writing personal essays
mad in pursuit resource page
How To Tell Stories About Yourself
Everyone likes to tell stories about their lives and their experiences of the world. Few of us know how to be entertaining in the process. These are great guidelines, mostly from Philip Lopate's book shown on the right.
- Engage readers. Give them something they can relate to. Let them see themselves in you.
- Be informative. Gather and present information. Show readers a person, place, idea, or situation combining creativity with research. Use real details.
Structure: Be a good storyteller
- Provide a narrative frame (maybe chronological, maybe ending with the scene you started with)
- Write in scenes: Action, dialogue, intimate and specific detail
- Show conflict.
- Use everyday language, casual and direct.
- Be intimate: whisper directly into the reader’s ear, confide, build a friendship, a dialogue. Self-revelation and candor.
- Be conversational. Pose questions to yourself—your internal dialogue.
- Strive for honesty, but admit that you can delude yourself as well
as the next guy.
Ironically, it is this skepticism that uniquely equips the personal essayist for the difficult climb into honesty. So often the ‘plot’ of a personal essay, its drama, its suspense, consists in watching how far the essayist can drop past his or her psychic defenses toward deeper levels of honesty. One may speak of a vertical dimension in the form: if the essayist can delve further underneath, until we feel the topic has been handled as honestly, as fairly as possible, then at least one essential condition of a successful personal essay has been met. (Lopate).
- Strip off your own mask first. Be a sincere and reliable narrator. Trust is generated through the exposure of our own betrayals, uncertainties, and self-mistrust.
- Go against the grain of popular opinion… be prickly, out of fear of staleness and cliché. The enemy is self-righteousness.
- Examine own prejudices. Ok to pass judgment (don’t be toothless), but start with an awareness of own potential culpability.
- Be egotistical, but walking the fine line between being irritating and pleasurable
- Be impudent. If you are a second-class citizen, it's okay -- like the court jester
- Play the idler. If you make yourself out as harmless, you can poke fun at will. “ldling” also reinforces the virtues of curiosity, openness, appetite for pleasure, willingness to reflect.
- Nurture a complex persona. Make each new essay additive, offering
another incomplete shard, one mask or persona after another. Understand
that when you strip off one mask, there is another underneath.
The essay form allows the writer to circle around one particular autobiographical piece, squeezing all possible meaning out of it, while leaving the greater part of his life story available for later milking. It may even be that the personal essayist is more temperamentally suited to this circling procedure, diving into the volcano of self and extracting a single hot coal to consider and shape, either because of laziness or because of an aesthetic impulse to control a smaller frame (Lopate).
Frankness doesn’t mean tell-all about personal life, but more about your habits of thought. “If you wish to preserve your secret, wrap it up in frankness” [Alexander Smith of Montaigne].
- Milk the past and take advantage of your distance from it (develop the middle-aged voice: realistic, disenchanted)
- Explore your own ignorance. Investigatie the borders of yourself. Harvest your own self-contradictions.
Style Choices to Consider
- Be flexible. The style is open to digression and promiscuous meandering. The appearance of unstudied spontaneity is disarming.
- Surround the subject, the mood, the problematic irritation by coming at it from all angles, wheeling and diving. “In a well-wrought essay, while the search appears to be widening, even losing its way, it is actually eliminating false hypotheses, narrowing its emotional target and zeroing in on it” (Lopate).
- Countertheme. Start one subject, set up a countertheme, eventually braid the two together.
- Elaborate. Draw out a point through example, list, simile, small variation, hyperbolic exaggeration, whatever.
- Digress. Amass all the dimensions of understanding by bringing in as many contexts as a problem or insight can sustain without overburdening it.
- Universalize. Move from the individual to the universal (e.g., subtly from I, to we, to you)
- A dash of erudition — throw in a few relevant quotations to give reader the pleasure of knowing they are in cultivated hands.
- Make a virtue of fragmentation, offering it as a mirror to the unconnectible, archipelago-like nature of modern life. Don’t filter the eternal out of the transitory but make the transitory eternal.