There has been a lot of discussion in writing circles recently about the fate of the personal essay. I say recently, but in fact this is a debate that has been going on for a long time. Virgina Woolf, always ahead of her time, was grumbling about personal essays as long ago as 1905.
Anyway, back in May, Jia Tolentino wrote a piece in the New Yorker arguing that The Personal-Essay Boom is Over (and then, ironically enough, sold a collection of her personal essays to Random House). It spawned many thoughtful and interesting responses, including this feminist defence of the form by New School Professor Susan Shapiro, this wonderful piece about parenting essays by Lauren Apfel at Motherwell, and this piece by Kath Kenny in The Conversation.
If you’ve grown up online, as I have, you will likely have read hundreds, if not thousands of personal essays. It’s true that many of them – the poorly written, exploitative clickbait articles that were the focus of Laura Bennet’s excellent Slate piece back in 2015 – should never have been published.
But it’s also true that a well written personal essay can be a truly beautiful thing. I have a folder on my desktop of saved pieces that I return to again and again: astonishing, illuminating essays about what it means to find your home, to be a mother, to love and laugh and live.
With that in mind, I thought I’d put together a list of my favourite sites for reading personal essays, along with a link to one of my favourite essays on each site. I hope you enjoy exploring them: there’s no clickbait here.
1. Vela: Creative nonfiction written by women, with a focus (although not exclusively) on travel. As well as longform essays, Vela publishes a number of shorter columns on body and identity, books, motherhood and place.
- Suggested Read: Mother, Writer, Monster, Maid by Rufi Thorpe
2. Motherwell: A digital publication that tells all sides of the parenting story. Motherwell was only launched in May 2016 but has already established a great reputation for publishing excellent writing on family life.
- Suggested Read: What we neglect when the children are young by Lauren Apfel
3. Catapult: Catapult is a book publisher and a provider of online writing classes, but their team also produces an online daily magazine of narrative fiction and nonfiction. It’s the kind of site where you can lose hours to reading.
- Suggested Read: Talking to my daughter about Charlottesville by Taylor Harris
4. New York Times: From Lives to Modern Love to Ties, the NYT has long been home to some of the very best personal essays out there. Modern Love is pretty much the holy grail for every essay writer out there – it’s the one that we all want – because as Andrea Jarrell recently wrote in a piece for Lit Hub, it can be a life changer.
- Suggested Read: Visiting McDonalds With My Grandmother by Christine Ro
5. Narratively: Launched in 2012, Narratively is a storytelling studio that focuses on ordinary people with extraordinary stories.
- Suggested Read: The Women in My Family Had to Be Good With Money by Dena Landon
6. The Manifest-Station: Describing it as ‘personal essays on being human’, founder Jennifer Pastiloff and editor Angela Giles Patel have created a site packed with inspiring, emotional writing.
- Suggested Read: On Quiet Resistance by Vivian Wagner
7. Buzzfeed: You may know Buzzfeed best for its listicles and memes, but they also publish a surprising number of really good essays and longreads.
- Suggested Read: The Weight of James Arthur Baldwin by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah
8. The Rumpus: Interviews, book reviews, comics, cultural critique… and some truly excellent essays.
- Suggested Read: The (Online) Stories We Tell by Amanda Miska
9. Electric Literature: Fiction and creative nonfiction about the intersection of literature and other artforms.
- Suggested Read: Trauma, Storytelling and Time Travel by Leslie Kendall Dye
10. Literary Mama: Not only does Literary Mama feature stunning writing, they also publish a comprehensive roundup of submission opportunities at other sites. A great place to spend some time whether you’re a reader, a writer, or both!
- Suggested Read: The Care and Feeding of a Carnival Goldfish by Ann Klotz
11. Brain, Child: ‘the magazine for thinking mothers’ is how Brain, Child Magazine describes itself, and in the world of parenting websites their pieces are certainly some of the best.
- Suggested Read: Mother as Witness by Melissa Uchiyama
12. Full Grown People: Subtitled ‘The Other Awkward Age’, Full Grown People is about romance, family, health, career, dealing with aging loved ones, and more. It’s a place for those of us who feel like we’re just stumbling along, doing the best we can. They publish a new essay twice a week.
- Suggested Read: My Father’s Estate by Melissent Zumwalt
13. The Establishment: Funded and run by women, the Establishment publishes new content every day. With an intersectional feminist slant, they have featured some of the very best Trump-era writing about politics becoming personal.
- Suggested Read: I Was Supposed To Have Good Hair by Ijeoma Oluo
14. Tin House: Literary magazine and book publisher Tin House publishes fiction, essays and poetry, as well as a Lost and Found section dedicated to exceptional but overlooked books, and Readable Feast, which is dedicated to food writing.
- Suggested Read: The Ice Cream by Kate Vieira
15. Dame: Another site with a major focus on current affairs and politics, but also an excellent First Person section which is worth exploring.
- Suggested Read: I Used to Run Toward Danger by Vanessa Hua
16. Aeon: An online magazine of ideas and culture, Aeon publishes essays, articles and videos, many with a philosophical or scientific slant.
17. Refinery 29: Fancy-pants lifestyle site Refinery 29 has a strong focus on beauty, fashion and entertainment, but dig into it a little and you’ll also find some well written personal essays on everything from politics to motherhood.
- Suggested Read: Dinner for One by Donna Freydken
18. Mothers Always Write: Poetry and essays written by mothers. MAW run regular essay writing classes online and many of the pieces published on the site are the result of those efforts.
- Suggested Read: The Alchemy of Motherhood by Lisa Lopez Smith
19. Overland: Australian literary journal Overland has been publishing progressive writing on culture since the 1950s. The quarterly mag is supplemented by regular content on their website, and if you’re looking for smart, engaging personal essays with an Aussie slant, this is the place to go.
20. Purple Clover: Targeted at over 50s who are ‘young at heart’ this is a fab site, packed with essays and articles by writers who are comfortable in their own skin.
- Suggested Read: Those Wet Noodles are Strands of my DNA by Leslie Kendall Dye
Do you have any sites that you love?
Let me know what I’ve missed by leaving a comment below.