Monday, July 12, 2010

Getting Personal – The Basics of Personal Essay Writing

In case you missed it in the write on! online  site a few months back, here's a repeat. Enjoy!

We all have them-- the stories we tell over and over to explain who we are and where we came from. Your husband has probably heard the story behind the funny shaped scar on your knee enough times to tell it himself. Your grandparents will continue to tell you what a Great Depression is like until they are sure you get it. And Ted will still be telling his kids How He Met Their Mother for a few more seasons, anyway.

As a writer, you can transform your stories into personal essays for anthologies, magazines, journals, and more. It just takes another look at the advice we take for granted.

Write What You Know

Yes, you've heard it, over and over again. This mantra is overused for a reason: any type of writing begins with you, the writer. No matter the genre, your experiences and thoughts are sifted through, and the nuggets of gold you find make it to the page. This is especially true with personal essays.

When you start with the virtually endless potential of "what you know" there is no place for the excuse "nothing to write about". Just the act of being alive gives you unlimited material. Take a look at just a few of the things we all share, the universal themes that you can turn into your unique story:

  • Family. You came from one, you've created one, maybe you've even lost one. Whatever the case, there have been other people who have formed your "tribe". Your family stories -- whether you succeeded because of them, or in spite of them; the laughter and the tears you shared; even if you questioned your place with them; or have searched for one of your own -- are full of gems that can be picked out and polished to share with others.
  • Discovery. Life is full of Firsts: First Pet, First Kiss, First Car. First Marriage. First Divorce. Relive those moments that alter your perception of the world forever, just because they HAPPENED. Write about the knowledge you gained about yourself, someone else, the world.
  • Struggle/Accomplishment. Some of you aim to climb mountains, some of you have days when your biggest success is just getting out of bed. Readers are drawn to these stories for inspiration-- if your words have captured how you overcame an obstacle,your story could be the motivation a reader is looking for. If your story finds you in the midst of a struggle, a reader with similar challenges may find they are not alone.
  • Endings. All life has a beginning and an end. Your take on loss-- whether it's lost keys, lost mind, lost love-- becomes uniquely universal. Write about losses that lead to beginnings. Write about losses that left you empty.

Show, Don't Tell

I know, I know-- yet another axiom that is drilled into the writer's head. However, it bears repeating for personal essay writing, because when you are dealing with universal themes you need to avoid universal cliches. Here are a few things to keep in mind when creating an uncommon story from a common experience:

  • Stay focused on a theme. This isn't something that you will write into your piece. Rather, it is something that you will keep in your mind as you write. You may even scribble it onto the top of your rough draft.
  • Discovering Theme: Your essays will tell about events that impacted your life. To create a theme from that, identify the event and the specific way it changed your world. For example, if you are drawn to write about your first car, ask yourself why that car mattered, in the grand scheme of things: Did ownership teach you responsibility? Did driving it to school attract your true love?
  • A personal essay is a story about your life. So, tell it as a story; the beginning, middle and end will all echo the cause and effect of your "hidden" theme. If you learned responsibility from owning your first car, you may start off talking about the number of bikes you misplaced before you bought the car. You may continue talking about your parents forcing you into a part time job in order to pay for the insurance. The end of the story could show you changing your own oil, checking your locks obsessively, etc.

Keep it Simple

Your life probably isn't very simple. Nobody's really is. The situations and circumstance that have mixed to create who you are didn't happen in a linear, straightforward fashion. Explore all the ingredients of your life, but when writing the short personal essay, allow your focus to stick on the narrative that best relates to your theme. If you find you are uncovering more and more threads leading to more stories, write them; eventually, you may decide you have enough angles on specific themes that it is time to start a memoir!

Write, Submit, Repeat

When you get your collection of fantastic personal essays, what should you do? You may want to keep them for yourself, but more likely you want to get them published. The struggle comes in pinpointing the markets, and knowing whether you have what they are looking for. There's a fine line, and a running debate, as to what is short memoir and what is personal essay; so when reading submission guidelines you may have to take an extra step or two to make sure your piece reflects the market's needs.

Here are a few markets to get you started:

Happy Writing!

What do you find easier to write? Fiction or Nonfiction? How much of what you write is "all about you", regardless of genre?


  1. I find it easier to write nonfiction, but the reason why is shameful. :o( For me, writing fiction is just more work. It takes more craft, more skill. Not to say that nonfiction is easier; it's just that it flows more effortlessly from my pen and I can edit it in a fashion that's almost formulaic.

    Of late, outside of the on-assignment work that I do, most of what I write about is indeed "all about me," as you say. For some reason, this is just where I am as a writer at the moment.

    Thanks for the guidepost on potential markets for this particular niche. I have a couple of pieces that I've been working on that are looking for a home and one or more of these might fit the bill nicely.

    If I haven't said it before, I truly adore Excuse Editor. You really don't leave us with any kind of an excuse.

  2. Thanks for the great comment, Angela.

    I don't think that if you find NF easier it's shameful at all. Why feel shame for something you have a talent for?


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