ago

    This website is perfect! Helped me a lot, thanks!

  • Lcarter 4 years ago

    Great topics!

  • Virginia Kearney 4 years agofrom United States

    So glad I helped you Kaiya! I know that getting the right topic and finding some good information can really help someone overcome that writer's block that makes starting an essay so hard!

  • kaiya123 4 years ago

    This helped a ton! Anyone of these topics could easily be well written, being that there is so much information about each topic. I seriously couldn't have thought of any of these topics, and this definitely helped my essay. There was many topics to choose from, depending on the area you are interested in. It made me think about what I really wanted to write about! Thanks so much!!! :)

  • Maria Jordan 4 years agofrom Jeffersonville PA

    A meaty and worthwhile list of subjects for anyone to pursue...most thought provoking and interesting topics. Excellent job.

    Voted UP and UAI. Hugs, Maria

  • SaM 4 years ago

    This HELPED a lot! Thanks!

  • Pamela Oglesby 4 years agofrom United States

    You really thought of so many valid topic that are all worthy of discussion. Anyone of this topic could easily be written about and really there are so many problems, it is a bit overwhelming, but then we must start somewhere. This is a great idea for a hub and no one should have to have writer's block anymore. Voted up and useful.

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