Powerful, surprising, and fascinating personal essays are also “reader-friendly essays” that keep the reader squarely in focus. So how do you go about writing one? In this excerpt from Crafting the Personal Essay, author Dinty W. Moore shares a variety of methods for crafting an essay that keeps the reader’s desires and preferences in mind, resulting in a resonate and truly memorable piece. As Moore says, “Privacy is for your diary. Essays are for readers.”
Writing the Reader-Friendly Essay
Good writing is never merely about following a set of directions. Like all artists of any form, essay writers occasionally find themselves breaking away from tradition or common practice in search of a fresh approach. Rules, as they say, are meant to be broken.
But even groundbreakers learn by observing what has worked before. If you are not already in the habit of reading other writers with an analytical eye, start forming that habit now. When you run across a moment in someone else’s writing that seems somehow electric on the page, stop, go back, reread the section more slowly, and ask yourself, “What did she do here, put into this, or leave out, that makes it so successful?”
Similarly and often just as important, if you are reading a piece of writing and find yourself confused, bored, or frustrated, stop again, back up, squint closely at the writing, and form a theory as to how, when, or where the prose went bad.
Identifying the specific successful moves made by others increases the number of arrows in your quiver, ready for use when you sit down to start your own writing. Likewise, identifying the missteps in other writers’ work makes you better at identifying the missteps in your own.
Remember the Streetcar
Tennessee Williams’ wonderful play, A Streetcar Named Desire, comes from a real streetcar in New Orleans and an actual neighborhood named Desire. In Williams’ day, you could see the streetcar downtown with a lighted sign at the front telling folks where the vehicle was headed. The playwright saw this streetcar regularly—and also saw, of course, the metaphorical possibilities of the name.
Though this streetcar no longer runs, there is still a bus called Desire in New Orleans, and you’ve certainly seen streetcars or buses in other cities with similar, if less evocative, destination indicators: Uptown, Downtown, Shadyside, West End, Prospect Park.
People need to know what streetcar they are getting onto, you see, because they want to know where they will be when the streetcar stops and lets them off.
Excuse the rather basic transportation lesson, but it explains my first suggestion. An essay needs a lighted sign right up front telling the reader where they are going. Otherwise, the reader will be distracted and nervous at each stop along the way, unsure of the destination, not at all able to enjoy the ride.
Now there are dull ways of putting up your lighted sign:
This essay is about the death of my beloved dog.
Let me tell you about what happened to me last week.
And there are more artful ways.
Readers tend to appreciate the more artful ways.
For instance, let us look at how Richard Rodriguez opens his startling essay “Mr. Secrets”:
Shortly after I published my first autobiographical essay seven years ago, my mother wrote me a letter pleading with me never again to write about our family life. “Write about something else in the future. Our family life is private.” And besides: “Why do you need to tell the gringos about how ‘divided’ you feel from the family?” I sit at my desk now, surrounded by versions of paragraphs and pages of this book, considering that question.
Where is the lighted streetcar sign in that paragraph?
Well, consider that Rodriguez has
- introduced the key characters who will inhabit his essay: himself and his mother,
- informed us that writing is central to his life,
- clued us in that this is also a story of immigration and assimilation (gringos), and
- provided us with the central question he will be considering throughout the piece: Why does he feel compelled to tell strangers the ins and outs of his conflicted feelings?
These four elements—generational conflict between author and parent, the isolation of a writer, cultural norms and difference, and the question of what is public and what is private—pretty much describe the heart of Rodriguez’s essay.
Or to put it another way, at every stop along the way—each paragraph, each transition—we are on a streetcar passing through these four thematic neighborhoods, and Rodriguez has given us a map so we can follow along.
Find a Healthy Distance
Another important step in making your personal essay public and not private is finding a measure of distance from your experience, learning to stand back, narrow your eyes, and scrutinize your own life with a dose of hale and hearty skepticism.
Why is finding a distance important? Because the private essay hides the author. The personal essay reveals. And to reveal means to let us see what is truly there, warts and all.
The truth about human nature is that we are all imperfect, sometimes messy, usually uneven individuals, and the moment you try to present yourself as a cardboard character—always right, always upstanding (or always wrong, a total mess)—the reader begins to doubt everything you say. Even if the reader cannot articulate his discomfort, he knows on a gut level that your perfect (or perfectly awful) portrait of yourself has to be false.
