I subbed for one of my colleagues recently. Her composition students were looking at an essay about crafting the personal essay. The essay we looked at gave directives but also emphasized the idea of being a tiny master, a term borrowed from Susan Orlean of The Orchid Thief. (Writers borrow from writers who borrow from other writers, and so it goes.)
In this particular instance, I used an example from my own life to show how an expertise we’ve cultivated may actually divulge meaningful insight into ourselves — thus the personal element of the personal narrative essay. You start discussing something concrete, such as an event or a place, and you end up using that as your springboard to reveal something about yourself, which, if done effectively, will also reveal something universal, which your readers will see in themselves, too.
It’s almost like a confidence trick, but not for manipulation’s sake. Good writers make you think you’re reading one thing and end up revealing something else entirely. Really good writers guide you to discover what that something else means to you, the reader.
The example I gave my students was about my being a tiny master of my husband’s haircuts. I don’t cut hair with any skill, nor do I know anything expert about it, but I do cut his hair with relative expertise. And I’ve been doing so for four years.
His hair is pretty forgiving because it’s fine and wavy and dark. I can cut in any direction and it will still sit the same when I’m finished. I’ve learned how to hold the scissors and manage the clippers and have attained a certain dexterity when handling his hair at the same time as my tool. So I am a tiny master of his hairstyle and the shape of his head.
I started giving him haircuts long before quarantine, and not because he couldn’t find an affordable barber or because I was dying to be one — though I will say I have come to enjoy it — I gave him that first haircut because he asked me to.
He had a fresh scar at the edge of his temple and down his jawline from a procedure at the time, and the idea of a stranger taking shears or clippers to anywhere near that area of his head made him wary.
I was nervous, too. I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. I started with some hair clips, to section off his head, and went clump by clump, imitating all the hairdressers I’d seen in the salons I frequented over the years. We had him sit on a chair, as high up as we could get him, and I started on the uninjured side, working my way around to the other. I was careful. I was slow. We probably spent an hour and half in the bathroom, with me concentrated as he tolerated mounting piles of hair on his shoulders.
He didn’t protest or grumble, though. He didn’t direct or demand. He didn’t flinch. And I didn’t let him down because he had asked me to do it and I had wanted to take care of him.
He doesn’t often ask for help, so his request humbled me. I’m not sure I ever realized how much he trusts me. I never really thought about it because I know I trust him. It’s easy for me to measure how much I trust him and how much I rely on that trust. It’s a rather big deal, too. But I never considered how much he trusted me because I’m not sure I knew how to measure such an intimate and personal choice.
The trust we give others is a choice, on our part. We can lose someone’s trust, but we can’t take it back unless they offer. Trust is earned. Or maybe it’s cultivated over time and through events. Or maybe we barter for trust. We give a little to test, and offer more if that goes well. I suppose the amount depends on how often that person has broken our trust, if ever, and whether others have abused our trust in the past.
Until I thought about my tiny mastery of my husband’s haircuts, I never contemplated the value of his trust in me. In many ways, it’s everything.
I’m going to keep examining the little moments, the teeny events, all the small stuff — which I hear we’re not supposed to sweat — to remind myself to cherish the trust bestowed upon me. Because that exchange, with the one I’m most intimately involved, helps me become a tiny master of being human, too.