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Writing the Personal Essay
by Mridu Khullar

Return to Creative Nonfiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

When I declared that I didn't want to get married, challenged age-old customs and decided to move out of my parents' house to be on my own, it came as a huge shock my somewhat orthodox Indian family. The day after the announcement, when my mother fainted and fell terribly ill, I did what any desperate woman in my situation would have done.

I got online.

"Now what?" said my group e-mail to friends. The only writer on the list responded: "Write about it, you geek."

Now as I sit in the soon-to-be-mine apartment allocating space to my magazines, files and CDs, and go on regular rounds of grocery shopping, that essay is making rounds of its own. As it passes through the desks of editorial offices in the hope of finding an equally precious home, it serves as proof that every memory, belief, desire, complaint, apprehension or hunch can be captured by the writer in what is commonly known as the personal essay.

But not many writers start out with dreams of becoming essayists. We want to be journalists, short story writers, novelists or even travel writers, but rare is the scribe who sets out to be an essayist. Personal essays happen by accident, when in the process of setting out to find stories, we end up finding ourselves. Every frustration, adulation, inclination, anguish or misery then becomes fodder for the personal essayist's pen.

Find your "I"

Personal essays are not about the discovery as much as they are about the process of making that discovery. They're about the exploration. The path chosen, the road traveled. You can't come away from writing an essay without knowing a little something more about yourself. An essay cannot be formed without digging deep inside you and finding something, anything, that may come as a surprise, even to you. You then pass on this gift of knowledge to your readers in the form of a humorous anecdote, a story of self-actualization or just a narrative tale. But at the heart of each essay lies the writer's "I." And it is this I, the journey and the depth of your understanding, that shape the way your readers react to you.

But personal essays don't necessarily have to be about life-changing moments. They can be anything -- a personal triumph, a lesson learnt in an unlikely place or a memory that stood out for some reason. It's your interpretation of the world around you, and how your perception of things changes with events, that plays the important role. Focusing on a theme or a message when painting this canvas with colorful words for your readers can be a great way to lead the story up to its climax.

Take the journey together

Through your words, you form a relationship with your reader. The keyword here is intimacy. Only by confiding the most personal parts of you to your reader can you hope to inspire, teach or touch a nerve. Necessary, then, is not only the ability to be a skillful narrator, but having a thorough grounding in reality, and the ability to portray an accurate picture of events.

You're not just telling the reader what happened, you're showing her your experience of it. You're making her see what it is to be frightened, concerned, angry or upset about the situation you're in. So instead of telling her what you went through, give your reader a map and a place on the backseat, and allow her to experience the journey from her view of the window.

To do this though, you'll need to tap into your daily experiences. Many writers do this by keeping a journal. No journey in life is as simple as going from one point to the other. By journaling daily, you can make sense out of the disconnected dots and join them together. You're essentially training yourself to be more observant of the little things around you, and to find inspiration from the things that often go unnoticed. It's these insignificant things when brought into perspective that make the reader sit up and go, "hey, me too!"

Focus on the story, not the words

As a new essayist, I often cared more about the words than I did about the story, constantly trying to sound clever and sophisticated. So when Chicken Soup for the Soul rejected all my beautifully-worded slices of life, but selected the most basically structured portrayal of a broken heart, I realized it was all about depth. And that depth comes with understanding -- of yourself, and of the story.

Each time you look at your piece with fresh eyes, you'll find a new dimension to it. So go ahead, play with metaphors, sprinkle dialogue, and lead your readers down a path of sensory detail. But don't forget the most important thing -- the story. In the end, no matter how you choose to write it, it's about opening yourself up to your readers. It's about making them laugh, cry and learn through your experiences, right along with you.

Give the reader take-away value

In the book The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate writes, "The personal essayist looks back at the choices that were made, the roads not taken, the limiting familial and historic circumstances, and what might be called the catastrophe of personality."

And that's what it is, really. In life, and in our own personal experiences, things are never as they seem. Nothing is simple and straightforward. It's your job, as the personal essayist, to take the reader by the hand and guide her to those places inside the self where things become clear -- where there is but one universal truth, which comes out of the wisdom gained through your experiences.

Don't forget the market

Like with any other genre, if you're writing to sell, you need to become familiar with the ins and outs of the market and write within the boundaries of a particular publication. Word length, topics, the level of details -- all these things then become important considerations for an editor when judging your work for publication. Nothing beats studying the style of the publication, and focusing your material to meet the needs of the market. Target markets aren't just limited to local newspapers; national magazines often have last-page essays and sections dedicated to first-person stories.

So if you find yourself constantly relaying stories of your adventures, love to inspire and educate, and don't mind cutting open a personal vein or two, venture into the world of first-person writing. Getting personal might just be your thing.

Find Out More...

Essay Writing: When It's Just Too Personal - Heather Haapoja

An Exercise in Essay-Writing - Sheila Bender

Personally Speaking - Kathryn Lay

Writing the Personal Essay - Mridu Khullar

Grab That Memory Before It Slips Away! - Uma Girish

Copyright © Mridu Khullar 2006
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Freelance journalist Mridu Khullar loves to travel to new and interesting places, meet fascinating people and hear their stories, and in the process, find some of her own. Her work appears in several national and international publications including ELLE, Yahoo.com, Chicken Soup for the soul, Writer's Digest, World & I, and the Times of India. She lives and works out of New Delhi and has the mandatory writer's coffee addiction and temperamental muse. Visit her online home at http://www.mridukhullar.com


Copyright © 2017 by Moira Allen. All rights reserved.
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