“Who is more to be pitied, a writer bound and gagged by policemen or one living in perfect freedom who has nothing more to say?” - Kurt Vonnegut.
Kurt Vonnegut did not dance around hard truths. Born in 1922, his literary career spanned more than fifty years, and he is often remembered for his outspokenness on political and moral issues and the importance of art.
I like his quote above for what it hints at; writing for our freedom and seeking truth through our work. It reminds me of another Anne Lamott quote I'm also often drawn to when I'm stuck on a piece I'm trying to formulate into coherent words:
“Good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are.”
The personal essay is the quintessential form for exploring these truths and better understanding who we are in connection with our fellow humans. I’ve yet to read a personal essay collection where I didn’t find at least one strong link between what the writer wrote and my own lived experiences.
Even in the personal essay collections where I didn't necessarily like the author; there's always at least one thread, idea, thought, or experience that forges a connection.
There’s a unique beauty to feeling seen in this way. In many of my own writer bios, I'll usually include a sentence along the lines of finding our authentic selves through our lived experiences. For me, both writing and reading have been pivotal to this.
I’ve had a love/hate relationship with writing my own personal essays for some time. I love finding those connections, but there is also a fear in writing these pieces. When we go deep into our personal lives to write, we inevitably make ourselves vulnerable.
Not everything we write needs to be made available for public consumption, and it is important to focus first and foremost on ensuring you explore how ‘exposing’ certain parts of your life will make you feel in the long term. But there is also magic to a well-crafted personal essay - for both the writer and the reader - when it feels like a truth has finally made its way into the world. As Flannery O’Connor advises:
“The fact is that anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t be able to make it out of a lot. The writer’s business is to contemplate experience, not to be merged in it.”
There's something wildly validating about picking a moment in time that holds meaning for me - whether I knew it then or only now, with distance - and unravelling it. I often wonder how much of my life, how much meaning, I've already let go or lost through the process of pushing myself to move through certain experiences instead of holding them a while, feeling their weight and savouring what I might be able to take away. Every now and then a memory will flash to the forefront of my mind and I have to give myself a moment, find its place and inevitable connection with whatever task at hand that my brain has found a loose thread of synchronicity between the present and the forgotten past.
It's usually something relatively mundane.
A recent one was recalling the exact layout of a urban walk I took through West London eight years ago because I heard a song I'd had on repeat during that period of my life. It had rained and I'd got drenched in a flash summer downpour, but then the sun came out and did that magic pre-dusk thing where it makes everything golden, the puddles reflecting a double image of the city streets.
And for the rest of my walk, I was so happy. Because even though I was having a difficult time, I was where I wanted to be. In London. Just living on my own terms, walking towards sunset in a place I called home.
I’ve begun to discover a deeper love for personal essays and writing more about the things that matter to me. As well as carving out my own experience, I’m finding joy in pulling these pieces together, in how I connect them to broader themes and exploring other writing about the topics I’m drawn to.
Here are a few things that have helped me in recent years to develop my personal essays further. These tips and anecdotes have been collated from reading several works on the craft of writing, so it's likely you'll recognise one or two (or more) if you've been reading similar texts.
Start From the Heart
“If something inside of you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the centre of your work. Write straight into the emotional centre of things. Write toward vulnerability. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer, you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act—truth is always subversive.” - Anne Lamott.
The hardest part for me is deciding what it is exactly I want to write about. I might come up with a series of experiences and feel a pulsing desire to write about them - but I need to go deeper.
If one or two specific experiences are dogging me, there’s likely something at the heart of those experiences that needs excavating. As Lamott advises, I write towards that heart - towards that centre. It’s often messy, and that’s okay. This isn’t about writing perfectly - it’s about writing.
I write until I find the heart, and then I start from there, building things outwards.
To 'risk being unliked' is a tricky dance to get the footwork right, in my experience, but when I start to ponder the why or what I think I might be unlike for, I tend to find an answer or two that helps me to further my piece.
Uncover Your Themes
“There is so much outside the false cloister of private experience, and when you write, you do the work of connecting that terrible privacy to everything beyond it.” - Leslie Jamieson.
Writing about your own life and experience is one thing, but the reader needs to see how it can help them expand. They also need to know why they should care.
By the name alone, there’s a thought that personal essays shouldn’t need to go any deeper than what we (the writer) might have to say, but there is the capacity for them to be about so much for.
This doesn't mean just writing about your life or experiences is bad. I like to think of Anne Patchett here, whose essay work is generally little snippets of her life. Occasionally, they slide into broader themes, but I find a lot of the time, her work in this space is more of a communal conversation about the little moments that have made her days.
On the flip of this, I like to think about how Joan Didion writes. Didion is there in the writing, but she's often the observer. Her own experiences are simply the step she takes into exploring broader ideas, others' experiences and what they might express about living and being human.
When writing towards the heart of your experience, consider the themes it touches on. Which ones matter? Which ones do you want to expand? Why should the reader care?
Build Your Blocks
“A writer paradoxically seeks the truth and tells lies every step of the way. It's a lie if you make something up. But you make it up in the name of the truth, and then you give your heart to expressing it clearly.” - Anne Lamott.
Creating outlines for my work is something I’ve typically been lazy at, but I’ve found the more I implement this technique, the better my work is. It helps me formulate what I want to say and a little about how I’m going to tell it.
Outlines help me create the set of blocks that I need to connect and draw together to tell the full picture of the story I'm putting together. With these blocks, I can then identify any gaps in my writing. It's the next step from uncovering your themes, as this is where you begin to map out the full connections and consider how you'll stitch it all together in a coherent way.
