Basically, I’m a short story writer. I’m used to the conventions and practices of that genre. I’m still growing as a fiction writer and still learning. I keep working. As far as essay format is concerned, I’m used to the academic, expository essay, to its structure and form, whether writing to define, inform, explain, or persuade. When I tried the personal essay, I was a bit flummoxed.
But as I wrote and studied the genre, I learned the following:
1. The structure is organic. It grows naturally as you write about an incident from your life.
2. The personal essay frames the event from its beginning to end.
3. It uses fiction techniques.
4. It’s often written in scenes.
5. Reflection is woven throughout.
6. An authority may be included to verify a statement or premise, if needed.
7. The incident occurs against a larger world picture.
8. Exploring the important event in your life eventually reveals a deeper meaning you may not be aware of as you begin. Discoveries are made.
9. Your thoughts and feelings are delved into throughout.
10. A theme may emerge.
Number nine was difficult. I’ve found it much easier to reveal thoughts and feelings as someone other than myself – such as with a character in a story or on the stage.
I began a personal essay about a hike into the Grand Canyon. The canyon became analogous to events in my life. I wasn’t sure just where I was going with the writing but I kept going. It became a journey of personal discovery. As I discovered more, I reflected more about a grand decision I had to make, about a crossroads I had reached in my life in my early twenties. The essay became “Inner Canyons.”
Opening paragraph of the essay:
We make our way down into the canyon, alone on the trail, the air hushed, almost eerie. Faint sounds – a human voice, the shuffle of hooves – break the stillness. A ranch hand on a buckskin horse rides into view, urging his train of pack mules up the footpath, their bodies swaying in disjointed rhythm. To make room, Danny and I press our backs against the inside wall of the South Kaibab Trail, knowing the other side of the narrow path drops into the Grand Canyon. Sweat collects under my arms, on my forehead. I push harder into the stony dirt behind me until I resemble a modern petroglyph. I’m scared. I don’t want to be the reason someone or something falls over the edge.
I completed the essay. I’d reflected. I’d revealed feelings. Most importantly, I had discovered things about me and the decision affecting the rest of my life. I submitted the piece to a literary journal by the name of Six Hens. It was accepted. I had a contract and I would be paid.
But then the editor sent the manuscript back to me with comments. Things for me to do. And guess what those comments dealt with? Digging deeper into thoughts, into feelings, into cause and effect. Her questions made me squirm. They made me discover. But I answered them. I also remembered the advice from New York Times Best Selling author Tod Goldberg when he spoke to a class I was in, “Only put out into the ether what you are comfortable with because once it’s out, it’s out.” A writer needs to use judgement in the revealing process.
Another essay I wrote was called “The Modeling Period.” My frame was built around a childhood fear. I remembered my previous essay experiences and dug into myself. I also included an authority to give veracity to my premise. I submitted the piece to a local contest, hoping for a win, place, or show. I came away with a “Place.”
Opening paragraph of “The Modeling Period”:
The story behind the brick structure sitting alone at the end of a tree-lined sidewalk wasn’t complicated. The boxy, two-story building with a covered front porch used to be a school, one of the town’s few. Every weekday morning an iron bell clanged high in its cupola. Kids ran through the neighborhood to its door, hoping to be on time. But as the community grew, the town fathers decided to build a bigger, more modern facility. Instead of a hand-rung bell, students now moved to an electric one. The old school sat empty, its bell idle.
From there the essay reveals what happened in the old school that reverberated in my life like the old bell did throughout the neighborhood.
I like the personal essay for where it takes you as a writer. As you write about an event or a feeling, as you peel away the layers, taking the time to reflect and explore, you gain insights into yourself and your writing and enhance the ability to express them. These two essays, “Inner Canyons” and “The Modeling Period,” will be woven into the short story collection I’m currently compiling.
Thanks for stopping by. And special thanks to author/journalist/essayist Maggie Downs for the journey she took me and a group of fellow writers on as we discovered the personal essay.
PS – A personal essay(s) can springboard a writer into the longer work of a memoir.