Everyone has a story to tell, but it takes an artist to tell it well. Writers often underrate the difficulty inherent in writing good personal essays. Although the essay is an exceptionally demanding form, it holds unique rewards for both the writer and the reader.
In the past year, I’ve read 3,059 entries for personal essay competitions. A handful of traits distinguishes excellent essays from the mediocre. The criteria I use as a judge are the same ones editors apply when considering stories for publication. Before sending your essays to a competition or publisher, see if you’ve incorporated these elements in your writing.
| SOMETIMES YOUR INSPIRATION ARRIVES WHEN AND WHERE YOU LEAST EXPECT IT
Not long ago, I had the opportunity to practice what I preach about allowing your writing to lead you to new discoveries. Arizona Republic asked me to write an essay for its “Arizona Diary” series. I signed the contract eagerly, but soon wished I’d signed in invisible ink.
I set about doing all the things writers are supposed to do: I listed potential topics, wrote outlines, devised leads, constructed supporting points and wrapped it all up with a conventional conclusion. But when I tested the essay aloud, even the dog fell asleep. The whole effort was generic, formulaic and lifeless.
That summer, I traveled through other Western states doing research for a book. I spent evenings in my motel room writing and thinking about why we move around so much—what we leave behind, what demons we hope to escape.
I thought of the Sonoran Desert near my Arizona home. There the 200-year-old saguaro cacti rise 50 feet high and weigh up to 7 tons, yet their roots lie just below the surface, spreading 100 feet in all directions. In truth, my research journey was an attempt to leave my dead in that desert: buried pets, estranged loves, lost pasts.
The road led me to Yosemite, where 3,000-year-old sequoias reach to 200 feet, supported by roots just a few feet underground—amazingly like my saguaros. I wrote about the massive trees: “Their height attracts lightning, their soft bark burns but their water-soaked trunks endure, the fire clears out the debris and competition around them, and the heat causes the huge cones to fall to the prepared nursery below. They are built to start fires and to stand in the middle of them.” I wrote this while wildfires were blazing all over the West.
As I wrote, the strands of these experiences braided together into an awareness I couldn’t have planned:
“Trying to escape the heat of the desert and the hot pain of loss, I went into a season of fires. Wherever you go, there you are. It’s a cliché, but, well, there you are. Fire—fire like the flames on ocotillo, like wildfire rising into bloody cumulus, like giant trees calling lightning to themselves—the fire we make and fire that is made for us—fire clears the ground for the future. We, too, are built to start fires and to stand in the middle of them.”
There are no new stories. But that’s OK. Writers continually revisit eternal and universal themes: mortality, the parent/child relationship, love, grief, war and peace. Originality lies not in the material but in the writer’s take on it. Your writing should reveal your voice, your view of the world, what you know that the rest of us don’t but need to (whether we know we need to or not).
Your personal essay must convey more than an anecdote. It needs a purpose and must explore significant material. It can initiate readers into secrets of an unfamiliar world or provoke them to consider a familiar topic in a new way. Your writing should move others by the power of a life experience.
Topic doesn’t really matter. In my contest readings, some subjects came up time after time: memories of childhood, September 11, exotic travel, cute animals, scores of lost and/or found children, and hundreds of abusive and/or loving parents or grandparents. Personal essays should reflect experiences that most affect our lives rather than grasping for something invented.
One big difficulty in writing about intensely personal experiences is communicating that intensity to readers. The answer is almost too easy: Avoid melodrama. No souls screaming out in anguish. Simply lay out the details of the experience. If you want readersto feel your pain, leave it silent, unspoken.
Yet it’s not enough to recount an incident in vivid detail. No matter how funny or amazing, it remains an anecdote. Do something with it, go somewhere, connect it with other events.
Franco Urso remembers his grandmother in “Prickly Pear,” an essay published in the Pima College literary magazine SandScript:
I sleep in my grandmother’s room and see Sicily. This is where it began. I see people living among the cacti and see the cacti loom against stone huts in Alessandria della Rocca. … Like Sicilian vespers, the prickly plants invoke God from dawn to dusk.
Descriptions of the cacti carry the essay through Sicilian history and return Franco’s grandmother to him. He recalls her demonstration of how to eat prickly pear fruit and concludes:
Years later, I cross myself and say a prayer to her memory. I give deference again. I do not gnash and swallow hard the Host.
Writing gains substance when it makes connections, the way eating prickly pear fruit becomes an act of Communion in this essay, when it looks below the surface image.
3. Language and voice
Explore your subject with language that’s simple rather than ornate, graceful rather than labored. Read your pages aloud—to the cat, if no other audience is available. You’ll hear if the words are right, if the phrasing and sentences catch the right rhythms. Avoid clichés: no shattered dreams, minutes that seem like an eternity or worlds turned upside down.
You seem no longer to be standingtogether in the center of time. Now you are on time’s edge, looking off into eternity. And this man, your foolish neighbor, your friend and brother, has shed somehow the laughter that has followed him through the world, and has assumed the dignity and the strangeness of a traveler departing forever.
You don’t need to be clever or lyrical. Simply be true to the experience to reveal what it’s really like in all its texture and complexity.
While some might argue that proper structure and mechanics should be your first priority, I disagree. Not because they’re unimportant, but because shaping and polishing are final steps in the process. Technique shouldn’t get in the way of voice and creativity. Let the writing process lead you and surprise you.
Only then should you consider the essay’s design and refine your technique. The following guidelines will help you create a strong structure:
• Skip introductory paragraphs and jump right into your essay. Don’t bother telling us this was the day that changed your life or that you’ll “never forget the time when … .”
• Don’t announce your theme. The job of the writing is to explore and to arrive, finally, at the theme. Take the reader along for the ride.
• When you revise, pay special attention to the first line and the first whole paragraph. It may be what determines whether the judge or editor reads the rest of the piece or plops it onto the reject pile. Leap right in with a bold voice and powerful language. The essay “The Way In,” which opens Nancy Mairs’ Remembering the Bone House: An Erotics of Place and Space begins:
On a glittering August morning in 1979, at the edge of a salt marsh inKennebunkport, Maine, I made a psychic sick.
Mairs creates curiosity and tension with specific details in the first phrase followed by the strange claim at the end of the sentence. We’re compelled to read on.
• The middle is the journey—the details, descriptions and dialogue that carry readers along. Give these elements a sure and lively voice.
• Pay special attention to your final paragraph and the very last line. The judge or editor may well glance at only the opening and the ending to decide whether or not to go on your whole trip. Don’t let yourself off the hook too easily. No platitudes allowed (“And so I learned that every day is precious”). Rather than repeat the exact words that opened your piece, make your ending take us somewhere. Push the final paragraph deep. Endings are your gift to the reader, and to yourself.
• Your manuscript must meet professional standards before you submit it. Make sure you edit meticulously for spelling, grammar and format.
The secrets to winning writing awards and getting published aren’t in formulaic structures or mechanical rules. You already own the secrets: your courage to examine life and your passion for describing the experience.