5 ways to develop personal essays
Published: July 27, 2011
|Personal essays are my passion. The problem is that I don’t live a particularly interesting life. I can’t sing pop songs or drive race cars. I don’t design a clothing line or own a fancy restaurant. I’m not even a decent bowler. Fortunately, I’ve learned how to mine the life experiences I do have to create marketable angles.|
Recently, I’ve published articles on such showstoppers as delving into my husband’s lactose intolerance, using a granny-style shopping cart, and introducing my older sister to wine. That’s right: I turned mundane subjects, the very kind we all experience, into not-so-mundane pocket change—and solid publishing credits.
With a little finesse, any subject becomes game for a salable personal essay. It’s figuring out how to spin the tale that holds the answer. Here are five tips:
• Recognize what makes a good story. While unconventional circumstances such as a chemical addiction or celebrity status can set a writer apart, they are not an essential element of personal-essay writing. Readers ultimately want a good story from which they can obtain both enjoyment and a deeper sense of their world. Think about the tidbits you tell friends or post on your Facebook page. Chances are that whatever you’re sharing—be it funny, sad or poignant—has resonated with you in some emotional way. Look for patterns in both what you share and in your listeners’ responses. Isolate the themes to which you all connect most strongly, and use these themes as the basis for your writing.
• Identify key elements. The traceable thread in most personal essays is twofold: first, the exploration of a relationship (e.g., person-to-person, person-to-pet or person-to-object), and second, the takeaway implications of that relationship. If you can pinpoint both these purposes in your proposed subject matter, you’ll be able to produce an effective piece. Not every situation, though, is rich enough to support a personal essay. If you can only pinpoint one or, worse, neither ends of the thread, you probably have an anecdote for holiday parties and not a publishable idea.
• Look at yourself from within. Jot down at least 10 of your personality traits, then explore each. If you wrote “artsy,” define what that means to you. Looking at a complete picture of yourself lets you see connections you might have otherwise overlooked. While you won’t use all you’ve written, the exercise allows your mind to pursue new directions. And don’t be afraid to list negative traits. Some of the best personal essayists rely on self-deprecating humor.
• Turn everyone into a caricature. Consider the players in your life along with their most prominent quirks. Go beyond family and friends to those on the fringes. Do you have a soap-opera-loving mechanic? A gothic IT consultant? A hairstylist who moonlights as a tax attorney? Viewing these people as cartoonish versions of themselves will give you a better idea of how they might fit into a larger story.
For instance, maybe that mechanic helped you realize you should get to know people before judging them. Interesting characters are a gift; it would be a waste not to use them. (A word of advice: Avoid telling your husband you think of him as a cartoon. Over a nice dinner. On your anniversary.)
• Focus on the writing. This past summer, I studied with book reviewer Michael Dirda at the Wesleyan Writers Conference. I bemoaned my situation—no one I know is dying! I don’t have any diseases! my childhood was delightful!—and asked how I could sell personal essays when I didn’t have a story I felt worth telling. “Charm covers myriad faults,” he advised me. In other words, if writers can deliver delightful prose, readers will engage with the text regardless of the subject matter.
He’s right. My article on lactose intolerance might have seemed flippant, but in humorously exploring my husband’s dietary limitations, I captured a snapshot of what it means to accept a spouse. It wasn’t the specific story that my editor was after, but how I packaged it.
Personal essays are just that: personal. It is your job as a writer to illuminate your experiences so that readers think about their lives in more meaningful ways. If you learned a lesson from the event you’re writing about, your readers can learn from you—the very point of personal-essay writing.
Knowing a publication's editorial needs can help you shape on idea. Three places to look include:
• Mediabistro See its list of more than 40 personal essays markets. Users pay to access archived content, but the investment can pay off with one sale.
• Skirt! A publication written for an by women that publishes five to six personal essays in print each month and more online.
• Writing to Heal A list of personal-essay markets broken down by themes, e.g., general-interest, humor.
Rachel Eddey is a freelance writer living and working in New York City. Read the first three chapters of her ready-to-be-acquired memoir at facebook.com/printmybook.||