A Personal Essay Isn't Really About You

If rhetoric had a slogan it would be, "It's not about you." Nothing says “It’s not about you” more than the tools of logos, rhetoric's rational side. 

When you want to talk a loved one or a customer into a choice, you need to say how your audience will benefit. You tell them that the choice you want is to their advantage, not yours. When you write a persuasive essay, your techniques may be more subtle. That's because people rarely read essays in hopes of being persuaded. They’re probably not in a relationship with you, and they have no desire to buy anything. At best, they just want to be entertained. And so you will be trying to influence their minds, not their willingness to purchase your product or lend you their car. To change minds, to influence people, you want to work off your audience’s beliefs and expectations.

If you want inspiration for this kind of mind-reading, read Montaigne’s essays. He wormed his way into the heads of ancient philosophers, kings and queens, thieves and murderers, children and women, even animals. Especially animals. “When I play with my cat,” he wrote, “who knows whether I do not make her more sport than she makes me?” Is she my pet, or am I hers? Remember, this was before cat videos and pet psychology. Starting with Montaigne, logos became an act of sympathy.

I was thinking of his attitude while drafting a three-hundred-word magazine essay, this one on food. Parents—at least the obsessive kind who hold professional jobs and worry about whether their kid gets into the right college—seem to be growing positively neurotic about parenting. Parents have to be perfect, and the proof lies in their all-too-human offspring. If their kid fails to grow up to be perfect, that proves the parents failed.

Personally, I figured that any kid who shared my genes wasn’t cut out to be perfect. But many parents seem to take literally that you are what you eat, which turns every meal into a test of character. While I was tempted to write, “Hey, lighten up! Have a martini and give the kid a cookie,” that wouldn’t convince your helicopter parent; I would only be writing about my beliefs. Instead I decided to start with a belief that I figured the guilty professional parent shared: the value of an independent woman. So I turned faulty cooking into an act of female independence.

Someone once asked a poor Yankee widow how she managed to feed her ten children. She replied, “I make what they don’t like and give them as much as they want.”

She reminds me of my mother, rest her soul. While neither poor nor a widow, Mom took the same pride in being a terrible cook.

Mom was no radical. She said grace before dinner and wore gloves well into the sixties. Her one act of rebellion was cooking for her family of six. Mom’s hamburgers looked like they came out of a nuclear reactor. Her boiled vegetables forgot they had ever been alive.

I once came home from third grade raving about the shepherd’s pie served in the cafeteria. None of the other kids liked the shepherd’s pie. When they saw me scarf my portion and beg my friends for their untouched plates, kids made fun of me. I told Mom and she laughed as if I had vindicated her. I was living proof that she was different from the too-perfect mothers on Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best.

These days, food has become another thing for many parents to feel guilty about. Sure, nutrition is important, it’s nice to please your kid, and the noblest parents try hard to reconcile the two. But there’s something to be said for my mother’s attitude. A little imperfection in childhood can lead to a real appreciation for adulthood. I loved the food in college, and my mouth waters at the memory of every restaurant meal.

While I inherited my mother’s lack of cooking zeal, though, my children got my wife’s culinary genes and grew up to be superb cooks. I almost feel sorry for my future grandchildren. They’ll be deprived of the low standards my mother bequeathed me.

Thanks, Mom.

Was this really an essay about my mother? Well, sure. But it was also an argument about motherhood in general. Perfect mothers enslave themselves to perfection. And slavery is bad. 


Photography by Alex Baker