There’s nothing like reading through the grid (or your articles feed, or…) and coming across an essay that makes you say “Ugh, another navelgazing pile of word vomit.”And yet, there are also personal essays you’ll read that change the way you frame your life, make you feel less alone and more heard, even though they’re still nominally all about the writer’s own experiences.
For this month’s nonfiction knowhow, we’ll be exploring the difference between inward- and outward-looking personal essays, and finding the right place for each one.
what’s in it for me?
Of course when we write personal essays or memoir we are drawing from our own experiences. But that doesn’t mean that your writing has to look like a diary entry. Nothing bores your reader faster than a chronological list of what you did and how you felt about it.
Example: This morning I woke up and stared at my flowered pillowcase. I felt groggy. I made myself a single cup of coffee in the Keurig. Coffee is good. It reminds me of my parents. I love my parents. We were out of milk. I drank my coffee. It tasted bitter, like my cold black soul. After coffee I had to wake the kids up. The older one is hard to wake up. I love my kids.
No. One. Cares.
Yeah, I know that’s hard to hear, because you thought you were being funny and also hey, there’s feelings and adjectives and stuff there, right? But there’s nothing in that paragraph for a reader to connect to. It’s just me me me me memememememe.
taking it from your to you’re
Think about the best personal essay or memoir you ever read. Chances are it stuck in your memory because you thought “wait, I feel like that too!” or “you mean I’m not alone in this?” Whether they’re about being frustrated because your kid’s friends’ parents seem to have their lives more in order than yours, hating summer, or feeling guilty when you have fun instead of doing things that make you miserable so that other people can have fun instead, the best personal essays establish a connection between reader and writer.
Instead of shutting people out with a diary entry, you want to not only draw them in, but to throw your life and your stories wide open and let them sift through for things they connect with. You can’t do that if you’re writing closed doors and completed loops; you have to leave something open for interpretation.
One way that fiction writers accomplish a connection between reader and character is by leaving as much of a blank in their character description as they can get away with and letting the reader fill in the details. Of course you can overdo it, but it’s a useful technique. How does it work? The next time you’re describing your dining room in an essay, think about whether you really need to describe every piece of furniture in the room, or whether you can describe the room using words and ideas that your reader can map to their own experiences.
Example 1: I sat down in one of the four red-upholstered chairs at my square oak table and stared at my MacBook Air.
Example 2: I sat in one of the ugly chairs I had found at a thrift store in college and hadn’t gotten around to replacing yet. Chin in hand, I stared at my laptop.
See how Example 2 is easier to relate to and even, perhaps, easier to visualize? Unless the precise color of your upholstery, style of chair, or brand of computer is going to be an important plot point in the story you’re telling, providing a way for the reader to overlay their own environment and experience keeps the door open.
The missing word
When we’re writing, especially when we’re writing on a blog, it can feel like shouting into empty space. Our writing gets more and more desperate-sounding and attention-seeking, as we look for that critical, crucial, calamitous personal story that will grab a reader’s attention like a clickbait article or a picture of a dog in a shelter.
That’s not how good writing happens.
Good writing doesn’t scream I FEEL LIKE THIS at a reader that may or may not exist. It sits quietly with the door open and says I feel like this too and trusts that a reader is out there. After all, if you didn’t really think anyone would read your writing, you’d be handwriting it on paper and keeping it under your pillow, amirite?
“Too” is too often the missing word in your writing. I know it’s a hard thing to hear, but very few people care how you feel. On the other hand, everyone cares how they feel. The trick is to make them think you’re talking about their feelings, and they’ll listen to you all day.
The great thing about writing today as opposed to writing 50 years ago is that you’re able to write colloquially and freely, mimicking the way you talk, without running afoul of the grammar police. That means you can say things like “dogs, amirite?” or “I just can’t even with my spouse today. I mean, entirely out of can. It started this morning when I got up and stared at my pillowcase and realized we were out of literally everything breakfast.” By writing colloquially, you can have the reader nodding along at the conversational points when they would normally interject, and saying “me too.”
The deadliest question
The one thing you never want your reader to walk away thinking is “that’s great and all, but why are you telling me?”
Here at yeah write we usually call that “failing to have a so what in your writing.” So what? Who cares? Obviously this means something to you, but it means nothing to me. Sorry, kid, your grandmother had a C- death.
Let’s circle back to the first example in this post, the “diary entry.”
This morning I woke up and stared at my flowered pillowcase. I felt groggy. I made myself a single cup of coffee in the Keurig. Coffee is good. It reminds me of my parents. I love my parents. We were out of milk. I drank my coffee. It tasted bitter, like my cold black soul. After coffee I had to wake the kids up. The older one is hard to wake up. I love my kids.
With this month’s theme in mind, let’s take a stab at finding a so what and revising this paragraph. What commonalities can we find here with our readers, and how can we provide a way for them to nod along and say “I know those feels, my friend” for you?
First of all, what do the specific details in this paragraph add? The flowered pillowcase, the brand of the coffeemaker, neither one of those things advances the story, so they’re out.
Next up: your feelings. You love your parents, great. So what? You love your kids, great. So what? Does either one of those specifically enumerated feelings that your reader may or may not share advance the story? Cut, cut, cut.
OK, what’s left in the paragraph for a reader to relate to? Waking up. Let’s leave that in for now, everyone wakes up. We’ll cut it later if it’s not what the story is about. Lying in bed for a little while? Relatable. Coffee? It might not be everyone’s specific morning beverage, but an awful lot of people drink it and the ones that don’t still for the most part have some kind of ritual morning beverage, whether it’s tea or orange juice or a Diet Coke. The beverage stays.
Now we’ve got two things left: Being out of milk and waking up someone who doesn’t want to wake up. Both of these things are relatable and one of them is what this paragraph is going to be about, now that we’ve gotten rid of all the dead weight but left enough to set the scene.
Arbitrarily, I’m going to pick the milk.
So this paragraph is about “being out of milk” – is that specific and still nonspecific enough that a reader can relate? Well, that might depend on the reason why. So why was the milk gone? Do you chronically forget things? Are you an obsessive listmaker? Did you write out the entire grocery list and then leave it sitting on the kitchen table and do your best but forget the milk and come home with a jar of pickled asparagus tips instead?
All of these things can be built into amusing, relatable stories that will have your reader saying “me too” whenever you pause for breath. I mean, comma. Whenever you pause for comma. Y’all, I use way to many commas. Know what I mean? Yeah. You, too.