“It’s not a journal entry, it’s a personal essay.” That’s something I say a lot when I’m making edits. Also this: “Your essay needs to be more than a list of events interspersed with your feels.”
What’s the difference, really, though? And why does it matter? For this month’s nonfiction knowhow we’ll use some of those constructive criticism tips on our own writing, and look at how to go from journal entry to personal essay. The best part? You get to save your darlings.
What makes a journal entry?
A journal entry, if you’ll pardon the tautology, is an entry written in or for a journal. I know that seems obvious. But what’s a journal, really? Well, it’s a place to store your writing that isn’t for public consumption. That line has gotten blurrier and blurrier with the advent of the internet, MySpace, LiveJournal, Facebook, Tumblr, and more and less formal blogging and vlogging channels. But the principle remains: writing that exists to remind you that something happened and you had feelings about it is a journal entry. Writing that exists to communicate with outsiders about the thing that happened to you and induce feelings in them is not a journal entry but a personal essay.
Why am I writing about this now? Wellllllll………
I’m just saying you might be reviewing your journal entries right about now.
Every day as writers, bloggers, and yes, journalers, we make decisions about what portions of our lives to share and not share. Many people have a separate, private blog or file for journal entries. Others journal on paper and write essays online. Ultimately, though, as essayists we do mine our lives for writing material, and journal entries are an important part of that mining process because they help us remember things that happened.
But they’re not interesting to anyone but ourselves.
So if that’s a journal entry, what’s a personal essay?
Where a journal entry is an accurate (or as accurate as any one person’s perceptions ever are) accounting of an event written by and for the person it happened to, a personal essay is a mostly-true story about that event. It’s the cocktail-party version of your journal entry, with the boring bits stripped out and the clever bits left in. You have a lot more freedom to manipulate events and readership with a personal essay, and I strongly encourage you to explore the limits of that freedom. Personal essay is where you get to go through your journal entries and pull out the best of the best, the parts that you loved writing or thought were the absolute best. Need an example? Here’s a bit of journaling out of my own old journal; let’s pick through it and see if we can’t find an essay or two.
From Entry to Essay
Show me this journal entry
This is an excerpt from a description of a camping trip. Note the crappy punctuation and sentence structure, because I didn’t intend for this to ever be read.
Friday we got up, got the ex-pens, found everyone, cooked, ate, and observed the aftermath of the vodka shots. Got lovely hugs from everyone, too. Much astonishment over my no-hair-and-glasses… although still got “Barb’d” on my way back to camp from her tent. so much for evil plan. Tried to get drunk at S’s birthday and failed. Apparently lawyer liver is active already, woot. Dog got cold, so took her over to watch belly dancing by the firepit. She liked the firepit, wasn’t so sure about the dancing. Day was a total knitting fail, although I got Kita’s new coat about half-quilted and finished my Lithuanian boots to go with the vest. (long description of things I need to do to the vest, which I will spare you. Also some bodyshaming, which was great to find.) Much cooing over the applique on my new stuff, which was nice. Stuff is still half-finished but WTH, it’s only going to see one event this year, I might as well wear it 🙂
Saturday there was some attempted napping and a lot of sewing. Ironically, E got more nap than I did, after protesting that she doesn’t sleep. Am sulky – think she stole my nap. E chipper all night; me, not so much, although I did try to get my drink on. G went to bed VERRA early, between sunburn and extra cold and wet day/night.. I stayed out till lateish, although certainly not epic late, then crawled into bed. Woke up early AGAIN and took dog for a walk. My dog? pooped once the entire weekend, and ate not at all. I need to remember to bring canned food for her at events.
Sunday we woke up to the clear voice of a young child saying quite reasonably “I don’t want to go back in the tent. I don’t *want* to go back in the *tent.* I want to go *home* mommy. *real home*.” I was absolutely convinced it was a lucid dream and the dog was talking, until I looked over and G and he started laughing. I now have a mental voice for the dog, though. And now we are home, real home. She was so tired and angry that she didn’t hardly want to run on the beach, although once we got started she was fine.
OK. So, there are a few things that mark this right off as a journal entry rather than an essay, and they’re not the ridiculous faux-military reporting style.
First, note that I haven’t explained anything at all. Who’s G? What’s an ex-pen? Who’s Kita, and why do I use Kita instead of an initial like G or E? This entry assumes that the reader knows everything about the writer’s life and friends. You can’t do that in a personal essay, which is intended for a much wider readership.
Second, this is literally a list of events. This happened and then this happened and then that happened and I was cold and the dog was cold. Ugh, yougaiz, nobody cares. Why would you care that I was cold? Where was I? What is the weather usually like? Was it objectively cold?
How do you turn this into an essay?
Let’s start by going through the entry and looking for interesting things.
The first thing that really strikes me is “getting Barb’d.” My friend Barb and I have been going to the same re-enactment events for decades now, and we consistently get called by each other’s names, depending on who sees us and which part of the state we’re in and who’s doing more active stuff that year. There’s probably an essay in that, the doppelgangers we know. Not much meat in this particular entry for that essay, other than the fact that I cut off all my hair and got rid of my glasses and still people thought I was long-haired glasses-wearing Barb.
Next up is the phrase “lawyer liver.” It’s cute, it’s fun to read, and it makes a nice amusing juxtaposition with the very serious problem of alcoholism in the legal industry. I could begin that essay with the seminar about alcohol abuse that they gave us our first day at law school at the all-you-can-drink social. I’m not making that up. I couldn’t possibly make that up.
Next there’s a lot of detail about sewing and knitting that’s just not going to be interesting to anyone. Maybe in some other journal entry I’ll find the bit where Chris taught me to count threads in a hem, but that essay’s just not here. On the other hand, I’m reminded of it now. But this part of the journal isn’t coming anywhere near an essay.
The middle paragraph is pretty barren ground, although maybe there’s something in there about dogs and poop and the first time you poop at a significant other’s house, or the way my sister used to refuse to poop on backpacking trips. It’s the same deal, though: this might remind me of an essay but there’s nothing in the journal to use in it.
The last paragraph has a great essay in it, though, don’t you think? There’s an easy, clear hook: “I don’t want to go back in the tent.” It’s a compelling sentence, if you use it right. In fact, I can probably save most of the first couple sentences and use them in the essay in one place or another. There’s dogs in it, which is great because people love stories about dogs. And little kids. And home, the homes we find vs the places we stay. There’s some real meat in that last paragraph, and probably a solid essay.
Lose the journal, save the essay
Journals are great, but they’re ultimately an exercise in narcissism: me, writing to me, about me. The paradigm shift for personal essay is me, writing to you, about something you and I share. So while nobody wants to read your journals, plenty of people will want to read your personal essay or memoir that comes out of the recollections contained in your journals. You’ve just got to be willing to be a little ruthless, to leave everything but the good stuff behind as, well, memories.
About the author:
Rowan submitted exactly one piece of microfiction to YeahWrite before being consumed by the editorial darkside. She spent some time working hard as our Submissions Editor before becoming YeahWrite’s Managing Editor in 2016. In real life she’s been at various times an attorney, aerialist, professional knitter, artist, graphic designer (yes, they’re different things), editor, secretary, tailor, and martial artist. It bothers her vaguely that the preceding list isn’t alphabetized, but the Oxford comma makes up for it. She lives in Portlandia with a menagerie which includes at least one other human. She blogs at textwall and CrossKnit.