Powerful, surprising, and fascinating personal essays are also “reader-friendly essays” that keep the reader squarely in focus. So how do you go about writing one? In this excerpt from Crafting the Personal Essay, author Dinty W. Moore shares a variety of methods for crafting an essay that keeps the reader’s desires and preferences in mind, resulting in a resonate and truly memorable piece. As Moore says, “Privacy is for your diary. Essays are for readers.”
Writing the Reader-Friendly Essay
Good writing is never merely about following a set of directions. Like all artists of any form, essay writers occasionally find themselves breaking away from tradition or common practice in search of a fresh approach. Rules, as they say, are meant to be broken.
But even groundbreakers learn by observing what has worked before. If you are not already in the habit of reading other writers with an analytical eye, start forming that habit now. When you run across a moment in someone else’s writing that seems somehow electric on the page, stop, go back, reread the section more slowly, and ask yourself, “What did she do here, put into this, or leave out, that makes it so successful?”
Similarly and often just as important, if you are reading a piece of writing and find yourself confused, bored, or frustrated, stop again, back up, squint closely at the writing, and form a theory as to how, when, or where the prose went bad.
Identifying the specific successful moves made by others increases the number of arrows in your quiver, ready for use when you sit down to start your own writing. Likewise, identifying the missteps in other writers’ work makes you better at identifying the missteps in your own.
Remember the Streetcar
Tennessee Williams’ wonderful play, A Streetcar Named Desire, comes from a real streetcar in New Orleans and an actual neighborhood named Desire. In Williams’ day, you could see the streetcar downtown with a lighted sign at the front telling folks where the vehicle was headed. The playwright saw this streetcar regularly—and also saw, of course, the metaphorical possibilities of the name.
Though this streetcar no longer runs, there is still a bus called Desire in New Orleans, and you’ve certainly seen streetcars or buses in other cities with similar, if less evocative, destination indicators: Uptown, Downtown, Shadyside, West End, Prospect Park.
People need to know what streetcar they are getting onto, you see, because they want to know where they will be when the streetcar stops and lets them off.
Excuse the rather basic transportation lesson, but it explains my first suggestion. An essay needs a lighted sign right up front telling the reader where they are going. Otherwise, the reader will be distracted and nervous at each stop along the way, unsure of the destination, not at all able to enjoy the ride.
Now there are dull ways of putting up your lighted sign:
This essay is about the death of my beloved dog.
Let me tell you about what happened to me last week.
And there are more artful ways.
Readers tend to appreciate the more artful ways.
For instance, let us look at how Richard Rodriguez opens his startling essay “Mr. Secrets”:
Shortly after I published my first autobiographical essay seven years ago, my mother wrote me a letter pleading with me never again to write about our family life. “Write about something else in the future. Our family life is private.” And besides: “Why do you need to tell the gringos about how ‘divided’ you feel from the family?” I sit at my desk now, surrounded by versions of paragraphs and pages of this book, considering that question.
Where is the lighted streetcar sign in that paragraph?
Well, consider that Rodriguez has
- introduced the key characters who will inhabit his essay: himself and his mother,
- informed us that writing is central to his life,
- clued us in that this is also a story of immigration and assimilation (gringos), and
- provided us with the central question he will be considering throughout the piece: Why does he feel compelled to tell strangers the ins and outs of his conflicted feelings?
These four elements—generational conflict between author and parent, the isolation of a writer, cultural norms and difference, and the question of what is public and what is private—pretty much describe the heart of Rodriguez’s essay.
Or to put it another way, at every stop along the way—each paragraph, each transition—we are on a streetcar passing through these four thematic neighborhoods, and Rodriguez has given us a map so we can follow along.
Find a Healthy Distance
Another important step in making your personal essay public and not private is finding a measure of distance from your experience, learning to stand back, narrow your eyes, and scrutinize your own life with a dose of hale and hearty skepticism.
Why is finding a distance important? Because the private essay hides the author. The personal essay reveals. And to reveal means to let us see what is truly there, warts and all.
