Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Anne Shirley and the Personal Essay

- a post by Jeanna Mason Stay

Note: I’m currently enjoying a class wherein I get to hang out with teenagers each week and critique/talk about one another’s writing. A recent assignment was to write a personal essay. This, with some minor adaptations, is mine.

It was a beautiful spring evening. The sun was just beginning to set across the valley. David* and I sat on a picnic blanket, a romantic meal spread before us, with my favorite building on campus gracefully reaching up behind us. A mysterious book whose title I had not seen was settled on the blanket beside David. This was some seriously movie-quality ambience.

I grabbed another grape and popped it in my mouth to appear at ease, but my palms were sweating.

And then.

Then he opened the book and started reading . . . poetry.

The version of my brain that was still in fifth grade pretty much swooned. Here was this wonderful guy reading me love poems! Scenes from L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series swept through my brain, reminding me of all those hours I’d immersed myself in characters who ran around quoting obscure poets like they’d learned it from the womb. This was my very own Royal Gardner here (though, sadly, “David” was a much more prosaic name than “Royal”).

Perfect, yes?

But Anne does not end up with Roy. Thank heavens she grows up, gets a clue, and gets together with Gilbert Blythe.
Yes, I realize this is Morgan Harris, not Roy Gardner. But
since Roy doesn't actually exist in the movies at all, and
Morgan is pretty much the Roy stand-in, this will have to do.
 Sitting in the middle of this perfect scene, I felt something rise within me out of nowhere. It was . . . a giggle. I choked it down. A boy’s ego can only handle so much. So I held it together, attempting a level of composure that would have made Anne proud. But inside I knew, just as Anne had known, that Roy/David was not for me. I had tried, for his sake, but I already had my own Gilbert.

Anne was not the first character to appear in my life like this, nor was she the last. William Goldman’s narrative self in The Princess Bride made me want to stand up and clap when he realized life isn’t always fair. Bean from Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Shadow books helped me to feel a little less alone when I realized I suffered from a problem similar to his: too much intellect, not enough heart. Keturah, Richard III, Tiffany Aching, Javert, even the hopelessly dysfunctional Gene Forrester—something in their stories touched my own.

Every time the written word resonates with me, I am once again swept away into a different world. Sometimes the words explain something that I’d been trying to explain to myself. Sometimes they reveal a truth that I needed to accept. Some words have just released me from reality for an hour or two, giving me something fun and new and different. But I am always grateful that they exist. And this is why I write. Because of those authors who somehow tapped something important for me. Because I hope to do the same.

The stories we tell are more than reality. They take the details and the facts, and they strip them away, leaving behind something pure, true, universal. They can make us better. The best stories last in our hearts and our minds far beyond the specific words. The best characters step into our lives and change the way we see the world.

I didn’t want a Roy Gardner with his perfect movie setting. I wanted a Gilbert, someone to stick by my side when I was ridiculous, to understand when I was upset. And yes, he does, in fact, feed me grapes and read me the occasional poetry—but he doesn’t mind when I giggle.

* The poor man’s name has been changed to protect the innocent. He is still a friend, and he is a truly fantastic guy. He’s married now—to the right woman for him, someone who suits him way better than I would have—with some seriously adorable kids. I can safely say that we’re both happy with how things turned out.

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