Ironically, as a reader, I never used to be a fan of anthologies or personal essay collections. As a teacher, I did love showing students how to write personal essays or short memoir pieces. As an English teacher and a writing instructor, it often felt miraculous to me how a mediocre piece could be transformed in just a few short weeks through revision, how a piece could evolve from bland and cliched to raw, powerful, and beautiful. But I never liked reading short pieces in my leisure time.
It wasn't until I started writing as a blogger and freelance writer that I started to appreciate collections of personal essays as a genre. I love seeing writers that I "know" online take different perspectives and approach topics with unique styles. As a parent, reading about other mothers' experiences from so many different angles has helped me gain insight into myself as a mother.
I've been thinking a lot about personal essays from three different perspectives: as a reader, as a writer, and now as an editor. I've been trying my hand at publishing my own pieces, and I know that it's hard (really hard) to write a great personal essay.
After our call for submissions for My Other Ex: Women's True Stories of Leaving and Losing Friends, to be published in September, I also spent months reading essays with an editor's eye, trying to decide which pieces to accept and which to pass on. And that was just as hard.
And it occurred to me as a beginning editor that we editors are not often transparent about what we are looking for. I'm lucky in the sense that I taught writing and developed writing curricula for well over a decade, and all of the best practices (and unwritten rules) of memoir and essay writing are (somewhat) fresh in my mind. But most of us writers haven't taken an English class in quite a while. And we aren't recent MFA graduates either.
So here's what I think -- as a teacher, writer, editor, and reader -- about the ingredients of a great personal essay, one that is carefully crafted to draw in a reader, make her care about a topic, and keep reading.
1. Use what you know about good fiction and storytelling. You should develop characters, settings, and plot (a sequence of events) into a story. Use sensory details and vivid description to create separate, carefully chosen scenes.
2. Combine the personal and the universal. This is your story, your life, your emotions but your writing should also express and reveal a larger meaning, a theme, a deeper truth, beyond the surface details of plot and character.
3. Find your voice. More importantly, find your unique voice that is best for each piece, or different moments of the same piece. As Kate Hopper, in the invaluable Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers, explains, voice is:
"the feel, language, tone, and syntax that makes a writer's writing unique. In nonfiction, voice is you, but not necessarily the you sitting in front of the computer typing away. Voice can be molded by a writer to serve the subject about which she is writing."
It might take a while to find the best voice for a piece. Is the right voice ironic, funny, anxious, playful, breathless, or solemn? We all have multiple identities and show different parts of ourselves at different times. Use that versatility in your writing.
4. Alternate focusing in and focusing out. Choose specific and compelling moments, memories, and feelings, and hone in on them, using those particular moments to help to convey theme and purpose. Pretend you are using a video camera to focus in and out, slowing down the action, like a cinematographer, very purposefully to guide the reader toward what's important in the piece.
5. Be specific, not general. This is what I called "The Rule of the Pebble" to my students (thanks to Nancie Atwell, my writing teacher guru). It basically means don't write about a general topic or idea; write about one particular person, place, time, object, or experience. In other words, don't try to write about all pebbles everywhere (or "love" or "friendship" or "football" or "sunsets"). Write about this one particular pebble (or the friend that broke your heart freshman year, or the sunset that you saw last night, or memory, or place), its meaning to you, the concrete details that shape how you think about it.
6. Experiment and play. Try out different literary devices and techniques, such as similes, personification, and metaphors. Or experiment with using different sentence lengths strategically. Use repetition, of words, of lines, of phrases. Play with imagery. Many of these devices should only be used sparingly, but, used effectively, they can add surprises and richness to your writing.
7. Learn the difference between revision and editing. You must do both. It's easy as a writer to focus on spelling errors and sentence structure, rather than making big (painful) changes to our writing. Revision means "to look again." You do things like: make sure that your theme and purpose for writing are clear; try out different leads (ways to begin the piece); rethink your conclusion; change the organization.
In editing, a separate stage, we do things like catch run-on sentences, fix errors in punctuation or spelling, or replace overused words and expressions.
8. Read, read, read, and read some more. What all writers have in common, as far as I know, is that they're constantly reading. They pay attention to their favorite writer's craft and style and try them out in their own writing. They internalize the beauty and the utility of the perfect word, the perfect sentence, and the perfect metaphor.
