In recent weeks the future of the personal essay has been a hot topic – you may have come across Jia Tolentino’s article in the New Yorker, Lorraine Berry’s take on the situation over at LitHub or Susan Shapiro’s response to Tolentino’s piece. As a writer, teacher and lover of creative non-fiction, particularly its genre-bending forms, I believe in the personal essay’s longevity and power. Why? Because no other literary genre connects reader and writer quite so intimately, by laying bare the emotional truth of personal experience.
These five tips will help you hook your readers as you turn your personal stories into art.
1) Try a new form
Creative non-fiction is, itself, a hybrid genre – narrative prose that borrows the devices and techniques used by poets and fiction writers. Explore CNF’s lesser known genre-bending subgenres, such as the hermit crab essay or braided essay, to start telling your stories in new ways. Take a look at this craft article for a quick breakdown of what I call CNF’s innovative “outlier” forms.
2) Get crafty about “craft”
Remember cramming for your high school English quiz on literary devices? (That’s a distant, unhappy memory, for me, too.) If you’re a little rusty about the difference between allegory, alliteration and allusion, brush up on your literary tools and then put them to work. Try incorporating one or two devices in every new piece as a personal challenge. Keep learning about and practicing key craft elements to make your first drafts more interesting, and to become a stronger, more versatile writer.
3) Approach each story with curiosity
No one knows your life story better than you do – but if you already know what happened, down to what every nuanced moment means, what’s motivating you to stick with the hard work of writing it? And what’s going to keep your audience reading? Robert Frost is attributed with this sage quote: No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader. The idea here is to stay open to possibility, to new discoveries, as you write about your experiences, so both you and your reader can take delight in what those experiences mean, personally and universally – even if (especially if!) you don’t set out knowing the answer to that question. Sometimes what’s uncovered in the process of writing can not only be surprising but transformative. (I was both surprised and humbled by what I learned in the process of writing a story I was 100% sure I knew inside out, but didn’t.)
4) Less can be more
Compression is a technique used by flash essayists to capture a scene, moment, memory or idea, by removing all the unnecessary words. For a few examples of highly compressed stories that maintain hyper-focus with very tight word counts take a peek at:
- Math Lesson by Rebecca McClanahan (636 words)
- How the Music Died by Tommy Dean (258 words)
- Memories of a Gun by Diane Payne (128 words)
As you practice cutting back what’s inessential to zoom into the heart of your story, try crafting a segmented essay. These essays employ the use of white space, recurring symbols or numbers to join separate narrative fragments without “filling in the blanks” via exposition. In Memories of a Gun, Diane Payne splices two memories using a short numbered list; Tommy Dean uses a single diamond symbol to separate segments in How the Music Died.
5) Don’t be afraid to dive deep
Writing personal essays is an act of courage; every CNF writer has to figure out how to manage their personal list of fears. Fear is very normal – after all, there’s much at stake when we share our experiences and what they meant to us. If a story makes you feel vulnerable and you’re not sure how to find your way in or through, try freewriting about what is at the root of your fear. Go deep by asking, as many times as you need to, why you feel the way you do. I keep a processing journal – a diary devoted to writing about my works in progress. This is the place I ask myself why I’m stalling in a piece and what I need to do to keep going.
I tell my students not to wait for the day they no longer feel fear about their deep truth-telling work to start writing. Rather, I tell them to stay open, to use up that scary energy as they write. To be fearful, not fearless, in their writing — but fierce.
Nicole Breit is a poet, essayist, and creative writing teacher who lives on British Columbia’s gorgeous Sunshine Coast. In 2016 she won Room magazine’s CNF contest and her lyric essay, Spectrum, was the winner of the 2016 CNFC/carte blanche creative non-fiction award. To learn more about Nicole’s CNF Outliers e-course, visit the course landing page where you can subscribe for updates.