This exercise is meant to let you use a part of your identity as a perspective, rather than just a subject that you’re putting under pressure and scrutiny.
One of the main takeaways from the class is that an essayist—particularly a writer of color (though, really, any and all writers)—can (and I might say, should) write essays with not only personal experience as the subject, but with personal experience as the lens. What do I mean by that? One must write through experience, rather than solely about it.
It can be exhausting to write about the topic of our race—or if it applies: gender identity, sexuality, class experience, disability and ability, etc. We don’t want to burn ourselves out on the topic of our personal lives, tapping out the reserves of, shall we say, our aether—the energy that allows us to work our magic (I’ve been playing lots of Final Fantasy XIV, forgive me).
To save your aether, sometimes you must draw instead from the world around you. And rather than expending your self as the subject—the thing being scrutinized—try thinking of it as your lens—the tools and knowledge you use to parse the thing being scrutinized. A lens is something through which you view the world; it refracts light and affects how you see an object that is perceptible to another person, who, in turn, sees that same thing differently than you do.
Our view onto the world is just as personal and unique as the personal identities that make us unique. So why not write through the lens of who you are and what you love?
The following is a condensed version of a writing exercise I lead in my workshops.
Take a sheet of paper and a pen—you can do this exercise digitally, but the analogue element might encourage you to write more freely, with less self-editing—and write two lists.
The first: a list of every possible identity you possess. (It won’t be an exhaustive list, but, you know, challenge yourself.) It can contain the immediately visible to more invisible things. In my case, the list could look like: Asian, Filipino, and gay as visible things; immigrant—as in, not US-born—and Libra might be less-visible identities I claim. My list would also include things like: cis man, middle class, first-generation US college student, traveler, home cook, type-A organizer, writer, etc.
Take five minutes to identify yourself. Set a timer. Go.
Next, begin your second list: a list of your passions and interests. What brings you joy? Or what can’t you stop thinking about? For me, my list includes: video games, interior design, airline miles and credit card points, RuPaul’s Drag Race. My list also has Italophile and French language learner; slippage between “identity” and “passion” is fine. This is also an opportunity to identify something you’re curious about, but might not yet be a big part of your personality.
Take another five minutes to list your curiosities. Set another timer. Go.
Then, the third part of the exercise: Take one item from your list of identities and one item from your list of interests, then “intersect” them. Your identity is the lens, and your interest is the subject. Your task is to consider the subject through that lens.
What observations have you made about the subject through that perspective? What do you want to investigate or learn more about? What questions do you want to ask? To whom might you pose those questions? Who has similar perspectives and/or expertise in the subject? What books, films, television shows, documentaries, etc. might help boost your knowledge about the subject? How does your experience and/or expertise with the subject affect your investigation or research?
For example, I might apply my “Asian American” lens to the subject of interior design. I’m thinking of the aesthetic tradition of chinoiserie, which is the European interpretation and imitation of East Asian artistic work, often applied in decorative arts. To me, it feels racist and Orientalist, and I’m wondering if it’s time to have the conversation about doing away with it altogether. But I also want to do deeper research and maybe talk to academics in Asian studies departments and Asian professors at, say, the Fashion Institute of Technology or the School of Visual Arts. Personally, I’m also thinking about my own interest in it—how has my view of beauty and luxury been colonized by Western perspectives? The question I might want to answer: Where does chinoiserie come from and does it have a place with us now in 2022?
Anyway, take ten minutes to select a personal lens, apply it to a subject in the world, and begin to ask questions. Set a timer. If it dings and you’re still writing, keep going. And going.
Feel free to go wild in this exercise—nothing is too niche or weird. It does not have to be a totally conceived essay, but it does have to spark something in your brain. Ideally, you uncover a rabbit hole that you want to fall into. This exercise is meant to let you use a part of your identity as a perspective, rather than just a subject that you’re putting under pressure and scrutiny.
The essay form doesn’t have to be scary. It can be exciting and fun, a process motivated by curiosity and a deep need to know more. When you begin, your arguments and convictions need not be concrete—unchanging and inflexible. In fact, such a stance is a detriment when you begin a new attempt at understanding a subject, at finding its nuances and contradictions, at giving yourself an answer for now, for the present moment. After all, an essay is first and foremost a means to discovery, rather than an ending.
Sign up now for Matt’s upcoming Catapult course, 1-Day Personal Essay Seminar for Writers of Color, here!
Matt Ortile is the author of the essay collection The Groom Will Keep His Name and the co-editor of the nonfiction anthology Body Language. He is also the executive editor of Catapult magazine and was previously the founding editor of BuzzFeed Philippines. He has received fellowships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and MacDowell; has taught workshops for Kundiman, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and PEN America; and has written for Esquire, Vogue, Condé Nast Traveler, Out magazine, and BuzzFeed News, among others. He is a graduate of Vassar College, which means he now lives in Brooklyn.