Mastering the Personal Experience Article
by Deborah Newton

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After Nora Ephron experienced a youthful incident that caused her some pain, her mother told her to buck up because everything that happens to you is copy. Copy. Isaac Bashevis Singer once said, "If you write about the things and the people you know best, you discover your roots." And Ben Franklin's autobiography contains the words, "The next thing most like living one's life over again seems to be a recollection of that life, and to make that recollection as durable as possible by putting it down in writing."

Extrapolate those suggestions and what advice do you get? You should write about what you know. What you've experienced. And what better form to write about your life's happenings than in a personal experience article.

You've experienced things that can interest others. We all have. These happenings don't have to be world-shattering -- just incidents that others can relate to, that others may find meaningful. As long as you learned something from the experience -- even something as small as allowing you to see the incident in a new light -- others will be able to relate to it. Of course, if the experience changed your life in a profound way, all the better for this type of article. If you write about it with the right spin and a salable structure, you can earn respectable money by turning your own personal experiences into articles.

Women's magazines such as Redbook and Ladies Home Journal, men's magazines such as Details and Heartland USA, and even religious magazines such as Guideposts Magazine and The Lutheran all use true personal experience pieces. Confession magazines such as Black Secrets and True Love are always on the lookout for fictionalized versions of personal experiences.

So, can you write and sell your personal experiences? Sure you can. Here's how.

Know Where to Begin

A tight structure is imperative for this type of article. Your focus must be strong. Once you've chosen the incident you want to write about, your first step is to pick out the point or theme you want to prove with your piece, and everything in your article must build to prove this point. "Crime doesn't pay" is too broad a theme for a personal experience piece. If, however, you are able to narrow that theme to "My ex-husband kidnapped our young daughter, and my faith in the justice system prevailed because he was sent to jail when he was caught," this would be a good focus and would make an excellent personal experience article.

So what is the formula for writing one of these pieces? I find the following structure works well for a wide variety of these types of articles.

A personal experience story always starts on the day that something different happens to you (the "I" character of your story if you're writing in the first person, or the viewpoint character if you are telling someone else's story.) This incident becomes your "hook" because you use it to hook or capture the reader's interest.

Strive to make the hook provocative enough that the reader wants to know what will happen to the viewpoint character. A shocking statement works well as a personal experience hook ("I didn't think it would feel so good to pull the trigger and watch my target lurch and fall to the ground.") Or an anecdote that leaves a question in the reader's mind ("When I was ten and snooping through her dresser drawer, I found out my mother wasn't a woman at all.")

Because of this incident or situation, you or your focus character has to react and decide how to handle the problem. Usually, this decision will be wrong and will cause your main character stress and suffering. He's chosen this path, however, for a reason that seems right to him.

The viewpoint character continues on the course charted by this decision until something happens to change his attitude. A dark moment or turning point forces him to make a sacrifice or some sort of choice which shows he has learned his lesson and can continue to a satisfactory conclusion to the original problem. A definite theme emerges through the telling of the story. As long as your viewpoint character learns something about himself or changes in some way, your story has done its job.

Putting it in Practice: A Case Study

Confused? Don't be. Let's take this one step at a time with an example from a recently-published article.

1) The Problem or Original Conflict (Your Hook). Your story or article always opens with an occurrence of some sort which forces your main character to make a decision. She's sailing along in life and suddenly, a problem pops up. This is where you start your piece (and not a moment sooner.) For example, let's look at the September, 1999, issue of Ladies' Home Journal "Can This Marriage Be Saved" column by Andrea Warren. The focus character, Rita, has remarried after her beloved husband, the father of her two young children, was killed in the line of duty. Her problem is the fact that she can't forget her first husband. The hook to the piece is a direct quote, which makes the reader want to keep reading to find out how she solves her problem. ("Ken doesn't know this, but lately I've been visiting the cemetery where my first husband is buried.")