What are your favorite personal essays? Whose writing do you turn to as models for your own writing?
To learn more about The HerStories Project and its next essay collection about friendship breakups, My Other Ex: Women's True Stories of Leaving and Losing Friends, visit the HerStories website.
Follow Jessica Smock on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@schoolofsmock
The easiest way to write a personal essay is to use the standard form taught in Composition 101: an introductory paragraph followed by three paragraphs outlining three main points and a final summary paragraph. But instead of just blathering about yourself, describe vivid scenes and what they mean to you, such as when your 2-year-old son, Jordan, solemnly declares from the bathtub “I can't swim—my penis is hard” and you tell him it's OK, it's normal, knowing it'll subside and he'll be able to swim soon, but you don't tell him that teeny little weenie he's holding will be the source of the most intense worries, sorrows, and pleasures he'll ever experience, and you wonder if you'll ever be able to tell him the truth. You could follow this thought with the trials and tribulations of your own penis, unless you're a woman—but of course females are involved with love, sex, and life built around their own body parts, which can provide many interesting topics. The key to maintaining reader interest is to be open and honest, displaying your concerns and fears through specific, true-life examples rather than abstract concepts about how you think sex education is important because you learned the hard way on your own and you doubt you'll explain things any better than your own father did. Follow this format and, while you may not become a world-renowned author, you will be able to complete a personal essay.
Use five sentences in each paragraph. Some authors, like Faulkner, write immensely long sentences that drift into nooks and crannies of life, enlightening the reader about how, at age 16, you were tricked by a girl into trying on ring sets from her mom's jewelry-making equipment to find your ring size and later presented with a black onyx and silver ring you were too scared to wear because it implied going steady, which leads to sex, and Dad had just given you and your brother a box of Trojans the week before when Mom and Brooke had gone shopping at Sears for dresses and you were as uncomfortable as Dad when he grunted out his heart-to-heart “Use these to be safe,” especially since you'd recently calculated and realized he'd knocked Mom up with you when she was 16 and he was out of the army after a four-year hitch and you figured it must have happened by accident since their meeting was accidental, him picking her and her sisters up at a railroad crossing in the rain on Halloween and giving them a ride home, coming later to visit, finally getting down in April without a condom or maybe with one that broke and there you are in December but at least they'd gotten married over the summer and you realize it's April now and you stare at the ring and finally throw it away and tell her later you don't wear jewelry. Tough guys like Hemingway write short, straightforward sentences, such as: “The author stopped typing. His thick fingers lay bare on the keyboard. Although he's been married for eight years, his ring finger is naked. His wife knows he doesn't wear jewelry. Ever.” Yet other writers like to mix up the lengths of their sentences, using long, compound run-ons that begin with one thought then drive on to others but eventually circle back for completion, then follow with a short, crisp, prissy sentence that would satisfy an eighth-grade grammar teacher. Not me.
Write about things you've done or people you know, introducing your first true love or your first sexual encounter at age 17 crammed in the back of a Volkswagen Beetle with Danielle who will do it for free 'cause she has a crush on you and you need the experience to be ready for your true first time with Julie whom you love and can't get off your mind while you're wedged against the cold side window, remembering Julie's taste, the force of her tongue in your mouth, the way she holds your hard-on like she knows what she wants and you need to be sure how to do it exactly right so here you are pumping away feeling cheap and drunk and ashamed and excited and sore and thinking sex should be a lot more fun or magical than this floundering on the back seat. You can write in sober first person (“I found later with Julie I didn't need the practice session with Danielle”), but some feel this is self-serving and others, such as myself, need the safe distance from slivers of memory provided by humor, misdirection, and second or even third person (“At least he wore a condom both times”). Don't take examples from television or books or newspapers unless they have an effect on you. Don't write about Kurt Cobain's suicide after achieving fatherhood or Jimi and Janis overdosing when you were a teen unless you're a musician—even a part-time folk-rock banjo-picker—wondering how you ever made it out of adolescence since you were so horny yet scared of sex you could only function by smoking a joint first thing in the morning to slow down your thoughts yet still dragged home at midnight after playing a party and jerked off into a dark toilet bowl before passing out in bed worried if you'd wake the next morning and mostly hoping you wouldn't, having all these memories from those horrid nights years ago cascade through your mind when you returned home from a jam session last Wednesday night a little drunk and then—after checking on Jordan and his sister sleeping peacefully—crying for Kurt who'll never know his own child and crying for Jim Morrison and Carla Hill and Randy Batson who died in a car accident in high school and all the others you remember, knowing it was just luck you made it and they didn't, finally wiping away the tears as you piss tequila residue into a murky toilet before going to sleep knowing you're gonna drag tomorrow at work but sure you'll wake up in time as you always do. Write about universal themes you've experienced personally and others can relate to, like love, fear, and death—or sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll.
