By Mary Collins
Avoid self-absorption, I tell my college students trying their hand at the personal essay in my nonfiction classes.
Strive to see yourself and your beliefs in the context of the larger culture.
Don’t assume what you have to say is all that interesting or important; back it up with research, insight and intellect.
If you’re doing a good job, you will discover something new about yourself as you write the essay.
I say these things about their writing, and they nod, but they never quite understand why I say them with such vigor.
This course is not about writing, I practically shout. It’s about using writing to develop a deeper understanding of yourself, others, and your society. If you cannot think with any clarity, you cannot write with any clarity. If you cannot ask the right questions, you cannot arrive at refreshing content.
I know, I tell them. I used the personal essay form to save my relationship with my only child, who was born biologically female but transitioned to male during high school and college.
I had never heard of the term transgender.
I took things personally, watched all that he did as a form of judgment on me as a parent, resented those that helped him complete his transition (because they did not include me in any part of it), and, I admit, almost walked away from the entire process because of the irradiating pain and grief I felt as I watched my daughter evaporate before my eyes.
I started to process all of it by writing notes in a journal to myself.
But I just confirmed my own opinions and my limited understanding of the situation.
I shifted to writing a sketch of a personal essay about my sense of grief, which felt muddled, but at least it included research, reflection, and some effort at seeing my experience within the context of the larger world.
I kept at the personal essay and tried to follow my own rules: avoid self-absorption; educate yourself; try to see yourself as your trans son might see you.
Then I asked my trans son to write essays of his own and, to his credit, he agreed. While his transition triggered grief for me, it gave him a sense of euphoria. While I resented the erosion of my rights as a parent once he reached sixteen, he saw them as a way to assert himself in new ways.
We did not write opinion pieces to each other about these things, but rather essays—a vital distinction, because we never tried to “convince” each other of anything or to designate one of us as “right” or “wrong.” Instead we strove to round out our understanding of what his transition meant to each of us.
As a parent I resented being told by educators and professionals that I’d eventually “get it,” with “it” some vague thing hanging in the air and smacking of blistering judgment.
As a teen in transition, Donald stood aghast that I’d battle with him over something as fundamental as his right to use a name and pronoun of his choice.
We wrote about these exchanges, and, more importantly, we processed them, because writing an essay forces you to do that.
In honor of the word “Awareness” in Transgender Awareness Week, I urge parents in conflict with their trans teen or college student to try their hand at penning an authentic personal essay about how you feel about what’s going on. Pick a specific topic—such as “name change”—and then ask your child to pen his/her/it/they own essay as well. If you feel anxious about writing, try speaking what you think into the recorder on your cellphone and save and then exchange the recording with your child.
See it as an audio diary or letter exchange, and I emphasize the word exchange, because it’s a type of sharing rather than a persuasive argument.
You’ll be surprised by how much you have to give to each other.
About the Author
Mary Collins is a professor of creative writing at Central CT State University. At the Broken Places: A Mother and Trans Son Pick Up the Pieces, forthcoming from Beacon Press in Spring 2017, is her fourth adult nonfiction book.