Alright, young bloods. You want to write a personal essay.
An essay that will make their knees shake and their eyes roll back in their head as they collapse in a puddle of pathos in front of their laptop. An essay that you can point to, silently, when people ask, “who are you, again?”
But you’re nervous. You’re nervous that you aren’t interesting enough, or that no one cares. Or that if you open the latch on your chest and let people look into your soul, they’ll see nothing but a bureau filled with stacked clichés.
Well, ok. Valid concerns. I’ve got some solutions for you. Here’s how write a bangin’ personal essay, in nine hack-ish steps:
1. Get another e-mail account.
This one is just for you – a place for you to send all of the random ideas that crackle in your brain on the subway, at work, during a great Gchat, etc. If you make idea generation as easy as an email, it’s super easy to start emailing shit to yourself throughout the day. Like, lots of shit. Anything. The weird shape of the clouds on a Saturday morning; a nose shape you love. I used to e-mail stuff to my actual e-mail account, but that got pretty overwhelming. Having a dedicated place for it gives you, essentially, your own personal catalog of ideas. I guess you could use an app for this, but come on; we’re so used to writing e-mails; our motor cortices know exactly how to move our muscles to quickly send e-mail. And then, you can go into that account on a Friday and search for “death” and see all the ideas you’ve had about death that week. Pretty cool.
2. Choose something you’ve already been thinking/writing about a lot.
Look through all the e-mails you’ve sent to yourself. What’s interesting? What have you been worried about? Afraid of? There will be lots of boring ideas, but there may be a few interesting ones – if you’re doing it right, you’ll send yourself so many that you’ll forget a lot of them, so you’ll be able to look at them impartially. From among these, choose an idea/experience/concern that you can reasonably stand behind over the course of ~1,000 words.
3. Ask yourself if a stranger would want to read this.
If you’ve chosen to write about the lives of dust mites, think about why you might want to read that. Try to focus on things that seem innately interesting/new. It’s useful to have a high bar for this; you don’t want to be stuck with a great essay that’s already been written (do some Googling). That said, if you’re passionate about something, it’s possible. There is a great essay to be written about dust.
4. Just write.
You might actually start by copying all the ideas around that topic/experience from that email account, and putting them in a Word doc. Then, just go. Don’t do an outline first – it always makes me feel like I’m in school. You should not be following directions, at this point; not even your own directions.
Music is good for this. Michael Chabon listens to Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. I sometimes listen to Avicii (yup, it’s a bottle of amphetamine) or other electronic/dance music. The point is to just move your fingers. John McPhee (great interview w/ him here) says, “I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something – anything – as a first draft.” Oh, Johnny boy, of course you use the word “babble.”
After you’ve done this, you’re still only ~1/4 of the way there, so don’t worry if it’s not good. Just, kind of, turn off your frontal lobe/filter, and transcribe the voice in your head. Do it for about 4-5 typed pages.
Note: it gets better the longer you spend on it. It’s like an old faucet. The stuff that comes out first is brown, and then clearer stuff comes out later, after it’s been running for a while.
Last thing: If you’re having trouble, it’s sometimes insanely helpful to try to write it like you’re writing a textbook, or an air conditioner manual. Super dry. Don’t be personal about it; just tell it like it is/was. Take out the metaphors. By keeping your emotions in check, you’ll make them bubble up involuntarily, like a volcano. You’ll start to, without even trying, be more honest.
5. Read what you’ve got, with an eye toward structure.
Many personal essays follow a certain structure, and I think it’s useful to start there. In order, most go:
- Specific moment, very zoomed-in. Lots of detail. This moment is usually pretty intense.
- Context. This usually starts with a general statement about one’s station in life, age, or something else general like that (“I am 26, and I live in New York…”). Lay the groundwork.
- 2-3 additional moments that pick up where the first left off, but are a bit more zoomed-out.
- Analysis. Explain what this all says about the human condition, your life, or the universe. Or just tell us what you learned from it, or how you’ve changed.
