In the words of Creative Nonfiction, personal essays are "True stories, well told". They are also short memoirs. If you are experiencing spring fever may be writing a personal essay is the way forward this month.
One of my writing dreams is to publish an essay in the New York Times Modern Love column. Last September I took a Personal Essay class and drafted an essay. After several revisions, I felt ready to show it to my writing teacher. She was very encouraging in her feedback, yet I had no clear understanding if my piece was almost there, work in progress, or needed a major overhaul. I had paid good money for the class, so I pressed for more specific critique.
Her reply read:
"Read 100 essays in a row and you’ll see how idiosyncratic and specific they can be. [...] If you read a whole bunch of pieces in any New York Times, Washing Post and Oprah columns you will see how single-minded and focused most short essays are. "
Suddenly the proverbial light bulb went off in my head.
"Single-minded and Focused"
A few days later, the New York Times itself confirmed the formula to a successful essay:
- A clear narrative arc with a conflict and a main character who changes in some way.
- Artfully balanced action of the story with a reflection on what it meant to the writer.
- Take risks, like including dialogue or playing with punctuation, sentence structure, and word choice to develop a strong voice
- Most importantly, focus on a specific moment or theme — a conversation, a trip to the mall, a speech tournament, a hospital visit — instead of trying to sum up the writer’s life in ~1000 words.
There it was again, focus on a specific moment or a theme.
I leave you with this handy link to 25 Modern Love essays to illustrate the secrets of writing personal essays.