What It Took to Write the Personal Essay That’s Setting the Web on Fire
Jenisha Watts, a senior editor at The Atlantic, penned a phenomenal piece that’s blowing readers away. We chatted with her about what went into writing the essay of a lifetime.
Every once in a while I start reading a story and know right away that it’s going to be the kind of piece that truly grabs me and allows the rest of the world to fall away while I read. Jenisha Watts’s new essay for The Atlantic, “I Never Called Her Momma: My childhood in a crack house,” is one of those stories. And I wasn’t alone — the entire internet has been ablaze with words of adoration since the essay was first published earlier this month. Jenisha is still surprised by the overwhelming amount of praise she’s received on her essay, which graces the cover of the October issue. Her story is a heartbreaking yet hopeful tale of growing up with a single mom who struggled with an addiction to crack, the effect that had on Jenisha and her siblings and how Jenisha used her love of words and literature to eventually leave her hometown and move to New York City.
Jenisha’s writing is poetic, and she’s brutally honest in the way she shines a light on others as well as herself, leaving nothing unsaid, which is what makes this piece so amazing to read despite it being incredibly emotional. I cried so hard while reading this essay that I had to divide it into two nights to spare my eyes any more puffiness, in the best way possible. One thing I kept coming back to as I read was: What did it take to write this? So when Jenisha agreed to chat last week, I was elated. As part of our Culture Club column on Narratively, we’re going to start featuring interviews with the storytellers behind the most exciting new articles, books, podcasts, movies and anything else setting the internet on fire. Here’s my edited and condensed conversation with Jenisha.
Jesse: I read that when you started writing this essay, it was supposed to be about something completely different (being from Kentucky and fitting into the Black elite world in New York), but that you kept sort of getting pulled back into your childhood. But I was thinking, you must have considered writing about your childhood in some way before that — had you?
Jenisha: For sure. It’s always been there, but I guess it was about timing. Because I didn’t want to tell it in the early part of my career, so it was always just about when. A lot of it, too, is just being at The Atlantic. I think the biggest thing was that I had the space and the time to think about what I wanted to write and how I wanted to structure the story. And at a lot of other places I worked, it’s always been like pressure, pressure, pressure. But at The Atlantic, I was in a position to be able to write and think without having a deadline. And I think that’s the thing that helped free me up. I would have times when my editor would say, “Maybe this week you could pull back on editing and just read, or maybe try to write 1,000 words a day, and even if those words don’t make it into an essay, that’s fine,” but at least I would be writing. So I had time to really get into the rhythm of it and sit with some of the stories and go back and forth with the sentences, go back and forth with what I wanted to share and what I didn’t want to share.
Jesse: Was there a moment where it clicked and you knew you weren’t turning back from it?
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