And then you’ve lost the reader.
Pursue the Deeper Truth
The best writers never settle for the insight they find on the surface of whatever subject they are exploring. They are constantly trying to lift the surface layer, to see what interesting ideas or questions might lie beneath.
To illustrate, let’s look at another exemplary essay, “Silence the Pianos,” by Floyd Skloot.
Here is his opening:
A year ago today, my mother stopped eating. She was ninety-six, and so deep in her dementia that she no longer knew where she was, who I was, who she herself was. All but the last few seconds had vanished from the vast scroll of her past.
Essays exploring a loved one’s decline into dementia or the painful loneliness of a parent’s death are among the most commonly seen by editors of magazines and judges of essay contests. There is a good reason for this: These events can truly shake us to our core. But too often, when writing about such a significant loss, the writer focuses on the idea that what has happened is not fair and that the loved one who is no longer around is so deeply missed.
Are these emotions true?
Yes, they are.
Are they interesting for a reader?
Often, they simply are not.
The problem is that there are certain things readers already know, and that would include the idea that the loss of a loved one to death or dementia is a deep wound, that it seems not fair when such heartbreak occurs, and that we oftentimes find ourselves regretting not having spent more time with the lost loved one.
These reactions seem truly significant when they occur in our own lives, and revisiting them in our writing allows us to experience those powerful feelings once again. For this reason it is hard to grasp that the account of our loss might have little or no impact on a reader who did not know this loved one, or does not know you, and who does not have the emotional reaction already in the gut.
In other words, there are certain “private” moments that feel exhilarating to revisit, and “private” sentences that seem stirring to write and to reread as we edit our early drafts, but they are not going to have the same effect in the public arena of publishable prose.
In the last twenty years of teaching writing, the most valuable lesson that I have found myself able to share is the need for us as writers to step outside of our own thoughts, to imagine an audience made up of real people on the other side of the page. This audience does not know us, they are not by default eager to read what we have written, and though thoughtful literate readers are by and large good people with large hearts, they have no intrinsic stake in whatever problems (or joys) we have in our lives.
This is the public, the readers you want to invite into your work.
Self-expression may be the beginning of writing, but it should never be the endpoint. Only by focusing on these anonymous readers, by acknowledging that you are creating something for them, something that has value, something that will enrich their existence and make them glad to have read what you have written, will you find a way to truly reach your audience.
And that—truly reaching your audience and offering them something of value—is perhaps as good a definition of successful writing as I’ve ever heard.
You might also like:
Craft & Technique, Creative Nonfiction Writing, Excerpts, Haven't Written Anything Yet, Writing for Beginners, Memoir, There Are No Rules Blog by the Editors of Writer's Digest, Writing Editor Blogs, Writing Short Stories & Essay Writing, Writing Your First Draft
Are You a Born Storyteller?
11 Secrets to Writing an Effective Character Description
My natural tendency is to write from defaults and find small variations in form driven by my sinuous writing choices. At a glance, most of my essays look like most of the essays people have been writing for four hundred years: a bunch of paragraphs, sometimes broken into sections.
In fact, I have elsewhere argued that despite writing from factual events and known results, essayists should try to write without intention or conclusion, to let their prose drive them to unexpected connections and discoveries, as Virginia Woolf describes in “A Sketch of the Past”: “So without stopping to choose my way, in the sure and certain knowledge that it will find itself—or if not it will not matter—I begin the first memory.”
I have had several interesting conversations on this very idea, because so many writers enjoy the way writing can surprise us.
And while I’d be glad to share a few more words on this favorite method of mine, I also appreciate the value of subversion and of challenging myself, so instead I will write about the obverse method of composition: choosing or borrowing a form, then writing under constraint, with and against expectation, to force yourself into thinking new ways.
You could trace borrowed forms in essays back at least to Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal,” but for my purposes here, I’ve marshaled the wisdom of several living formalists who’ve written some of my favorite essays, all in gleefully borrowed forms.
What would you say if I told you about an essay that looks like a local phonebook? Or an eBay auction? Or a Google map? Or a college syllabus? Or a Harvard outline? Or a final exam? Or a Trivial Pursuit card? Or a doctor’s pain scale? Or a series of contributors' notes?
You might be interested even before reading a word. That’s one of the easy appeals of writing in borrowed forms: people who’re used to the defaults perk up when they see something different.
