5 Keys to Writing the Personal Essay

I was a 22-year-old reporter on a plane to California when my friend loaned me a copy of her book The Bitch in the House. For the first time, I read woman after woman talking about things people usually kept hidden, from rage toward their children to wandering sexual escapades.

This was art out of life, out of human ugliness or confusion.

I loved it because it showed me that our stories can be valuable. I loved it because it changed my view of womanhood. I loved it because it helped me feel less alone.

A decade later, I consider myself more of an essayist than a reporter. Though I practice a wide swath of genres, the personal essay is my home.

Essays are about being human. We all have decades of experience in that.

But they are also a thing apart from the actual events in our lives. You can make bad art about an experience so traumatic that it deserves reverence in every other way.

David Sedaris can make art out of a trip to the dentist. The rest of us have to work, no matter how stunning the story was to live.

Here are 5 keys to remember to create an essay that has value for others:

  1. You must be able to separate the events in the story from the story itself. In a workshop with Debra Gwartney, I read a story about my dad’s death, where I broke down imagining him being airlifted after the head injury that killed him. She asked if I was ok, then she said, “You ready for us to workshop this?” I nodded. Then began a critical discussion of the piece. It doesn’t matter what horrors you endured, your darlings will still have to be murdered. Be ready to see the piece objectively and apart from the reality of you. Perhaps you deserve to be handled with care after what happened. Your story doesn’t.
  2. It’s not about suffering porn. Personal essays are not a contest to see who’s gone through the most shit. Samantha Irby has already won that game. A story can be made out of any event that changed who you are. It might be a good thing, a funny thing, a tender thing. It does not have to be a traumatizing thing. I think we veer toward those experiences because personal essays can help us process them. But don’t forget the joyful stuff.
  3. Avoid writing the cliché human experiences if you can. They’re cliche for a reason. They give us huge, bursting feelings. I’ve still written multiple essays about my dad’s death. But one of the most successful essays I’ve done came from an experience I knew only I and very few other people could write about – being attacked by a pit bull. If you want to write about something that many people have experienced, like the death of a parent, Peace Corps, or life-changing travel, it can be done, but you have more work to do.
  4. Remember it’s about feeling less alone. When I read an essay about something I always thought was a secret about myself, it gives me this burst of connection for which I’m always so grateful. When I write about something I thought I’d never tell anyone, it makes me feel lighter and more lovable. There’s a reason confession is an element of human culture.
  5. Personal essays require just as much work as any other kind of writing. You could be handed the juiciest personal story in the world, and it’s still going to require the work of storytelling to turn it into something of value for other people. Narrative structure, diction, syntax, tension, stakes – all of these must be in place, carefully considered.

We need your stories. Don’t give up on them.

If you’d like some structure around your work to write your personal essays, check out the 30 Days to the Personal Essay mini-course. It’s a reusable system that takes you through 30 days of daily work to build the layers of a powerful personal essay. You can’t start with nary an idea and end up with a polished and submittable essay by this time next month.

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Tell me below: what’s the personal essay idea you know you want to write, but haven’t finished yet?

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