Two Fellow Cancer Survivors Meet – The Art of the Personal Essay

Curtis Pesman, a Boulder-based writer, has a beautiful first-person essay in today’s New York Times on meeting up with an ex-girlfriend and fellow cancer survivor. I like it for how it conveys the very real effect dealing with cancer has on someone’s life, and for the specific writing techniques Pesman employs.

I like the studying the art of the personal essay. Some things Pesman did that jumped out at me:

  • Open with action. This is a common tactic: start the essay in the middle of an event to immediately engage the reader. In this case, it’s Pesman’s ex trying to light a candle but due to her chemo treatment she can’t keep steady hands.
  • Repetition. "I think but don’t say…" is a phrase Pesman comes back to, and it’s a nice way of giving the reader a peek at the uncensored, interior voice we all have when interacting with someone.
  • Paint a vivid image. He describes the two of them lying somewhat awkwardly on a bed "blankly watching TV". He captures the moment and then calls the silence between them "comfortable" — an adjective we don’t expect based on how he set it up. Surprising the reader is almost always a good thing.
  • End with something provocative. It ends with a lovely scene and a last sentence which makes you wonder: I take a swirl-sip of the fragrant French wine that my ex-girlfriend has just poured for me. Didn’t notice: was it from a “good year”? No real reason to ask. Pretty much every year seems a good year about now. My back hurts a little as we sit scrunched side by side, moving our forks around. Outside, windblown leaves dance in the dark. Then I take another sip of, I don’t know, Bordeaux. I can’t taste it. I can’t taste anything.

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