| Don’t Write Alone
Notes on Craft A Cow with a Hole in It
The thing that’s so difficult about personal essays is that they’re awfully personal. There’s an answer to this conundrum, and it has to do with cows.
The thing that’s so difficult about personal essays is that they’re awfully personal.
I realize saying this lands me somewhere on a spectrum from Yogi Berra to Randall from Clerks (“This job would be great if it wasn’t for all the fucking customers”). But there’s a robust, if a bit paradoxical, population of writers who want to use our own lives as the substrate for our work while also remaining completely unperceived. In fact, there may be more of us than there are personal writers who are ready to lay it all on the page. Which means we’re constantly navigating the question of how to write about ourselves while also not telling anyone anything about ourselves.
There’s an answer to this conundrum, and it has to do with cows. But more on that in a minute.
Of course, you can always just not write personal work. But there are legitimate reasons to do so—maybe you have a particularly interesting story, maybe you’re illuminating an underrepresented perspective, maybe you’re lazy and it’s easier than reporting (that’s mine). Or maybe, and okay this is my real reason, you want to use your experience as a vehicle to take a concept from the intellectual to the visceral, to give an idea flesh (your own) and let it walk around. In that case, there’s no escaping vulnerability.
There’s a point of diminishing returns, though, when it comes to personal revelation. In 2017, when Jia Tolentino declared that the personal essay boom was over , she was talking about a specific kind of piece: xoJane-style intimate excavations that detailed the author’s worst trauma, grossest humiliation, or most unflattering thought. It’s not quite fair to call this “the personal essay,” as though there’s no other kind—it’s like saying that performance art is over because there’s a waning interest in ’70s-style installations where an artist is nude and in peril. Marina Abramovic is still working, and she can still make you cry half to death even relatively comfortable and very fully clothed, you know?
But there’s no denying that for many years, professional oversharers were doing brisk business. The primary economy for young women or woman-coded writers—for marginalized writers generally, in fact, though these sites often focused on women—was trading your darkest secrets for fifty bucks. It’s good that this economy has collapsed. The worst thing that happened to you shouldn’t be table stakes for breaking into the industry. Less importantly, but still importantly: The writing was often bad. There’s nothing really elevating or enlightening in reading the stark, unrelieved details of someone’s assault, or following their “contrarian” (read: reprehensible) thought processes in detail.
Vulnerability in writing is a precision tool.
“If we want the rewards of being loved we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known,” Tim Kreider wrote in a New York Times opinion piece that has since become a wildly popular Tumblr meme . This equally applies to the rewards of writing successfully about your personal life: If you want the rewards of doing it, you must puncture your defenses. But how much? Well, when he wrote this indelible line, Kreider was talking about the time he bragged about spending a lot of money on renting some goats and a friend was less than enthusiastic. I happen to think the key to balancing the rewards of personal writing with the mortifying ordeal of disclosure can also be found in ruminants.
So, let’s talk about cows.
Last year, a friend who was working on her memoir expressed concern that her editor was digging for too much information about her childhood. Specifically, the editor had said that she needed to be more emotionally vulnerable, and, given the subject matter, she had reason to feel this meant they were gunning for a salacious tell-all. She wanted to know if the request for more vulnerability was an overreach.
I said no. “If I told someone to be more vulnerable in an essay or book, what I would mean is that not everything the reader needs is making it onto the page,” I wrote to her. “You want people to understand and relate to your story, not just intellectually but viscerally—but there are certain tools and information you have to give them to do that. Sort of like the peephole researchers put in the side of a cow, you know? Sorry, is that a normal metaphor?”
I am given to understand that it is not a normal metaphor, for most people. But it’s a pretty normal metaphor if you went to a university with an agriculture school, like I did for my MA, and if that university was home to a peephole cow.
This cow was a point of interest with the flavor of both local trivia and urban legend; the way people at other universities and colleges might talk about resident ghosts, we told visitors about the cow. It lived on a farm on campus, between the physics building and the School of Public Health. The hole—also called a fistula or cannula—was a neat, bloodless deal, plugged with a rubber-rimmed port.
In many ways, the cow was absolutely cerebral: a scientific object, like one of those see-through plastic anatomy kits. In others, it was literally visceral. With permission from the researchers in the animal sciences department (though not, notably, from the cow), you could reach right into her guts. The point of this was to help you understand cow digestion. The cannula offers access to the rumen, one of a cow’s four stomach compartments.
You may be familiar with the quip “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend; inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” Inside of a cow, it’s too dark to do science. If you want to know what’s going on in there, you have to guess. Cannulation is a relatively humane (which is to say, it’s come under plenty of fire, but it’s better than vivisection) way of opening a literal window into an animal’s inner workings.
I taught freshman writing around the corner from the cow, but at the time, I didn’t think that these two concepts, writing and cows with holes in them, were especially connected. What they have in common, though, is the idea of vulnerability, and its different levels of meaning: vulnerability as a window, and vulnerability as a wound.
When editors ask you to be vulnerable, what they really want is for you to be permeable, for the windows you place in your defenses to offer a sense of the area beyond. The walls don’t need to be breached, and they don’t need to come all the way down in a way that puts you in danger. Hence our guiding light, the cow with a hole—who is in no danger at all, but whose innards are in easy reach for those who need to understand them. Putting a cannula in a cow is not opening the cow up to further damage; it’s surgery-level safe, unlike all usual ways of putting a hole in a cow, and it only reveals what it needs to reveal. But it makes the cow penetrable, so that some things that might otherwise be mysteries can be investigated directly.
This is the best kind of personal writing: not flayed open, but fitted with a window in the guts.
By the same token, cannulated-cow writing involves opening yourself up in a way that doesn’t hurt you, so people can understand what you want them to understand. If someone is saying, “There’s not enough vulnerability and revelation here,” what they mean is, “Why am I just looking at the solid, opaque side of a cow?” They do not (necessarily) mean, “Take a big cleaver and hack that heifer open.”
You do not, of course, need to put a hole in your cow. It is absolutely acceptable to leave your cow un-holed. But then what you have is not a research cow; it’s a cow for private use. You can perhaps ask people to admire it, but they will have learned nothing except that you have a cow.
On the flip side, there’s a limited amount you can learn about cow digestion from (sorry, gruesome image follows) just cutting a cow open and letting its guts fall out. Even if you then proceed to look at those guts with a microscope! The structure is gone; they stand in no relationship to each other, or to the cow as a whole.
Vulnerability in writing is a precision tool. The process of spilling your guts isn’t vulnerability—it’s purgation. (Still useful, from an emotional perspective! But not necessarily in the service of art.) So maybe what we actually need is a better word than vulnerability to describe the specific kind of peephole we open up in personal writing— vulnerable , etymologically, means “open to wounding,” and a cannula is not the same as a wound. What we ought to say, maybe, is something like permeable , porous , pervious . Not exposed to attack, but exposed to study. This is the best kind of personal writing: not flayed open, but fitted with a window in the guts.