There's nothing worse for me as a reader than feeling like the ideas have all been jammed together. I like there to be flow, and I like the writer to weave this in ways I wouldn't come to on my own. It's no good just presenting a set of ideas, thoughts, quotes or messages - how do they intersect in ways only you - the writer - can put together based on your own lived experiences and understandings? What is the meaning you have found that I - the reader - can learn from?
Some of my favourite authors with a special ability to do this include David Sedaris, Rebecca Solnit and Rachel Cusk. Every time I read their work, I walk away with a humbling experience of having felt both seen and schooled. My mind feels expanded and stretched in all the right gooey ways.
In putting the blocks in place, it becomes apparent what might be missing in how I’m going to connect all these points eventually.
It also helps me decide what I might need to cut and what I should spend more time with.
Write Your Why
“Just as a good lead hooks readers and draws them along for the ride, a good conclusion releases them from your essay’s thrall with a frisson of pleasure, agreement, passion or some other sense of completion. Circling back to your lead in your conclusion is one way to give readers that full-circle sense.” - Tom Bentley.
Coming back to the idea of expanding your reader, conclusions are key within a personal essay.
Claiming this as a ‘conclusion’ feels a little academic for me, so I prefer to call it ‘writing my why’. Why have I written this piece? What am I hoping to leave the reader with? What connection am I seeking out? What truth am I telling, and how am I landing there?
Writing your why is a vital piece of the personal essay puzzle. If you've done a decent enough job, your conclusion is the moment your reader comes together with you and gets that satisfying 'ahhh' moment about everything you've just imparted.
It's the point where the seeds you've sown have hopefully sprouted a root or two, and now you're pouring just enough water on top to encourage further growth.
One thing I’ve learnt about writing personal essays is that if it begins to feel like dragging myself through mud if the resistance to write about the thing I’m trying to pin down is overpowering - leave it alone.
Writing about the personal should be freeing, and if it doesn’t feel that way in the process, it might not be the right time to write about it. I’ve read some essays where this felt really obvious to me, that the writing and sharing had come too soon for the writer. Going back to Flannery O'Connor's comments, as a writer, we cannot dismiss our readers. Although we might feel invested in purging certain experiences, if we do it without contemplation - without offering appropriate lifelines to the reader as they move through an experience with us - I personally feel the writing needs time to sit and simmer before seeking publication.
When I write something that I feel is coming from a place of burning emotion, I like to ask myself:
What would future me think of this? In one year, in five years, in ten?
We all have the capacity to envision this because I'm sure we've written or spoken about a younger experience that we reflect on as our older selves and know - or at least wonder - we would have liked to approach it differently. Will you be proud of what you have pushed out into the world? Does it serve a narrative higher than yourself? Does it provide others with ways forward, even sideways, around a similar experience or issue?
Just as we don’t have to write to share, we also don’t have to write about something if we’re not ready. Let it heal, come back in a few months or years, try to find the heart, and when you're ready, begin.
“It is all life. It is all unavoidable. It is all better than its opposite. Enjoy it while you can.” - Zadie Smith
A Selection of Personal Essays I've Enjoyed:
Patricia Lockwood: Insane After Coronavirus?
After catching COVID-19 in early 2020, Patricia Lockwood chronicled the bizarre delusions she experienced. Like many, I'm bone-tired of pandemic writing, but Lockwood's writing style is one I can always get behind.
She has the wonderful ability to inject humour into almost any situation, and an incredible knack for drawing our attention to the absurdities before us.
"Now that’s it, I thought, that’s what I remember about reading, about life: real air, so real you can write words on it, sliced into cubes and strung with pearls."
David Sedaris: Me Talk Pretty One Day
David Sedaris never ever fails to make me laugh out loud when I read his work - and not just the polite chuckle of good humour. He's made me laugh until I cried while sitting on public transport. The title essay from his collection of the same name is a work of art, perfectly capturing linguistic divides and hilarity when Sedaris attempts to learn French as a forty-something adult.
More than this, Sedaris draws our attention to the undeniable experience of giving ourselves over to being a beginner later in life, when we are suposed to know better, and the ceaseless joys to be found in learning.
"The world opened up, and it was with great joy that I responded, "I know the thing what you speak exact now. Talk me more, plus, please, plus.""
Kyoko Mori: A Difficult Balance: Am I a Writer or a Teacher?
A refreshing piece that ticks all the boxes for me. As writers we often find ourselves in the classroom - and even if not, I know many are called to share their 'expertise', advice and guidance. But does being a writer automatically make you a teacher?
Mori does the discussion of this “double calling” justice, with heart and honesty. Fuelled with wonderful anecdotes and Mori's wonderful voice, this essay also opens up a diolague around a dilemma many face yet rarely speak about.
“Teaching, if it becomes more than a job, might swallow me whole and leave nothing for my life as a writer.”
Joan Didion: Goodbye to All That
Another personal essay that takes it's starting point from a personal lens but encompasses a universal experience; the process of growing up and the way it crees softly behind us. Didion is hands-down one of the foremost literary memoirists of the twentieth century. I love her journalistic eye coupled with a oozing sense of introspection that helps to deliver keen observations about more than the situations and experiences presented.
In Goodbye to All That, Didion talks through her decision to move to New York as a 20-year-old and what this meant to her in her naive youth, as she leaves New York as a 28-year-old. It's a nostalgic piece that perfectly captures that magic and limitless anticipation of youth and moving to a big city (something I completely identify with) and how, while nothing much may happen to you, everything will happen to you. And then, before you realise, you have grown up.
"It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was."
This is an expanded version of my article, The Art of the Personal Essay, originally published with Write or Die Tribe.