Go Beyond a Day in the Life

If you read last week’s winners post, you might already know what I’m going to say. (You did read it, right?). In her Roundup, Rowan talked about how a personal essay must go beyond a diary entry. Since it’s such good advice, I thought I’d take this opportunity to mention it again. For the Nonfiction Challenge grid, we are looking for your personal essays, not your diary entries, so it’s important to know the difference. It’s very simple: your personal essay must have a rise and fall in action, a central conflict, and a purpose for being told. There has to be some change in the main character or narrator.

Oh wait, is that not simple? No, I guess it probably isn’t. Let’s elaborate. You need characters. You’re not making them up; they are the people in the story. We need to know enough about the people to care but not so much that you run out of room (this is flash nonfiction, remember?). Use details in your telling that give us some clues about the people in your story – just make sure they are relevant. You can hint at age while talking about setting, style of clothes, or activities. Stature can be detailed with a need to duck under a branch or reach up to a shelf. Don’t fall back on “Michelle was only 4’11 3/4″ so she couldn’t reach the shelf.” Instead, try, “Michelle stretched to reach the lowest shelf of the cupboard but still needed to climb on the counter to get the can of soup.”

Also very important: something needs to happen. If you’re detailing events, but nothing changes or occurs or propels us forward, we’re going to stop reading. Build up some tension around an issue, problem, or situation (aka your central conflict), then bring it to some resolution. This doesn’t mean solve the problem or wrap it up neatly. Sometimes the resolution is that the problem is tucked away and never dealt with. A character can be left standing holding the metaphorical bag.

Be careful with your endings, though, because they are tricky. Over-explain it and you risk babying your reader and telling them how to feel. Leave out details, and you’ll end up not only with a cliffhanger, but with an unfinished story. It’s okay to leave a little mystery, but it’s not okay to cheat your reader out of some resolution. If you’re leaving us hanging for shock value, you may want to rethink that in this setting (there’s plenty of room for this in longer or serial works).

If your essay lends itself to being easily converted to bullet points, then you have a diary entry. If nothing really happens, diary entry. Be honest with yourself. Be ruthless. Be objective. And if you think this is just a problem for you or a newer writer, I’ll leave you with this: a few weeks ago, I wrote what I thought was a hilarious take on my shower-cleaning experience. I reread it before putting it on the grid and something nudged me to get some other eyes on it. Rowan’s response was, “Yeah, so?” The truth was nothing happened. My telling might have been amusing, but nothing interesting happened. There was no conflict. There was no action. It happens to the best of us.

Now go write something amazing! (No pressure or anything.)

Nonfiction Know-How: Persuasive Essay

Creative nonfiction isn’t just your personal mostly-true stories. You can also use your powers to teach and persuade readers. Learn how to share your wisdom and lessons about life in a persuasive essay that’s more fun to read than that Grade 8 essay question answer in this month’s Nonfiction Know-How.

How to submit and fully participate in the challenge:

Basic YeahWrite guidelines: 1000 word limit; your entry can be dated no earlier than this past Sunday; nonfiction personal essay, creative opinion piece or mostly true story based on actual events.

1. In the sidebar of this week’s post, please grab the code beneath the nonfiction badge and paste it into the HTML view of your entry;
2. Follow the Inlinkz instructions after clicking “add your link” to upload your entry to this week’s challenge grid;
3. Your entry should appear immediately on the grid if you don’t receive an error message;
4. Please make the rounds to read all the entries in this week’s challenge; and
5. Consider turning off moderated comments and CAPTCHA on your own blog.

Submissions for this week’s challenges will close on Wednesday at 10pm ET. Voting will then open immediately thereafter and close on Thursday at 10pm ET. The winners, as always, will be celebrated on Friday.

Thank you for sharing with us your hard work! Good luck in the challenge…

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About the author:

Michelle submitted her first entry to YeahWrite in March 2012 and they haven’t been able to get rid of her since. After nearly 20 years in the insurance/employee benefits industry, she decided to give it all up to pursue writing full time. Her work has been featured on The Huffington Post and xoJane, as well as several local sites near her northern NJ home. She blogs at Michelle Longo.

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