Protecting the Personal Essay

When an author sets out to write an essay — a task the difficulty of which everyone at Andover can surely appreciate — they should have the full range of their life experience and mental operations to draw on for reference. No writer should ever feel unnecessarily limited to writing about one aspect of their lives. This is why I was disheartened to see that for the 2014 Means Essay Competition, all submissions were required to be centered on the subject of gender. This limitation will prevent the writer from being able to put forward a true image of oneself, which is essentially the purpose for which the essay exists, and will furthermore give unfair advantage to students who are predisposed or already prepared to write extensively about the topic. Michel de Montaigne, French essayist and forefather of the personal essay, stated in 1580, “It is I myself that I portray…. I am myself the matter of my book.” These words, arguably some of the most radical ever to appear in print, reflect a novel sentiment that Montaigne held about the personal essay: it served as the chief opportunity to thoroughly investigate himself and his beliefs through writing. Montaigne defined the personal essay as an autobiographical and deeply personal work of literature, and he was correct — the word “essay” itself comes from the French “Essai”, meaning “trial.” When laying our ideas down, we become the prosecution, defense and perhaps ultimately judge of our own thinking and experiences. With this in mind, it seems inevitable that limiting the Means Essay to the subject of gender will stifle the writers by forcing them to compartmentalize their human experience into the scope of one facet of their existence. This is not to say a personal essay that ultimately has a strong theme of gender is not a true essay, but that the essay should focus on the writer as a complete human being, rather than just as an individual experiencing gender. Predetermining a topic for a writer to focus on predisposes the lens through which they explore and express themselves within their writing, and it makes it impossible for any essay to be a completely autonomous representation of the self. Furthermore, limiting the Means Essay to a gender-related prompt will contradict what should be a central goal of all of Andover’s competitions: namely, a commitment to fairness and the ideal of meritocracy. Members of the Andover community enter competitions such as the Means Essay with varying backgrounds, some of which may either advantage or disadvantage them in particular contests. Of course, an attempt to fully eradicate these differences would be misguided and counterintuitive; nevertheless, the Means contest hinges on the creation of a personal essay. It is impossible to deny that certain people have reflected more on their experience of gender than have others, and thus, certain people will have a much stronger base coming into their writing and eventual declamation of the Means Essay. A personal essay is at its core a meritocratic endeavor: it allows everyone to write about the subject on which they are essentially an expert — themselves. If we say individuals can only write about one aspect of their lives, in this case gender, we risk privileging those with certain life experiences. On the other hand, if the Means Essay Prize is solely a contest about self-analysis, then everyone enters with an equal footing. Either the stipulation regarding the subject of the essay must be lifted, allowing the writers to write freely, or the contest must drop the historically-established title of the Means Essay Contest and describe itself as an essay on gender from a personal perspective, not as a “personal essay.” The Means Essay is one of the great mediums provided to us by the literary tradition at Andover, as well as something that I personally hold dear. I feel that the process of creating of a personal essay should not be restricted by accidents of historical circumstance — in this case, the 40-year anniversary of the Andover’s coeducation. The Means Essay Prize is the only chance all students have to pour themselves into the creative fervor of interrogating the self and for the entire school to hear the result. Taking the true nature of that experience away would be unfortunate for the students and contradictory to the nature of the competition.