Writer Jia Tolentino Discusses the Art of Personal Essay

Jia Tolentino, a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the bestselling essay collection Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, recently joined our junior class for a discussion on writing personal essays as they prepare to tackle their college applications.
Tolentino’s main advice to the juniors? “Write as if you’re writing to your smartest and funniest friend.” The author encouraged students to “try to sound like you at your best. Whether that voice is a little silly, very serious and direct, playful, sarcastic — you can and should welcome all of that into your work.”
According to Tolentino, the best kind of personal writing comes from “quieting that part of your brain that says I need to defend my actions, or I need to prove that I’m an incredible, amazing person.”
Tolentino recognized the need to write about hardships to stand out, but she advised students to embrace the ordinary as well and to honor their full selves throughout the process. “The ability to be honest despite the fact that we are often not our best is a hurdle that is hard to clear. But once you can, it will free you and your writing in interesting ways,” she said.
The students asked questions for the second half of the session, which was moderated by English teacher Lauren Echko, a former classmate of Tolentino’s at the University of Virginia. The students asked about everything from the beginning of the creative process to the fear of writer’s block to the slog of editing.
On editing, Tolentino reminded students not to get hung up on the first draft. In fact, she encouraged writing exceptionally bad first drafts to get to the heart of what they want to say. “You can’t get to the good essay without writing the bad one first,” she told the audience.
Jay Kellam ’22 said of the event: “It’s rare that we have speakers who really connect with us like Tolentino did. She gave us tangible advice in a way that was funny but also serious and really helpful.” Patsy Daum ’22 agreed: “Tolentino managed to make a rather intimidating process seem manageable and potentially fun!”