If you’ve checked out my previous posts for this series, Your Best Writing Goal Based on Your Enneagram Number and How to Use the Enneagram to Create Fictional Characters, you know that I’m a huge fan of using the Enneagram as a writer.
Today, I’m going to share how I suggest using it to write deeper personal nonfiction—that is, memoir and personal essays.
Before I dive in, I want to give you my favorite definition of a story: a story is a shift in perspective.
That’s it. It’s my favorite definition not just because it’s simple, clear, and actionable. As a writer, I can work with that; it means that my character must experience a change by the end of the story.
It’s also true. All stories are about personal transformation, whether they’re fiction or nonfiction.
Nonfiction stories about personal transformation are inherently driven by how you see the world and how that viewpoint changes through your experience.
Since the Enneagram is all about how you look at the world, seeing yourself through its framework can help you find more nuanced levels of self-understanding, which will help you shape the story you tell about yourself.
Let me get more specific. Here are the three steps you can take to go deeper with the Enneagram for the purposes of enriching your nonfiction work.
1. Identify your Enneagram number.
There are nine primary personality types in the Enneagram, each of which is assigned a number, one through nine.
Each of these types is motivated by a unique basic desire and a unique basic fear—that’s what distinguishes the types from one another: motivation.
First, you need to figure out what your number is if you haven’t already.
Here’s the thing: tests for the Enneagram are only supposed to be helpful, not diagnostic. They point you in the right direction by predicting what your number might be, but then it’s up to you to read about that number and decide for yourself: is it a fit? Does it describe you?
You can read about the different types here.
If a number you tested for doesn’t ring true, explore the other types.
Which makes you feel like you’re reading about yourself?
I tested as a 7 (falsely) at first before realizing I was a 3. I’ve had a couple of friends test as 8s who turned out to be 6s. The tests aren’t always accurate.
When you land on the correct number, you will probably feel exposed. Seen. Understood better than you understand yourself. A little uncomfortable.
If you feel these ways, you’ve likely nailed your number.
Quick note: no, you can’t be multiple numbers. People always ask.
The key is to find the one that primarily describes you. You’re going to have elements of them all—we all do. But under this system, you have one primary framework, and it’s really getting to know that one framework that can be so powerful to your understanding of yourself.
2. Step inside and explore that one number.
Once you find your number, let yourself fall down the wormhole.
There’s a wealth of great material here on the Enneagram Institute’s website, but you can find loads of other fantastic resources around the Enneagram as well. I love Sarajane Case’s podcast Enneagram and Coffee (you can listen to my interview here!).
Suzanne Stabile is my sister’s Enneagram teacher, and she has some really wonderful and readable books and trainings.
If you’re like me, you might really love learning about your number. The psychology of it gets pretty sophisticated (in terms of describing your motivations, how you might behave in stress and why, etc.), and, in my experience, the discoveries can really shake up your identity.
What do you read or hear that resonates?
What feels both new and correct?
Immerse yourself in it and observe what feels tender, and what speaks to you. Jot down some notes. Let it sink in. Sleep on it. Take walks and mull it over.
Give yourself time to let it digest. It’s new, and your brain and heart may struggle to process some things. That’s okay; that’s normal.
3. Reassess the story you’re telling in light of this new framework.
When you’re ready to write—whether it’s returning to a piece you’ve already started and are in the middle of writing or revising, or beginning an entirely new piece of writing—you now have this new rubric of the Enneagram as a reference.
I’m guessing that you already have some story in mind that you want to tell—or, at least, elements of it…that there’s some life experience you’re writing about or wanting to write about.
It’s time to investigate how the dynamics of your Enneagram number might be expressed in this story.
Where do you observe them surfacing?
Does knowing more about your Enneagram number crystallize anything that you already suspected but perhaps didn’t think of as clearly as you do now?
Does it articulate an emotional reason behind actions you were taking or fears you were having that maybe you didn’t fully understand at the time?
Does it counter a prior understanding of yourself? (If so, that’s interesting! Why might that be? Perhaps explore that through journaling.)
Once I realized I was a 3, for example, I found it incredibly helpful to see how I would “go to 9” (my stress number”) in times when I was stressed: in an argument, I’d shut down. Retreat into myself. Say nothing.
I’d always known I was inclined to do this, but I merely thought of myself as being conflict-averse. I hadn’t seen it as a piece of a larger system I was using to navigate the world.
Listen—I’m not suggesting you explicitly reference the Enneagram in your piece. In fact, I suggest you probably don’t, because not every reader is going to be familiar with it, and so your writing will be accessible to more readers if you simply use your own words without using the Enneagram as a shortcut.
But just knowing it yourself can infuse your writing with:
- a more nuanced emotional landscape,
- an sense of informed—even studied—self-awareness, and
- the kind of narrative authority that is rooted in this confident self-awareness.
In sum, I encourage you to get to know yourself with the Enneagram as a guide, then return to your nonfiction piece and see how it changes.
I hope you discover fascinating, previously unseen connections among the events of your past—and if you do, I hope you’ll share them in the comments below. I’d love to hear about them.
If you’re interested in learning more about how you can use the Enneagram in your writing, you can sign up for my email list here. I am putting together a much more robust Enneagram training for writers and can’t wait to share it with you, but you’ll need to be on my email list to find out about it!
Tell us in the comments: How will you change your approach to personal nonfiction with your Enneagram?
Mary Adkins is the author of the novels When You Read This (Indie Next Pick, “Best Book of 2019” by Good Housekeeping and Real Simple), Privilege (Today.com Best Summer Read), and Palm Beach (New York Post “Best Book of 2021,” and “like a sandy beach, equal parts beautiful and uncomfortable” according to the Associated Press). Her books have been published in 13 countries, and her essays and reporting have appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, and more. A graduate of Yale Law School and Duke University, she teaches storytelling for The Moth worldwide and runs The Book Incubator, a program for aspiring authors.