I asked the authors of these essays to tell me something about their process, the challenges and rewards, and I learned that most of them found their form before they began writing, which, as I’ve said, is quite different from what I usually do. Here are some of their responses:
Cassie Keller Cole, “Kuna Phonebook” (Hotel Amerika, 2009)
Cassie Keller Cole, for instance, began her phonebook essay, “Kuna Phonebook,” after thinking about different forms of communication and noting how people seem to rely less and less on the physical phone book: “There is something about the thin pages, the texture and distinct smell of a phone book, the way they plop on your front step that made me feel a small loss . . . Thinking about the form helped me recognize a bit of nostalgia for the town I grew up in; how it was never mine and how I’m even more distant from it now.”
You notice, I hope, that the form gave space for the idea of the essay.
Desirae Matherly, “Final: Comprehensive, Roughly” (Fourth Genre, 2007)
As you might expect for writers in academia, the joys and pressures of school life refuse to stay in their separate containers and wind up spilling over into our writing. Desirae Matherly took the pressures of preparing for her doctoral comprehensive exams and formed an essay that looked very much like an exam, with matching and multiple choice and long, multi-part “essay” questions.
The form … sprang from the anxiety of having to study for and take my comprehensive doctoral exams. I thought, what I’m feeling right now is fear about answering my comp questions and completing my degree. There was so much self-doubt. Then I wondered what comprehensive even meant, because to my line of thinking, nothing could be that comprehensive. And then I wondered, why don’t professors ever ask students the really hard questions, the ones that truly mean something and push one to learn and reflect? So I guess the form and the idea arose together.
As you might expect, what begins rather playfully with song lyrics and obvious right answers crescendoes into a barrage of existential questions for which there are no answers.
Jill Talbot, “The Professor of Longing” (Diagram 13, no. 3 )
While preparing to teach a course on the New American West, Jill Talbot found her personal life inflecting her choice of readings and ways of teaching, and so designed a mirror syllabus for her course that not only listed readings and traditional critical perspectives, but honestly revealed her own investments with the literature.
That semester, my daughter had just turned nine and was beginning to ask questions about her father, Kenny, the man who ran off for different roads and different women when she was an infant, and for the first time, I read On the Road not in admiration of the crazed search for “It,” but as one of the women that men like Sal and Dean leave behind. It changed the way I taught the novel—not as a nonconformist, manic, road-as-life manifesto, but as a glimpse into the doorways where women waited for men to come back, already knowing they wouldn’t.
Dinty Moore, “Mr. Plimpton’s Revenge” (Normal School, 2009)
And sometimes, it’s the happy interactions of academia that inspire us to find new/old forms, as in the case of Dinty Moore’s well-known Google Maps essay, “Mr. Plimpton’s Revenge,” which was inspired by my now-colleague Joey Franklin’s misfortune:
A brilliant graduate student, Joey Franklin, had his car stolen . . . and when the car was recovered, he sent around an e-mail to friends including a Google map itinerary of the car’s journey from his front door to various 7-11s across southern Ohio and finally 90 minutes away in Columbus. It was hilarious, and snazzy, and I thought, “Wow, what story can I tell that fits into Google Maps.”
It’s worth noting that both Dinty’s essay and Joey’s essay, called “Grand Theft Auto” (Normal School 7 [Fall 2011]), appeared in the same magazine.
Ander Monson, “Outline toward a Theory of the Mine versus the Mind and the Harvard Outline” (Seneca Review 34, no. 1 [Spring 2004]; reprinted in Neck Deep and Other Predicaments [Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2007])
I asked these authors not only how they got to their forms but what challenges they found once they got there, and they all said something akin to what Ander Monson, author of many essays in varied forms, including “Outline toward a Theory of the Mine Versus the Mind and the Harvard Outline,” said: “Being constrained is the whole point! That’s why you choose a received form, to see what pressures present themselves and what architectures you have to work within or erect to keep the thing from collapsing.”
Eula Biss, “The Pain Scale” (Seneca Review 35, no. 1 )
One notable exception to the typical order is Eula Biss’s essay “The Pain Scale,” which takes the form of, well, I’ll let her tell us:
I wasn’t happy with [my early draft] because I felt that it was meandering and that I wasn’t getting at what I really wanted to talk about—the nature of pain. I set it aside for several months and then one day as I was sitting in the doctor’s office staring at the pain scale on the wall, it occurred to me that I could write a page for each number on the scale, and use that system to structure my essay.
