Every semester, without fail, no matter what other essays I teach, a solid 75% of students (often more) choose the same essay: “Self-Portrait in Apologies” by Sarah Einstein.
Originally published in the now-defunct Fringe Magazine (whose archives have thankfully been saved by Sundress Publications), the essay is a collage of roughly 20 apologies to everyone from the narrator’s ex-lovers who she told she was a virgin to the girls from summer camp whose cabin door she helped decorate with Kotex the night the boys were sneaking over to visit. The apologies vary in length (some as short as a single sentence, some three or four paragraphs) and in tone (some serious, some humorous), and, to be honest, I just love the essay. (Full disclosure: the writer is also a friend, but I’d love it anyway.)
I love it for many reasons—the voice, the tone, the sense of humor, the overall structure—but there are three big reasons I keep teaching it.
1) It has excellent concrete detail and miniature scenes. One of the things my students have the hardest time with is writing in scene when they don’t need pages and pages of dialogue and description, when just a few sentences will do the trick. I think all beginning writers struggle with scene in general, but the macro seems easier than the micro.
So, when we read Einstein’s essay, this is one of the first things we talk about. We don’t need pages and pages of description and dialogue to get to the point. Instead, Einstein tells us what we need to know as concisely as possible—in the subtitle for one, for example, we are told that she is apologizing to “…everyone in The Dress Row at the Metropolitan Opera, Seats 114-120, in October 13, 1995.” In this section, we get just the essentials: “I didn’t think about how my constant sniffling and wheezing would ruin your evening. And, to the lady in seat 118, my particular apology for sneezing so emphatically that I caused you to drop your opera glasses onto a gentleman in the Grand Tier.”
The subtitle puts us in the moment and tells us exactly where we are. The language she chooses—the words “sniffling” and “wheezing,” which make us hear it—and the directness of the action both help us see it happen cinematically, even though it’s only taking up two sentences of the essay, rather than two paragraphs or two pages.
Einstein always makes the narrator’s actions clear, whether hiding her ex’s favorite Leonard Cohen CD in a box of tampons after their break-up, working with her classmates to hide her teacher’s glasses and rearrange their seats when he stepped out of the room, or “flicking lit matches into a wet pile of leaves in the woods behind [a neighbor’s] house,” accidentally setting fire to it.
Even when events are summarized, they don’t feel summarized, and she always includes something concrete—a snippet of dialogue, a single image, a moment of action—to make everything snap into place. After we read this essay, students still struggle, of course (they’re still learning!), but they get it. They know what to work toward.
2) Einstein is a master of characterizing through choices. I always tell my students that the first rule of characterization is that characters make choices. This goes over better in fiction, I think, when students can force their characters to make choices on the page and don’t feel quite so invested in whether or not we find the character to be good or likeable. But when they are writing about their own lives, they often glide right over their choices—perhaps because they don’t want to linger on the bad choices they’ve made, the hard choices they might still be unsure about—the exact choices that make for the best essays.
Einstein’s essay is predicated on the fact that she’s made choices she regrets—that’s the only reason we ever apologize!—and so it helps model that for the students. In each and every section, there’s a choice—the choice to serve the vegetarian friend chicken soup with the meat picked out, the choice to lie about her virginity, the choice to ring her own doorbell to get off the phone when a friend just won’t stop talking—and each choice helps us see another facet of the narrator’s character.
Some of these choices—like the soup and the doorbell—don’t really need much explanation. She can explain, in a sentence or two, that the friend was “eating a cheeseburger and smoking a Marlboro” the last time she saw her and she didn’t have “anything else in the house to offer” her, which is why she really didn’t feel that bad about the soup. We don’t need a lot of reflection in these sections to understand what it is that Einstein is saying about herself, what she thinks these choices say about her character.
In other sections, though, we need that reflection: in “Apology to a Well-Meaning History Teacher,” or “Apology to the Man Whose Woods We Burned Down,” or “Apology to My Martyred Forebears,” Einstein goes in more depth, reflecting on why she made these choices in the moment, what has changed, and why she now feels guilty about her actions.
The essay is a great model for showing my students why choices—and reflecting on those choices—is important, but it’s also perfect for showing them the difference between the choices that need more context and reflection and the ones that can speak for themselves.
3) It’s the perfect essay to lead into a writing exercise. I’d be lying if I didn’t say, right here and now, that the #1 reason I teach this essay so often is because it so easily lends itself to a writing exercise—and that writing exercise so often leads to some of the best writing my students produce all semester.
We talk a lot about how the essay works: the short sections at the beginning that establish the structure, the third apology that makes us realize it’s not just about humor, the call backs in sections like “The Third Ghost, Because in Literature There Are Always Three Ghosts,” the directness of the subtitles.
Then, we talk about other things—other than choices and apologies and mistakes—that can help craft a “portrait” of the narrator. We generate this list together. Here’s the master list I keep on my computer to share with students each semester, though we always end up adding more to this:
- Songs on my Spotify playlist
- Books I’ve owned
- Choices I've made
- Favorite movies
- Movies I've fallen asleep during
- Books I didn’t finish
- Fast food menu items
- Toys still in my childhood bedroom
- New things I've tried
- Facebook profile photos
- States I’ve visited
- Awards I’ve won/Awards I didn’t win
- Songs I've overplayed and now hate
- Celebrity crushes
- Browser history
- Family members
- Birthday parties
- Places I've worked
- Jobs I quit
- Jobs I didn’t get
- Places I've lived
- T-shirts I've worn/owned
- Things in my car/purse/bedroom/backpack/etc.
- Texts/emails I didn't send
- Bad habits
- Grocery lists
- Things I've cooked
- Cooking failures
- Netflix suggested categories/Hulu suggested categories
- High school superlatives I won/didn't win
- Colleges I didn't get into
- Classes I've taken/dropped/failed
- Halloween costumes
- Rejection letters
- Broken promises
- Missed opportunities
- Near misses
- Unpaid debts
- Things lost/found
- Jokes I've told
- Bad puns
- Hairstyles/hair cuts
- Hair colors
- Drinks I've purchased/consumed
- Tinder matches
- Creepy FB messenger friend requests or DMs
Then, I tell students to pick one of those nouns and write a “Self-Portrait in ___________.”
I’m not sure exactly why this writing exercise works so well, but even the students who have struggled the most find something valuable in it. I think it might be because it’s so hard to make this type of essay anecdotal. Instead of writing an essay about that one time something happened, and stopping before they dig below the surface to why it matters, they are forced to think about multiple events, or multiple objects and the relationships between them. Most of the time, the underlying story (to steal from Vivian Gornick) is built into the structure: finding the echoes and connections between these otherwise unconnected ideas.
The exercise is also really helpful for students who aren’t sure where to begin, or who might be struggling to write about emotionally complex subject matter. It gives them a place to start—the structure, a subtitle—and, in some ways, feels almost like a game. It can make them more willing to talk about the hard things—the important things—in their work than they would be in a more traditional essay.
Silas Hansen's essays have appeared in The Normal School, Colorado Review, Redivider, Hayden's Ferry Review, and elsewhere. He teaches creative writing and literary publishing at Ball State University and is the nonfiction editor of Waxwing. You can find him at silashansen.net.