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Do I Know You?

The essay is known as a constant in process theory based education. Prewrite, write, revise, finalize. Many post-process theorists take issue with the method, usually because it doesn't often correspond with how people can most effectively process a topic or capture their own knowledge.

I once wrote an essay on a topic I didn't agree with. I won't give specifics to preserve anonymity, but the prompt of the essay that was given to the class dictated that the writing should agree with the premise even if the author didn't. I wrote the essay according to examples of justifications given to us in a list. Some of the justifications were not even accurate to the premise of the essay.

For my approximate one and a half page performance, I won an award.

Jon Shilb's "Reprocessing the Essay" calls into question the way essays are sometimes used in modern composition classrooms, specifically those that are labeled as "[im]personal essays" (bracketed addition mine). There are some amazing very personal essays out there that incorporate narrative whose overall purpose is profound, a purpose that resonates with people, but what happens when an essay resonates too closely?

Shilb argues that while it's understandable that people identify with parts of the premise of an essay, the agreed-upon parts can cloud the meaning that the essayist intends to portray. I do agree that when a writer produces a text, they've done their work, and it's up to others to interpret it. While accompanying texts that an author provides, interviews about the text, can assist in that interpretation, it's up to others to ultimately make those connections and do the work of interpretation ideally while understanding context and without taking it too far out of context.

In addition, it's also important to understand that the end product of the essay cannot fully account for what it took to get to that product. The result of the essay I won an award for didn't account for my mindset while writing it, and while it's a more extreme example, it can help to illustrate the point. When an essayist tells a narrative, for example, it can be difficult to verify a personal recollection, especially when that recollection is of someone's mental state at an early age. Let's say, for example, that someone who is 34 is recalling a story from when they were 12 and stating that they thought "x." While they might or might not have thought x, and this is where I push back against Shilb slightly, the narrative could be reflecting a present understanding and processing of an event.

Someone's genuine personal experience and mental state through that experience is not wrong even when it is retrospective. So, even if a personal account is fictitious, it's possible that it represents a genuine processing of an event.

Shilb illustrates his points by using his and his colleagues' teachings of Alice Walker's essays to illustrate some of the pitfalls that mirroring can fall into, specifically when teaching "Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self".

In this essay, Walker discusses a moment when she was eight and shot in the eye with a BB gun by her brother. She states how, before this happened, she was often referred to as "the cutest thing" (1983), but the scars that this left changed her perception of herself and her own beauty. An event that helped her realize that she accepted herself as she was was when her daughter, Rebecca, saw Walker's cataract and said that she had a "world in her eye."

I've left out two important details in this description.

The first is that in Walker's high school, where Walker states an improvement in her mental health, the woman in her class who was voted the most beautiful was, later in life, shot and killed by a man.

Second, Walker's father's employer was a "rich old white lady" who expected both parents to work for her for a low wage. Also, Walker's father once stopped a car to ask for help, but the driver, upon learning that the father needed to take his daughter to the hospital, drove off.

The way that many interpret the first event, which I agree with, is that having what people consider to be physical beauty does not necessarily exempt them from acts of violence. I would add that what people consider to be physical beauty does not necessarily remove any person from misfortune.

Insofar as the second event is concerned, "Walker surely wants readers to bear in mind that concepts of beauty have been racially biased" (Shilb, 1999) which is true. While these events are smoothly integrated into the story and not presented as "other than," these two portions of the essay were two of the most difficult and uncomfortable for Shilb's students to take in.

The students largely identified with the journey to self-acceptance, but stating that they identified with Walker specifically and fully understood her journey without acknowledging the conversation on race, beauty, and race and beauty. It's also important to acknowledge that no one person can ever fully understand or fully know another person.

Also, to better understand context that can be added to this essay, "Beauty" was first published in the May 1983 issue of Ms. Magazine and was interrupted by an ad for Neutrogena soap. Shilb states that the ad for soap that claims to clean a person's face "perfectly" and remove any and all "imperfections" goes against Walker's message about beauty. I would go a step further and say that it distracts from Walker's message about beauty as well. The terms, "perfect" and "imperfect" are vague, but a person might make assumptions based on their own biases or what they might think the advertiser's assumptions might be.

In a recent conversation that I had with some friends about ads for beauty products, one of them said, "They're sneaky and clever and aim at our bases" referring to advertisers. Today, a student might read "Beauty" in an anthology without the ad, but what about the readers who took in the same essay, but saw the ad? It's possible for both of these contexts and, thus, both experiences of the reading to elicit different meanings.

"I am in the desert for the first time. I fall totally in love with it. I am so overwhelmed by its beauty, I confront for the first time, consciously, the meaning of the doctor's words years ago: 'Eyes are sympathetic. If one is blind, the other will likely become blind too.' I realize I have dashed about the world madly, looking at this, looking at that, storing up images against the fading of the light. But I might have missed seeing the desert! The shock of that possibility—and gratitude for over twenty five years of sight—sends me literally to my knees" (Walker, 1983).

In this excerpt, Walker describes the beauty of the desert, the beauty of a landscape as opposed to the beauty of a person, and I find it interesting that Shilb does not take more time with this and does not add it to his own analysis on the discourse of beauty and what this essay adds to it.

It's valid that the words of Walker's doctor would strike fear, and her reaction is valid as well, to take in as many images as possible. I wonder if viewing the desert for the first time or thinking of the desert in retrospect added to her understanding of what beauty is and what beauty could be.

Viewing this scene a little more simply, an instructor might ask their students to underline or highlight each time Walker uses the word, "beauty," in her essay, taking note of the trajectory of the word throughout the essay. As such, the sentence, "I am so overwhelmed by its beauty" would not be missed.

I interpret this statement as a new understanding of what beauty is to Walker that is bolstered by her daughter's affirmations. Close reading might reveal that the reason why Walker is uncertain about her daughter focusing on her eye is because she expects a negative response. It's not that Walker doesn't accept herself necessarily, it's because the person that Walker is speaking to is her daughter whose words are going to carry a greater emotional impact. Walker already has a broader understanding of beauty by this point, but that understanding does not delineate Rebecca's words at all. They still carry enormous power and help Walker to the full realization that she experiences by the end of the essay.

Personal essays can be helpful and important. Including personal essays into a student's learning experiences can be impactful. That said, it's important to understand that the act of mirroring another essay and another essay's message can complicate how a student will process and execute that assignment. In addition, it's important that any personal essays used as examples are understood for their own merits and through the context that the author provides. While authorial intent might not reflect the impact and experiences of a reader, it's important to understand the goals of the author, the context in which they are presented, and the conversation they are contributing to.

Thank you very much for all of the feedback on my previous pieces and the input on both what I should cover next and what I should research. This was the final essay in my text on post-process theory. I do have plans in place for future Purposeful Prose articles that I am very excited for.

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As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!


Schilb, J. (1999). Reprocessing the essay. Post-process theory: Beyond the writing process paradigm, 198-214.

Walker, A. (2018). Beauty: When the other dancer is the self (pp. 257-263). Routledge.

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Vita Viviano
Vita Viviano
Sep 10, 2021

Such a wonderful piece on dignifying and evaluating the merits of a personal essay. The commentary on Walker's essay is given the consideration it deserves as well as serving as an excellent illustration. Nice work!!!


Sep 10, 2021

Love the complex reading of the Walker essay. Wonderful example of interpretation that combines close reading with attention to context.

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