That revelation, plus a lot of research and shaping and cutting, got her to a much stronger essay (in her opinion).
Caitlin Horrocks, “The Six Answers on the Back of a Trivial Pursuit Card” (Normal School, 2010)
And somewhere in the middle of things lies Caitlin Horrocks’s “The Six Answers on the Back of a Trivial Pursuit Card,” whose title tells you its form: “The essay began when I was actually playing Trivial Pursuit and noticed that nearly all the answers on the card I was holding . . . were items I had some odd semi-personal connections to.” And then “the format of the essay happened pretty organically—I don’t recall a particular aha moment, just the process of slotting all the personal and factual trivia into the structure, and puzzling out the right rotation so that each answer appeared on each card in a different order.”
It’s worth mentioning, though not as a deterrent, that all the essayists I queried say they try more formal experiments than they publish. They’ve failed at crossword puzzles, sonnets, FAQs, and other forms, yet they all teach such activities to their students, unworried about failure. They believe that the benefits far outweigh the risks. Says Desirae Matherly: “Usually the experiment bears no resemblance to what a student has done in the past, and so they take greater risks. It’s the contact zone of the essay, perfect for exploring, and making mistakes. Or finding a path to lead one forward.”
“Garlic” (Fourth Genre 9, no. 1 ; reprinted in Quotidiana [Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010)
From my own experience, I can share two very different but ultimately successful stories about experimenting with form. The first illustrates what Jill Talbot says: “I think all writers begin with some form of scaffolding they eventually lose after understanding it helped the essay find its way.”
When I was in graduate school, I was struck by the highly footnoted essays of David Foster Wallace and John D’Agata, because of the way they enacted graphically the digressiveness inherent in essays. I set out to create a footnoted essay of my own. It didn’t really matter what about, but I was thinking then about my father-in-law, who traveled around Uruguay selling garlic, so I began to write his story from every direction I could think of. Whenever I found a spur away from the primary narrative, I’d create a footnote, about the president of Paraguay or the genetics of garlic or its mythical curative properties. My first draft was almost as much footnote as primary text. After a helpful workshop, though, I decided that many of my footnotes were nonessential and that the form itself was, for me, gimmicky. I refolded the pertinent notes back into the essay body, discarded the impertinent, and wound up with a traditional-looking but playfully digressive essay.
“Writer Michael Martone’s Leftover Water” (Normal School, Fall 2010)
One last example I’ll cite influenced me in several ways: Michael Martone’s series of contributor’s notes, which originally appeared only in the backs of literary magazines (though he had no stories or essays up front) and later formed his book Michael Martone. All took off from the straightforward phrase: “Michael Martone was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana . . . ” They then spun into amusing tall tales to cause you to question reality and textuality. Martone says, “I think of myself as a formalist. . . . To me there are only a variety of forms and frames. My jobs are to inhabit a form and then reframe the piece. So a contributor note becomes a fiction or nonfiction and a story or essay is framed as a contributor note.”
One of my favorites is the one in which he admits to drinking the water left over by visiting writers, hoping, he says, to imbibe some of their literary greatness (a true story, he assures me). After Martone gave a reading at Brigham Young University, I slipped up to the podium and grabbed his unfinished Dasani bottle. Feeling again the general desire to try out a different form, and imagining the price that this water, which included the processed backwash of so many great writers, might fetch, I decided to use eBay to both sell the water and write an essay. I listed it for a week-long auction and told a lot of my friends to “Ask the Seller a Question,” which I then answered, flippantly or seriously, and posted to the auction page. The end result was a few-thousand-word essay and a $20.50 profit.
“Michael Martone’s Leftover Water: Imbibe literary genius (dozens of authors) in one swig!” was later published by Normal School and remains one of my best-traveled essays, showing up in undergraduate classes around the country. Here I certainly led with form, though it was more than that: it was an experiment, and the choice of eBay as my medium was as much a practical decision as a whimsical one. There was an inherent relationship between what I was doing and what I was writing, and the virtual place I chose to host the essay. I sometimes have to assure people that this was a real auction with real money and a real product for sale. Just as I assure you that while the website and the Q&A format were somewhat artificial, they (including the unpredictability and the general goofiness of so many of the questions) were also the driving force behind the essay’s grace.