2) The Reaction or Bad Decision. Your focus character reacts to the problem in a way that moves the story along and extends the tension. She makes a bad choice of actions. Rita's wrong decision is to overindulge her children, and when Ken, her new husband, tries to discipline them, she takes their sides against their stepfather. This renders him lower in the new family's hierarchy than he should be. The reader may at first see the folly of her ways and question why she has reacted this way, but he will understand why she does it once he learns what has motivated her to do it.

3) Motivation. This is the reason your character made the bad choice she made. Rita's motivation, told in a flashback, tells the story of how her first husband was killed in the line of duty. Because of the grief she still suffers over the loss, she has become a pushover with her kids and lets them get away with more than they should. She still sees her first marriage and family as the main relationship in her life, and her second husband as just that--secondary. Motivation is often slipped into the personal experience piece by way of a flashback, as in our example, which tells the character's back story, pointing to why she made the choice she made. It's also acceptable to weave the motivation in by means of introspection -- the character's inner thoughts -- as long as these thoughts are kept short and don't break up the flow of the narrative.

4) The Body of the Story. Build your article with events that have been put into motion because of your main character's original choice. Be sure to include only things that have direct bearing on the story at hand. Don't bog down the piece with incidentals such as what the focus character had for breakfast last Tuesday unless that menu in some way contributes to the outcome of the piece. The body of Rita's story tells about the bitter arguments that ensue over the discipline of the children when her new husband arrives on the scene.

5) The Dark Moment or Crisis. Your focus character can't go on living with this choice he's made because if he does, we have no story and he can't learn or change from his original (wrong) decision. So, a crisis occurs.

Rita's crisis occurs when Ken begins to withdraw from the family unit and Rita stands to lose him.

6) Sacrifice or Reactive Choice. Your focus character must make some sort of sacrifice or choice in order to learn her lesson and make a change. Rita's sacrifice is to see a marriage counselor, and her choice is to follow the counselor's advice of putting her new husband above her children in the family dynamic.

7) Satisfactory Ending. Note, I didn't say happy ending because the conclusion of your personal experience piece doesn't necessarily have to be happy. It needs only be the right ending for the particular situation. If you or your viewpoint character's bad decision was something horrible like robbing a bank or injuring another person, you/she probably doesn't deserve to live happily ever after. Your ending must reflect that while you have suffered and learned this life lesson, that may not exonerate you from suffering further consequences in your life. The satisfactory ending in our sample piece shows Rita's and Ken's attempts at making time for each other and building strength as a couple. In the Ladies' Home Journal example, the second part of the story is also told from Ken's point of view, showing his problem, reaction, motivation, etc.

8) Theme. After you've drafted your personal experience piece, go back over it to check to see if you've developed the theme you set out to develop. If you've gone off on other tangents, rework the piece to eliminate them. For a tight personal experience piece, only one theme should dominate.

So, there's one basic structure of the modern-day personal experience piece. F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "A writer wastes nothing." Don't waste your personal experiences. Look into your own life or the life of someone close to you for personal experiences and write about them. The market is hungry for these types of articles. Make them work for you.

Find Out More...

How to Turn "First Experiences" into "First Sales" - Moira Allen
http://www.writing-world.com/markets/firsts.shtml

Writing (and Selling) Personal Experience Articles, by Moira Allen
http://www.writing-world.com/markets/personal.shtml

Writing-World.com's Creative Nonfiction Section: Essays, Memoirs, and the Personal Side of Writing
http://www.writing-world.com/menus/creative.shtml

Copyright © 1999 Deborah Newton
This article is now a chapter in The Writer's Handbook 2001.

This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Deb Newton's credits include more than 350 short stories and articles for such publications as The Writer, Whispers From Heaven, Byline Magazine, Northeast Outdoors, Camping & RV Magazine, National Neighborhood News, W3Health-and-Wellness.com, FolksOnline.com, True Story, Jive, American Trucker, Teen.com, Big Apple Parent, and many others.

 

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