Getting Personal: The Basics of Writing Personal Essays by Tina Haapala, Excuses Editor

We all have the stories we tell over and over to explain who we are and where we came from.

Your significant other has probably heard the story behind the funny shaped scar on your knee enough times to tell it, detail by detail. Your grandparents will continue to tell you what a Great Depression is like until they are sure you get it. And Ted will still be telling his kids “How He Met Their Mother” for a few more seasons.

As writers, we can transform our stories into personal essays for anthologies, magazines, journals, and more. It’s just a matter of taking a fresh look.

Write What You Know
This mantra is overused for a reason: any type of writing begins with the writer and his or her thoughts and experiences.

When starting with the virtually endless potential of “what you know” there is no place for the excuse “nothing to write about.” Just the act of being alive gives you unlimited material. Take a look at some of the universal themes that people share … that you can turn into your unique story:

  • Family. You came from one, you’ve created one, maybe you’ve even lost one. Whatever the case, there have been other people who have formed your “tribe”. Your family stories—whether you succeeded because of or in spite of them; if you questioned your place with them; or have searched for one of your own—are full of gems that can be picked out and polished to share with others.
  • Discovery. Life is full of “firsts:” First Pet, First Kiss, First Car. First Marriage. First Divorce. Relive those moments that alter your perception of the world forever, just because they HAPPENED. Write about the knowledge you gained about yourself, someone else, the world.
  • Struggle/Accomplishment. Some people aim to climb mountains, others have days when your biggest success is just getting out of bed. Readers are drawn to stories for inspiration. If your words capture how you overcame an obstacle,your story could become a reader’s motivation and inspiration.
  • Endings. All life has a beginning and an end. Your take on loss—whether it’s lost keys, lost mind, lost love—becomes uniquely universal. Write about losses that lead to new beginnings. Write about losses that left you empty.

Show, Don’t Tell
Yet another axiom that is drilled into the writer’s head. However, when you are dealing with universal themes you need to avoid universal cliches. Here are a few things to keep in mind when creating an uncommon story from a common experience:

  • Discover theme. Your essays will tell about events that impacted your life. To create a theme from that, identify the event and the specific way it changed your world. For example, if you are drawn to write about your first car, ask yourself why that car mattered, in the grand scheme of things: Did ownership teach you responsibility? Did driving it to school attract your true love?
  • Stay focused on a theme. This isn’t something that you will write into your piece. Rather, it is something that you will keep in your mind as you write. You can even scribble it onto the top of your rough draft as a reminder.
  • A personal essay is a story about your life, so tell it as a story. The beginning, middle and end will all echo the cause and effect of your “hidden” theme. If you learned responsibility from owning your first car, you may start off talking about the number of bikes you misplaced before you bought the car. You may continue talking about your parents forcing you into a part-time job in order to pay for the insurance. The end of the story could show you changing your own oil, checking your locks obsessively, etc.

Keep it Simple
Your life probably isn’t simple. Nobody’s life is. The situations and circumstance that have mixed to create who you are didn’t happen in a linear, straightforward fashion. Explore all the ingredients of your life, but when writing the short, personal essay, allow your focus to stick on the narrative that best relates to your theme. If you find you are uncovering more and more threads leading to more stories, write them; eventually, you may decide you have enough angles on specific themes that it is time to start a memoir!

Write, Submit, Repeat
When you get your collection of fantastic personal essays, what’s next? You may want to keep them for yourself, but more likely you want to get them published. The struggle comes in pinpointing the markets, and knowing whether you have what they are looking for. There’s a fine line, and a running debate, as to what is short memoir and what is personal essay; so when reading submission guidelines you may have to take an extra step or two to make sure your piece reflects the market’s needs.

Here are a few markets to get you started:
Chicken Soup for the Soul

Cup of Comfort

Memoir

Narrative

Redbook

Good Old Days

Good Housekeeping

NPR’s This I Believe


Tina Haapala’s personal essays can be found in the Chicken Soup for the Soul titles: Teens Talk Middle School, Teens Talk Getting in  … to College, Campus Chronicles, and Thanks, Dad; and the collection, My First Year in the Classroom. Tina started www.excuseeditor.com, a site for writers looking for a place to eliminate their writing excuses and find writing inspiration. Visit the site and sign up for the newsletter, which includes a monthly serving of The Scoop: a list of over 35 markets looking for submissions.

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