The truth about human nature is that we are all imperfect, sometimes messy, usually uneven individuals, and the moment you try to present yourself as a cardboard character—always right, always upstanding (or always wrong, a total mess)—the reader begins to doubt everything you say. Even if the reader cannot articulate his discomfort, he knows on a gut level that your perfect (or perfectly awful) portrait of yourself has to be false.
And then you’ve lost the reader.
Pursue the Deeper Truth
The best writers never settle for the insight they find on the surface of whatever subject they are exploring. They are constantly trying to lift the surface layer, to see what interesting ideas or questions might lie beneath.
To illustrate, let’s look at another exemplary essay, “Silence the Pianos,” by Floyd Skloot.
Here is his opening:
A year ago today, my mother stopped eating. She was ninety-six, and so deep in her dementia that she no longer knew where she was, who I was, who she herself was. All but the last few seconds had vanished from the vast scroll of her past.
Essays exploring a loved one’s decline into dementia or the painful loneliness of a parent’s death are among the most commonly seen by editors of magazines and judges of essay contests. There is a good reason for this: These events can truly shake us to our core. But too often, when writing about such a significant loss, the writer focuses on the idea that what has happened is not fair and that the loved one who is no longer around is so deeply missed.
Are these emotions true?
Yes, they are.
Are they interesting for a reader?
Often, they simply are not.
The problem is that there are certain things readers already know, and that would include the idea that the loss of a loved one to death or dementia is a deep wound, that it seems not fair when such heartbreak occurs, and that we oftentimes find ourselves regretting not having spent more time with the lost loved one.
These reactions seem truly significant when they occur in our own lives, and revisiting them in our writing allows us to experience those powerful feelings once again. For this reason it is hard to grasp that the account of our loss might have little or no impact on a reader who did not know this loved one, or does not know you, and who does not have the emotional reaction already in the gut.
In other words, there are certain “private” moments that feel exhilarating to revisit, and “private” sentences that seem stirring to write and to reread as we edit our early drafts, but they are not going to have the same effect in the public arena of publishable prose.
In the last twenty years of teaching writing, the most valuable lesson that I have found myself able to share is the need for us as writers to step outside of our own thoughts, to imagine an audience made up of real people on the other side of the page. This audience does not know us, they are not by default eager to read what we have written, and though thoughtful literate readers are by and large good people with large hearts, they have no intrinsic stake in whatever problems (or joys) we have in our lives.
This is the public, the readers you want to invite into your work.
Self-expression may be the beginning of writing, but it should never be the endpoint. Only by focusing on these anonymous readers, by acknowledging that you are creating something for them, something that has value, something that will enrich their existence and make them glad to have read what you have written, will you find a way to truly reach your audience.
And that—truly reaching your audience and offering them something of value—is perhaps as good a definition of successful writing as I’ve ever heard.
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“How do you learn to write?” It’s a question I ask myself often, particularly when teaching writing classes. Hanif Kureishi, author of Buddha in Suburbia and a creative writing instructor, says you can’t. Does he think the same when it comes to writing personal essays?
I disagree with Kureishi. Obviously.
How could I spend the last 20 years of my life teaching writing — personal writing, fiction, non-fiction, composition — if I believed such a thing?
But the classroom alone will not teach you to write. You need to practice and you NEED TO READ!
Every month in The Writer’s Process — my online writing academy to build writing skills, find a community and make money with your works — I bring in a guest speaker to teach one aspect of the business of writing. Anjali Enjeti, a writer, editor and also a creative writing instructor, joined us to teach The Art of Writing Compelling Personal Essays.
Over the course of an incredible hour, Anjali gave us tips on how to focus your essay. She offered advice on what to do when your emotions are still raw, and she shared her favorite personal essays!
Reading is the very best way to improve your writing!
You nod your head in vigorous agreement. You catch your breath. At times, you clench your fists because you know something awful is coming, but you can’t help but continue reading.
