BAE2011 – Christy Vannoy’s “A Personal Essay by a Personal Essay”

As an avid follower of McSweeney’s, I was thrilled to see what I believe is their first essay included in a volume of The Best American Essays, Christy Vannoy’s “A Personal Essay by a Personal Essay.” But I also found it interesting that this piece seems to be directly satirizing many of the other essays in the volume. To wit:

I recently enrolled in a clinic led by the Article’s Director for a national women’s magazine. Technically, we were there to workshop and polish ourselves into submission. Secretly, though, we each hoped to out-devastate the other and nail ourselves a freelance contract.

The entire essay is a first-person account of an essay as it tries to one-up other essays, and a sometimes thoughtful, sometime hilarious indictment of us readers’ desire to see the first-person writers bare themselves and their suffering openly on the page. I actually read this right after reading Rachel Riederer’s excellent “Patient,” an intense present-tense account of getting hit by a bus and spending roughly two months in the hospital, and thought, I hope these two never meet each other.

My questions, I guess, are, Does the essay work? and Did Danticat select it as an editorial wink at many of her other choices?

What do you think? And at three pages this is the shortest essay in the collection, so if you haven’t read it already it seriously will only take you 5-10 minutes. (OK, I’ll make it even easier, you. Here’s the link.)

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8 Responses to BAE2011 – Christy Vannoy’s “A Personal Essay by a Personal Essay”

  1. I thought this essay seemed incongruous with the others in the collection. The prose amd the attitude set it apart, but I’m not sure it was in a good way. I kept thinking that the writer was trying to emulate Ander Monson’s “Harvard Outline” essay or Desiree Mathis’ final exam essay and it didn’t quite hit the mark. IMHO.

  2. sarah braud says:

    “Everyone thinks they have a story these days, and as soon as they let women in the Middle East start talking, you’ll have to hold an editor hostage to get a response. Mark my words.”

    I think this junk is funny. And it reminds me that writing is less about the drama and/or trauma of a story as it is about the craft of writing. I think the guest editor might be signaling the reader, by including Vannoy’s essay, that she was not just looking for the most brutal stories, but the best writing about real life.

    I personally did not enjoy last year’s anthology chosen by Hitchens and have looked forward to this year’s more narrative essay anthology. I’m excited about reading the rest of this year’s collection!

  3. I liked this essay, and yes, I thought it worked. I haven’t read enough of the rest of the collection yet to compare it to the others, but I do think Datnticat probably intended it as a wink and a nod to her selections, especially since she directly references Vannoy’s essay at the end of her introduction.

    I agree with Sarah: It’s funny! And it’s not just surface humor. The tone is overwrought in a way, but that fits because the essay is about how overwrought modern essay subject matter can be — or, perhaps, is *expected* to be at times. Some of my CNF writer friends and I have joked with each other that we don’t have enough life trauma to write CNF that will sell. So maybe this is why I’m fond of Vannoy’s essay: because I read it as a backhanded defense of essays in which nothing traumatic or over-the-top happens. And I happen to write quiet (meditative? lyric?) essays in which not much happens.

  4. Christy Bailey says:

    I think this was chosen to say it’s about the writing, not a contest of traumas. The thing is: I don’t think the writing in this essay was as strong as it was for the more serious, traumatic essays. But I like that alopecia got thrown into the mix!

  5. Pingback: Trauma, Revisited | The Best American Reading Club

  6. christy says:

    “I hope these two never meet each other”

    Oh, I laughed out loud when I came across this because I wrote the piece you’re discussing here and I thought the EXACT SAME THING when my copy of the book arrived and I read the other essays. I’ve been looking over my shoulder for months now. I was certain that, at minimum, I’d get hate mail. Which is probably warranted. Although, in my marginal defense, the piece was pulled from McSweeney’s–a humor site–and intended as a satire of the genre of personal essays found in glossy, commercial women’s magazines (which are almost always about triumph over adversity and learning to “love” and/or “accept” oneself).

    At the end of the day, I suspect Rachel Rierderer (author of the beautiful story “Patient”) doesn’t hate me, she pities me. I am the least accomplished, least published, least talented person in that anthology (almost embarrassingly so)….and it only takes a brief glimpse at the contributors bios to confirm that fact. So, I doubt Rachel and I will ever be in the same room. But if we are–I imagine I’ll have some explaining to do…

    Thanks for being easy on me here. I was terrified to read the comments!


    • sarah braud says:


      Thanks so much for responding to our discussion here! We are honored to have your response, though we regret that John Proctor can now brag that he was quoted by Christy Vannoy.

      Again, I really enjoyed your piece and think that satire is hard to write— harder after the writing is done, perhaps, as you wait the revenge of the mocked! I hope you feel it was worth all the worrying! Art is a risky business.


  7. Lurana Hahn says:

    Hey Christy,
    I read your Essay at 1:30 am after receiving my copy from Paige and Kerry the other evening. I was a bit perplexed as the satire was totally “over my head” at that time in the night! Oh my gawd to my delight. It was fun talking with you and hope to see you again soon in Nawlins! Lurana

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