Essay Writing: How Personal?

I teach two different essay writing classes. One is a general essay class, the other focuses on memoir or the personal essay. One question I hear often is, “How personal should the writer be in a personal essay?”
Writing Tip for Today: The question then branches into one of two categories. In the first, the writer is worried that being honest (especially concerning family life) will get them written out of the will. How can a writer possibly spill the beans on Aunt Harriet, who’s a closet alcoholic, or on Uncle Harry, who lies about his achievements? The second category regards the writer who’s not sure he really wants to be seen naked on stage. What if no one likes them? What if the spouse wants a divorce?
The fact is, you can’t NOT write with honesty, but there are a few tricks you can use:

  • Simplify. In one personal essay, the author changed what really happened (her toddler son melted plastic alphabet letters in the oven) to something the reader could easily picture (A blue plastic duck). Reason: A reader could stop to wonder which letter of the alphabet the kid cooked. By changing it to a duck, the reader has an instant picture.
  • Disguise characters. By using composite characters you can tell a story where no one recognizes himself. If the person is old, make her young, if short make him tall. Get a character who represents the qualities you’re trying to illustrate in your essay. It might be confusing to relate a story about your great-aunt twice removed, but your aunt is a simple connection.
  • Don’t sweat dialogue. Some writers agonize because they (of course) don’t remember exactly what Mom said twenty-five years ago. “But I can’t put words into people’s mouths!” they claim. The truth is, dialogue is what often makes or breaks an essay. Better invent a few words (while sticking to reality as much as you can) than to lose the reader to boredom.
  • Always keep the “real” truth in mind. This is the truth you’re trying to convey. Changing details such as how you’re related or whether it was a blue duck or not won’t change the central meaning of the piece. Nobody cares if the actual dialogue is recorded word for word. But if you make claims that are nowhere near the real experience, that, my friend, is lying.
  • Maybe Wait. In some cases, it may be the kindest thing to postpone trying to publish stories that would deeply hurt your relative or friend. Especially if an emotional incident is fresh, writing about it might be better handled by a more dispassionate storyteller, one who now has some objectivity.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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