Your favorite books and essays are your writer’s toolbox. When you read them, you see new ways to structure your story, uncover creative ideas for dialogue and uncover ways to strengthen your message and reach your reader more powerfully.
“Good writers borrow. Great writers steal,” said TS Eliot.
Or perhaps it was Pablo Picasso who said that. Or maybe it was Aaron Sorkin. I dunno. But the sentiment remains. We writers take what we see, hear, taste, touch, and experience and transpose them to the pages on which we write.
The essays below span a wide breadth of topics and represent different styles of writing. At the heart of each, though, lies a truth, a concise mirror held up to reflect a common lived experience. We may be left breathless, moved, laughing, devastated or anything else on the emotional spectrum. Most of all, they leave us inspired to write.
Reading one essay is a lesson learned, the ten pieces of writing below offer you a comprehensive course in personal writing. You’ll learn dialogue, structure and character development. They’ll teach you how to build tension and what questions you should ask yourself as you write.
For each, I’ve included a brief excerpt from the piece as well as a link so you can read it yourself. And finally at the end, an added gift. I’ve included a recent piece from Anjali, so you can not only revel in her favorite essays but see how her own reading creates the narrative and beauty of her writing.
10 essays that will teach you how to write
1. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen
You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.
You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having.
2. Karrie Higgins’ Strange Flowers
I love you like xo.
Ever since my brother died, I have dialed his disconnected telephone numbers, tracking where they terminate over time, hoping to cross his ghost voice in the wires. He is finally returning my call. We have a downlink.
3. Jo Ann Beard’s The Fourth State of Matter
I have an ex-beauty queen coming over to get rid of the squirrels for me. She has long red hair and a smile that can stop trucks. I’ve seen her wrestle goats, scare off a giant snake, and express a dog’s anal glands, all in one afternoon. I told her on the phone that a family of squirrels is living in the upstairs of my house.
“They’re making a monkey out of me,” I said.
4. Lydia Yuknavitch’s Woven
It was a night I wanted never to end.
Or, I wish with all my heart that the story ended there.
But that’s not where the story ended.
5. Roger Rosenblatt’s Making Toast
Bubbies has been attending to his own education—proceeding from one word, to several, to two-word sentences, to three and more. Some say that children learn to speak in order to tell the stories already in them. An early word of his was “back.” He wanted reassurance that when any of us left the house, or even a room, we were coming back.
6. Eula Biss’ Time and Distance Overcome
Content warning on this one. It is a difficult read. Lynchings and racism.
The poles, of course, were not to blame. It was only coincidence that they became convenient as gallows, because they were tall and straight, with a crossbar, and because they stood in public places. And it was only coincidence that the telephone poles so closely resembled crucifixes.
7. Mariama Lockington’s What a Black Woman Wishes Her Adoptive White Parents Knew
I know that my hair is curly and thick, that my mother wants me to love it natural. I know that when she drops me off at Jasmine’s to get my hair braided I feel safe. That even though it hurts when she untangles my kinks I don’t mind because she smells so good. I learn that I love the smell of black women. Of grease, flat irons, and cocoa butter. I know I am black and that my parents love me, but I know I am different.
8. Tim Bascom’s Picturing the Personal Essay: A Visual Guide
Contrary to the high school teacher’s oft-repeated maxim—“Show, don’t tell!”—the essayist is free both to show and tell. In fact, I once heard the nonfiction writer Adam Hochschild scold a group of MFA students for being so subtle in their writing that they left out critical signposts that readers needed. “Don’t be so afraid to say what you mean,” he counseled.
9. Laurie Herzel’sBut Will They Love Me When I’m Done
Late in her mother’s life, Hampl asked her why she eventually allowed the poem to be published, hoping her mother would say that it was because the poem was so good. Instead, her mother said, “Because I loved you. I’ve always hated it.”
10. Anjali Enjeti’s Drinking Chai to Savannah
I survey the tourists poring over guidebooks, tapping their phones. I worry one of them will mutter something derogatory about this group of seven brown women whose mere presence seems to have doubled the minority population of this historic district.