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The Personal (Not Private) Essay

The personal essay vs. private writing. Do you know the difference?

If you’ve been part of a writing group, you’ve no doubt encountered the writer who shares his work with others in the room, sits back for what he assumes will be unceasing praise, and then grows indignant when someone suggests that his words are not clear enough to make what he intends fully obvious.

“Well, I understood it,” he might snort. “It makes total sense to me.”

Perhaps this writer is just reacting out of insecurity (yes, insecurity is a trait most, if not all, of us share), but let’s examine for a moment the logic behind his defensive retort.

Each of us has a miraculous mind full of associations, ideas, and richly remembered experiences. If we are writing out of our childhood, that childhood may be as vivid in our memory as a movie we have watched fifteen, twenty, or one hundred times. The old brown sofa, layered with blankets, which sat against the far wall of our grandparents’ living room, is available as a full and clear mental picture in an instant. So is the soothing lilt of our grandmother’s voice. The onion and olive oil smell of her kitchen.

We can see it. We were there.

But all that our readers have—without our carefully crafted assistance—is what you are looking at right now:

In our highly visual culture—television, movies, videos on an iPad—it is important to remember just how magical good writing can be. It is an act of alchemy, really, this ability of our best writers to transform the abstract lines and circles that represent the twenty-six letters of the alphabet into vivid, too-real-to-be-forgotten experiences.

And even if we aren’t writing from memory—if instead we are trying to string together an extended metaphor or to explain a particularly complex sequence of assumptions leading to a logical conclusion—remember that we as authors arrive at an understanding of our words and intentions well before the reader. It is our job to transfer what we’ve seen, remembered, reasoned, or imagined. If the reader does not comprehend, we have failed to do our task well.

The best writing also provokes an emotional reaction, be it laughter, sadness, joy, or indignation. Keep in mind, though, that there exists a vast difference between those thoughts, ideas, and memories that elicit a powerful reaction from you, the writer, and those that will have the desired impact on someone who does not know you or have a stake in your well-being. Certain “private” sentences may seem exhilarating to write and to reread as you edit your early drafts, but if they don’t transmit that same emotional or intellectual experience to an anonymous reader, then they are not doing the job.

Author Kathleen Norris suggests that what we are looking for, in the exchange between writer and reader, is resonance.
To be resonant, Norris informs us, “is to be ‘strong and deep in tone, resounding.’ And to resound means to be filled to the depth with a sound that is sent back to its source. An essay that works is similar; it gives back to the reader a thought, a memory, an emotion made richer by the experience of another. Such an essay may confirm the reader’s sense of things, or it may contradict it. But always, and in glorious, mysterious ways that the author cannot control, it begins to belong to the reader.”

This basic lesson—remembering the reader who will see your words—is something you probably know already, but it is also something worth reminding ourselves of on a daily basis. We might do well to write “Remember the Reader” on an index card and tape it to our computer monitors.
So remember, though personal, the essay is never meant to be private.

Privacy is for your diary.

Essays are for readers.

Learn more about Crafting the Personal Essay by Dinty W. Moore

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