Several years ago my agent and I were talking about the difficulty of placing personal essays in major magazines, or rather, the difficulty of placing my personal essays in major magazines, given that I was, as she put it, “a nobody.” She recommended I check out a specific piece in a women’s publication that provided a good example of marketability. Apparently this particular essay had the kind of dramatic hook some of mine lacked, the type of hook that might help me overcome my nobodyness.
The essay shared a story about how the author had tried to spy on her ex-husband at his second wedding. The scorned first wife had lurked outside the church, but then the new bride caught her hiding behind a tree. Talk about embarrassing! Maybe I’m just biased against people spoiling other people’s weddings (don’t even get me started on My Best Friend’s Wedding), but my first reaction after reading this first-person account was…really? Who did this writer think she was, the lead in her own rom-com? And second, even if it was true that the writer had really crashed her ex’s nuptials, the situation felt contrived, as if the author had purposely gone out slumming for a narrative occasion in order to be published. Yes, the essay put the author in a predicament that appeals to the rubbernecker in us all, but the piece seemed devoid of honest emotion or reflection.
You could say to all this: so what? As my own agent pointed out, the essay exemplified the kind of opening salvo that appeals to major magazines. But I would argue that essayists need to be careful not to get too hooked on blatant hooks, specifically those forged in staged drama and hijinks. One (admittedly unlikely) danger is that this may motivate some of us eager for publication to go out and do something loopy, like, y’know, stalk an ex at his wedding. A more realistic danger, however, is that it may nudge us toward embellishing our life stories for dramatic or comedic effect, which then compromises our own integrity and the emotional integrity of our work.
Here I want to make a distinction. I understand that crafting a powerful essay may require the writer to prioritize truth over facts. In any given work of creative nonfiction, we often need to condense a narrative timeline or recreate remembered dialogue rather than rely on direct quotes. And all writing is about selectivity. What do we include in the re-creation of an event? What do we omit? But that selectivity, and any massaging of minor facts, should be directed at achieving a truth (albeit our truth), rather than feeding a lie. Plus, here is the thing about embellishments, exaggerations, and outright whoppers in personal narratives: Rarely are they in service to the story.
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Most readers, myself included, have an internal radar for falsity. This brings to mind what the late Justice Potter Stewart wrote in a Supreme Court ruling about porn – I know it when I see it. Readers may not be able to identify what is specifically dishonest in an essay, but we know it when we find ourselves rolling our eyes. And it leaves us cold.
Other problems arise when aspiring essayists believe that only the big, the bizarre, or the singular life event is worthy of page space. What if, say, we have never won America’s Got Talent, or suffered a near-death experience, or found our soulmate in Kathmandu? Does that mean that our “smaller” stories – and, by extension, our perspectives, ideas, and lives – are not noteworthy? This seems to be the belief of one writer in The New York Times book section, Neil Genzlinger, who bemoaned the “lost art of shutting up” and the loss of the days when you had to “earn the right” to write about yourself in his article “The Problem with Memoirs.” “Unremarkable lives went unremarked upon, the way God intended,” he concluded. While this writer was calling out memoirists in particular, his words are equally damaging to those who want to pen personal essays.
As a longtime instructor in MFA programs and community workshops for adults, I know one of the biggest impediments personal essayists face isn’t a lack of craft (writing skills can be acquired and taught); it is a lack of faith in their stories. Voices inside and outside our heads tell us we have nothing new or interesting to contribute. As a result, we overlook those meaningful moments in our everyday lives that may appear ordinary but actually have an extraordinary capacity to evoke universal truths. In addition, we are brainwashed (or we brainwash ourselves) into believing that every theme about life, love, laughter, and loss has been exhausted many times over. But this kind of thinking overlooks a deeper truth, that while your subject or theme may not be new, it is the fine particulars of your experience and your perspective that offer readers a fresh take on the times. Indeed, every person is an agent of history; every story, when rendered effectively, can illuminate a distinctive worldview.
Yes, personal essays must be grounded in a narrative occasion; there must be an impetus for sharing that story on the page. And, yes, every essay must beckon the reader from its very first sentence. But as writers in this genre, we are well served to remember that often the most powerful hook is not a hook at all. It is the assertion of our unique voices, our commitment to authenticity, and our relatability that provide the most compelling draws. Those qualities are what allow our essays to not just grab readers but resonate with them. Those qualities are how we give meaning to material and prove to our readers – and to ourselves – that even a nobody is a somebody with life stories worthy of sharing.
Joni B. Cole is the author of the new release Good Naked: Reflections on How to Write More, Write Better, and Be Happier. Visit her at jonibcole.com.