The first time I saw my father, I searched his face for traces of me, for something that connected us in an indisputable way. I hoped he’d have the same smile or the same long forehead. But I was disappointed to find he was still as much a stranger as he’d been all my life.
That’s how I opened the first personal essay I ever had published.
As far as personal essays go, my topic was fairly benign—but it was still a subject that was very personal to me and my family. I thought carefully about whether or not I wanted to share it. I let my mom read the final draft and asked her permission to pitch it for publication before it ever reached an editor’s inbox.
Why the Personal Essay?
Personal essays capture real-life and hold them down, able to be revisited and remembered, connected with and learned from by everyone, long past the expiration date of the experience itself.
I’m personally affected by the stories of the powerful, vulnerable, incredibly human women that exist around the world, and I am so thankful for those with the courage to share what they’ve experienced—in the hopes that we might all find connection through our stories.
Because we are all connected. I have learned and grown and changed through the stories of other women. I have felt less alone, I have felt understood, I have learned more about the woman that I want to be.
I’ve always hoped that my stories might do the same.
Barbara Abercrombie, who is, far and away, one of my favorite authorities on the topic of writing, had this to say about personal essays:
“You read personal essays to understand your life, to find humor, to discover a new way of looking at the world. You write them for the same reasons. This kind of essay is about your journey through an experience, commonplace or traumatic—any situation you’ve felt strong emotion about—and what you learned or didn’t learn from the experience.”
Identify the Problem
At their core, most personal essays are about a problem or an experience that the writer has overcome. Why? Because very few people want to read about lives that are all sunshine and roses. We can’t connect with someone if their life appears perfect—that’s fine for a brief moment of escape, but it doesn’t offer the vulnerability and humanness that we seek from reading the true life stories of other people.
And so, when you begin to write your personal essay, you must ask yourself: What is the problem? What is the heart of it? What is the issue in just one sentence?
Here are a few examples:
– Do I friend the dad who left?: I found my absentee father on Facebook and he still doesn’t want to know me.
– The Grandparent Scam: I’m worried not so much that my grandfather lost money in a scam, but that he lost his connection to my identity in the process.
– I Cheated, He Cheated, and Then He Married My Sister: I didn’t recognize myself out of my relationship, but our mutual infidelities—and the subsequent end of our relationship—allowed me to form my own identity for the first time.
You likely already came up with a few topics, based on the publication you plan to pitch, after we discussed research in Part 1 of this series. But it’s important that you hold each of these topics up under the light: can you identify the core problem? Can you come up with a fresh perspective to share? Consider this as you choose your topic and begin to write.
Brainstorm & Outline
Once you’ve identified the problem, brainstorm everything you can possibly remember about your experience. This is not your essay, it’s a memory dump: anything goes, so write it all down.
Then, it’s time to begin structuring (or outlining) your essay around that. In a personal essay class I took (with the incredible, Taffy Brodessor-Akner) a few years ago, she explained it like this: identify the problem, explain why it’s ____________’s (your mom’s, your spin instructor’s, the male patriarchy’s) fault, and finally explain why it’s your fault.
That last part gave some people pause—why would it be my fault that my father walked out when I was a baby and still won’t add me on Facebook? Here’s how I explained it in my personal essay:
In some dark moments, I believe that if he reaches out, it couldn’t have been my fault that he left 27 years ago. Even in my most rational, lucid moments – in those moments when I know an infant is never the only reason a marriage ends – I wish he could give me some kind of confirmation that it was all a big mistake, one that he’d take back if he could. I wish he would jump at the chance to know me, even if only through a computer screen. I still long for his approval.
But I suspect this confirmation will never come. He has not looked for me for nearly 30 years. Why would he start looking now?
You can see, though it’s not my fault that my father left—and that he continues to (seemingly) abandon me anew—it is my fault that I am allowing his acceptance (or lack thereof) of me to affect my self-confidence and my self-reliance. He has shown me his character and I still refuse to accept that he won’t change.
That’s the basic structure of your essay, though:
– This is my problem.
– This is why it’s their fault.
– This is why it’s really mine.
Of course, you will have more than three paragraphs: you will have a paragraph (or a few) introducing your story which, as with anything you write, should be compelling and interesting enough to catch your reader’s attention. You will have fleshed out details around each of the main points above (the brainstorm you did earlier will help with this). And you will have a conclusion, that highlights what you’ve learned, to tie it all together. But if you keep the basic structure above in mind, you’re sure to write a compelling personal essay every time.
Write the Essay
Once you’ve outlined the basic structure of your essay, set aside a couple of hours to write the entire thing. Yes. THE ENTIRE THING. It doesn’t have to be pretty (it shouldn’t be and it won’t be); you just need to get it down on paper (or on-screen) without losing the momentum that comes with getting such a personal experience out of your mind and onto the page.
Other Helpful Tips
Here are a few other things to keep in mind as you write your first draft:
– Consider the Supporting Characters: Consider the other people in your stories—the college classmate, the ex-boyfriend, your mother. These are all living, breathing, feeling human beings, and while you have every right to write and share your story, it’s worthwhile to consider the feelings (and even, more importantly, the perspectives) of the people you include in that story.
– Use Language Unlike the Emotions: If your story is hot, write cold. If it’s cold, write hot. This is another ingenious tip that I learned from Taffy: if your story is emotion-filled, dramatic, or poignant, write it “cold”—in other words, use simpler words and colder language. Tone down the heightened emotion of your scenes by writing with cool clarity. On the other hand, if your topic is cold, you’ll want to do the opposite. Fire it up with your language. Draw the reader into what otherwise may be a commonplace experience with flowery or emotional prose that reflects the heightened emotion of your perspective.
– Don’t Limit Yourself: Keep your word limit in mind (based on the research you did in Part 1), but write as much as you want. In my experience, it’s easier to cut words than to add them.
– Write With Your Audience in Mind—and Don’t: Consider the readers of the publication you plan to pitch and write something for them: something that will entertain or teach them, or something they will be able to relate to. You want to provoke an emotional reaction in them, by writing something they can connect to. But don’t write for the whole world, for everyone who might read your piece, for the possible Internet trolls in the dreaded comment section. Don’t let them get in your head and sabotage your beautiful story before you’ve even put the words on the page.
– Have Some Perspective—and Insight: There won’t always be a conclusion to your story—or not a neat one, at least—but there should be a lesson or a clear reason for your telling it. If you haven’t yet identified what that is, you might not be ready to write about this particular experience.
My last piece of advice as you finish this first draft: Walk away from the piece once it’s written. Don’t try to edit it immediately. Let it breathe for a day (at least). You’ll be able to approach your writing and your story with a fresh perspective—and maybe some news ideas!—once some time has passed.
* * *
Until next time, here’s your action step:
Just start. Write your outline, schedule a block of time to write the essay, and commit. Show up. Write it all down.
(We’ll edit together next time.)
I can’t wait to read it.
Stay tuned for Part 3 next month, where I’ll walk you through the process of editing your essay. In the meantime, feel free to share your essay outline (here’s my problem, here’s why it’s their fault, here’s why it’s really mine) in the comments below!