Use specific examples that stick to one theme. Don't write generically about how condoms might break when you can write specifically about the first time with Melanie who'd just gotten over an abortion and her new IUD wasn't ready yet so you ran back to your cabin at the summer camp where you were both counselors to get the jet-black, ribbed Love Machine you'd bought in a gas station in North Carolina and carried for two years for just such an occasion but after shredded pieces of black latex dripping with semen fell onto the rumpled sheets and Melanie stared like it was a loaded shotgun pointed right at her belly and all you could do was shrug “Sorry” and the only worry on your mind was when your next day off was so you could get to town and buy some that worked because this first time with her was what you'd always hoped sex would finally turn out to be—a fun, relaxed sharing of talk, laughter, and touch. Stick to one theme. Don't write about Carla Hill in ninth grade when you were 14 if you're writing about your sex life because she was murdered before anything happened, her throat cut in her own bed during an attempted rape the night before you'd finally mustered up enough courage to ask her to go steady and your buddies had helped you out by sitting in all the seats in the front, right-hand side of the bus where she always sat, leaving the only open space right next to you so she'd just have to sit there and you had your name bracelet all ready but she never got on and everyone else was sobbing, telling you about it. I feel that stories like that, despite being of possible interest, lack relevance to the major themes of “your sex life” in this essay and should be saved for some other piece of writing—unless, of course, you can tie the story in using a new focus, perhaps discovered while writing the essay, such as maybe realizing your refusal to wear jewelry has nothing to do with your dad, condoms, and pregnancy but is instead related somehow to your first attempt at commitment that went totally sour and you simply compensated in the best way your 14-year-old mind could think of.
Personal essays come in all kinds. Some are forms of reportage, such as those by John McPhee or Tracy Kidder, telling the truths about people they've interviewed yet injecting the honesty of the reporter's perception rather than trying to pretend a writer has no slant that skews a story. Other essays deal with decisions made, such as when you finally decide to make a baby and Cheryl leaves her diaphragm out for the first time in 14 years and you laugh as you remember getting sick of her mom asking about grandkids and telling her you both wanted to get really good at sex before doing it for real and now here you are for real and scared if you'll be good enough, and you're not talking just about sex now. Essays can also be speculative: questions about found objects, thoughts about missed opportunities and things that never were, or memories that haunt you such as Lindsey in Washington, D.C., who lived in an all-women's house that banned men and made you stand outside in the snow when you came over to get some banjo books abandoned by a former tenant but something happened and Lindsey moved into your room the weekend you hitched down to North Carolina as bodyguard and companion to her friend Rose and stayed when you got back to hump you two or three times a night until you got so raw you could hardly walk and with no talk or even real emotion of love or commitment to prevent you leaving a month later, but now you remember how there also wasn't any talk of contraception because you'd assumed she took care of it since she was so much older, yet now you jerk awake in the middle of the night years later with the stark realization that a lesbian has no need of IUDs or diaphragms or the pill but she does need something to make a baby of her own and maybe there's a little Stan Junior walking around someplace who is 6 years older now than you were then and you wonder if he's as naive as you suddenly discover you were (probably still are) and the only minuscule iota of relief you can find is that at least you'll never have to give him that man-to-man about the birds and bees. By baring your life, using concrete situations and honest thoughts, and following the basic rules of grammar and composition, you too can write a personal essay in 25 sentences.
From Georgia Review (Fall 1998). From the University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602-9009.
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