Today’s list compiles our editors’ picks for personal essays. While our team is small, we have a wide range of interests and are drawn to very different types of personal writing. It’s often hard for each of us to select a single “favorite” for these lists, but we enjoy coming together each December to look back on all the stories we’ve picked to create these year-end lists.
Similar to last year, we asked our writers, featured authors, and readers to share their favorite stories across categories. You’ll see their recommendations alongside ours in this list and others to come this month. Enjoy!
Jonathan Tjarks | The Ringer | March 3, 2022 | 2,738 words
Jonathan Tjarks was 33 years old when he learned he had cancer. Thirty-three. He had a wife and a baby son and a sportswriting career that was humming along, and then he had cancer. What he didn’t have was the willingness to go gently into that good night. So he wrote about his fear, and he wrote about his faith and his friendships; how difficult those things were, how important they were. He’d lost his own father when he was young, and he wanted more than anything for his son to avoid the slow erosion of community that he had known in the wake of his dad’s death. “I don’t want Jackson to have the same childhood that I did,” he wrote. “I want him to wonder why his dad’s friends always come over and shoot hoops with him. Why they always invite him to their houses. Why there are so many of them at his games. I hope that he gets sick of them.” Jonathan Tjarks was 34 years old when he died of cancer just a few short months after this essay was published. He’d done what he could to fight, and he’d done what he could to make sure that the friends he’d made would help his son navigate the world. To the rest of us, he left this spare, frank, moving essay. —Peter Rubin
Annie Sand | Guernica | May 23, 2022 | 2,821 words
“Only sometimes will the ice hold my weight,” writes Annie Sand in this powerful essay at Guernica, in which she considers the meteorological metaphors she uses to understand and cope with mental illness. “Metaphor rushes in to fill gaps, to make meaning, and to conceal,” she says, as she attempts to assess the cost of a bout of anxiety in “hours of writing lost, hours of grading lost, hours of exercise lost, hours of sleep lost, hours of joy lost.” While metaphor can be a convenient way for us to attempt to understand the pain of others, language in all its power often comes up short, diminishing the complexities of human perception and experience with inadequate comparisons. “When we use metaphor to conceal the unknowable, we make symbols out of human beings and allegory out of experience. We reduce our own pain to a precursor, a line item, a weather report,” she says. The key, Sand suggests, is to define pain and suffering for yourself: “I wonder instead if the answer is not to abstain from metaphor, but rather, each time society tries to wheat-paste an ill-fitting metaphor over our lives, to offer one of our own.” If you’ve ever tried to explain how you really feel — mentally or physically — to someone, you’ll appreciate Sand’s thinking. —Krista Stevens
Annie Sand on the most impactful longform story she read this year:
For me it has to be “Final Girl, Terrible Place” by Lesley Finn. She talks about the concept of the final girl in horror: the young woman who makes it to the end of the movie, but is nonetheless objectified within the story. Her body is put on the line so the male psyche can experience threat from a distance. Reading the essay, I felt a flash of desperate recognition I hadn’t experienced since Leslie Jamison’s “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” Finn captures so much of the uncertainty of being a teenage (and even preteen) girl: the way you feel the noose of culture and power closing in on you but have no name for it. Now in my early 30s, I’m helping to raise a teenage girl who is obsessed with horror, I suspect for similar reasons as Finn. I think she sees herself in the final girl. Maybe over Christmas break we’ll read it together.
Mstyslav Chernov | Associated Press | March 21, 2022 | 2,400 words
We tend to think of personal essays as marathons rather than sprints, feats of the written word that require time, training, and endurance to complete. But sometimes a brilliant essay is a mad dash because it has to be. Case in point, this harrowing piece that begins, “The Russians were hunting us down. They had a list of names, including ours, and they were closing in.” Video journalist Mstyslav Chernov’s account of witnessing and escaping the siege of Mariupol, Ukraine, is an essential first draft of history, penned in collaboration with Lori Hinnant, an AP colleague, and punctuated by photographer Evgeniy Maloletka’s chilling images. In spare, unflinching language, Chernov describes Russia’s campaign to suppress the truth about its brutal assault on civilians. What lingers most vividly in my memory, though, are the essay’s interior parts, where Chernov conveys a raw mix of shock, fear, anger, and guilt about what, as a journalist, he saw, did, and couldn’t do. These moments are what make such an otherwise immediate piece timeless: Chernov captures the essence of both conflict reporting and what it means to be the person doing it. —Seyward Darby
Alyssa Harad | Kenyon Review | July 29, 2022 | 6,113 words
When it was time to select an essay for this category, I immediately knew the type of piece I wanted to highlight. Week after week, it’s so easy to get lost in #sadreads, especially about the state of the planet. I’ve found some comfort in writing about the Earth and the climate crisis that, while urgent and often dismal, ultimately challenges me to think in new ways — and which helps me see a path toward a better future. I count Alyssa Harad’s gorgeous braided essay about the end of the world and the language of the apocalypse as one of this kind of piece — I’ve kept thinking about it for months. Instead of relying on catastrophe narratives or thinking of the end as a singular event, Harad considers life as a series of “nested crises,” and explains that “worlds end all the time.” I love the way she artfully weaves her observations about the world with musings that trace her own thinking since she was a child, and reflects on how she’s come to make sense of the uncertain times in which we live. It’s an essay, but it’s also a journey, and it deeply inspired me, as both a writer and a human. —Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Alyssa Harad recommends a piece that made her smile this year:
“Unconditional Death Is a Good Title,” a selection in The Paris Review from the pandemic journal kept by the late-but-always-and-forever-great poet Bernadette Mayer, surges with the life and joy typical of Mayer’s work: “not growing old gracefully,” Mayer writes, “i’ve chosen to grow old awkwardly, like a teenager.”
Laurie Penny | British GQ | September 18, 2022 | 3,415 words
The Queue to see Queen Elizabeth’s coffin seems particularly bizarre now that the moment has passed. Looking back at it is akin to waking up after too many beers and analyzing the deep connection you thought you shared with the bartender. Laurie Penny found it awkward even at the emotional height of the time, and she approaches the Queue with a healthy amount of cynicism (and snacks). However, within the Queue, she finds incredible camaraderie and a shared sense of loss, not just for the Queen, for, as Penny states, “almost everyone I speak to turns out to have recently lost someone, or something important.” The loss from COVID-19 is also apparent as the Queue shuffles past the National COVID Memorial, naming the people who succumbed to the pandemic, and Penny realizes, “about as many people queued past that wall as there are names on it.” The passing of Elizabeth II created something that, for a brief moment, allowed people to come together and mourn and grieve in solidarity. Mourn and grieve for many things after some difficult years. With barriers down — for whatever reason — there can be tremendous release in shared emotion. This essay made me think about many things beyond the Queen: community, loss, and loneliness, to name a few. It also made me laugh, which is the splendid thing about Laurie Penny’s writing — she can make you ponder through a chuckle. —Carolyn Wells
You can also browse all of our year-end collections since 2011 in one place.