- [see below for recs on the ending; it can go in multiple directions]
You’ll notice that you’re probably missing a few of these pieces. Whatever you’re missing, fill it in. You can always delete it later if you want to, but it’s good to have all the elements before you start cutting.
6. Go crazy at the end.
If you’ve followed the structure above, the ending can go in multiple directions. This part’s up to you. Put on your creative pants/hats! I see a few pretty standard routes, and some less standard ones. Go for the weirder ones, if you can swing it.
- Ending #1: Loop back to the zoomed-in moment you started with. Maybe tell what happened after that moment, or go back and retell it with some added insight. This is pretty typical. Kind of boring, actually, imo.
- Ending #2: Talk about what you would do differently next time. This can be pretty realistic, or you can get all crazy and hyperbolic with it. “Next time I would stand on my head and masturbate upside down, etc.” Obviously depends on the subject matter, but this one can be fun.
- Ending #3: Get the fuck out of first person. This is my favorite. You’ve been in first person for a whole essay, probably, so GET THE FUCK OUT! You can go to second person (“Sometimes, you get to a point where you realize…”) or second person plural (“We’re growing up. We’re not masturbating nearly as much as we used to. We start to realize that…”). Third person is gross don’t do that.
- Ending #4: The call to action. This is my favorite. You can call anyone to action: your mom, God, yourself, ghosts. With the call to action, you can take the lessons of your personal essay and turn them into a directive for others to follow: “Dear God, please understand. We are all [INSERT CENTRAL IMAGE/CHARACTER FROM ESSAY]. God, can you hear me? I am standing on my toes telling you that you should [INSERT LESSON FROM ANALYSIS SECTION].” You don’t even need “Dear” at the beginning – you can just start talking in imperatives (“Please [INSERT IMPERATIVE, DRAWN FROM WHAT YOU LEARNED AS A RESULT OF YOUR EXPERIENCE]”). I think this is a great way to end a personal essay. It’s a lot less fluffy than most people tend to be at the ends of these things.
7. Remove bay leaves.
Remember those guys? The things your mom puts in the soup to give it flavor, and then before she serves it, she has to go in with her fingers and take them out? Bay leaves add flavor/meaning/depth to the surrounding parts, but they shouldn’t be in the final product. For example: at the beginning of this piece, I originally had a 2-paragraph section in which I detailed the first time I wrote a personal essay. This added some depth, and helped me think about my personal experience, which was useful for writing the rest. But it was a bay leaf. In a practical piece like this, my personal experience is a tad irrelevant. So I took it out; I may use it to add flavor to something else in the future.
8. Pretend you work in the hospitality industry.
At Eleven Madison Park, the maître d’ stalks you on before you arrive, cataloguing what you enjoy/dislike based on your Internet presence. They’ll serve you a lamb burger after you tweet about a taste for ground mutton.
After you’ve written and done a bit of revision, act like that EMP maître d’. Focus on the journey you want readers to take. Where do you want them to laugh? Empathize? Get angry? Caress them where you think they should be caressed; confuse them when you think it’s appropriate and bring them back into the fold with your next paragraph.
Figure out where the reader’s reaction should change/evolve. Think about how you want them to feel at the end. Spend some time with those sentences/paragraphs where you know for sure that they should feel something specific. Open a new word doc and write those little moments 10x in a row, making little changes each time. Read them aloud; you’ll hear yourself getting closer.
9. Fact check.
Even personal essays have facts; eliminate distracting inaccuracies that will make people lose trust. Are lima beans really legumes? Is mutton actually the right word to use for ground lamb? Are bay leaves really customarily taken out of soup, or was that just my mom?
You’ll have a pretty solid essay at this point. Read it aloud a few times; maybe send it to someone you respect.
Then choose a title – simple, straightforward ones are best – and CTRL+S.
A few additional notes:
- If it’s a parenthetical, delete it. That’s a rule for writing, speaking, thinking, and for life.
- If it’s a device, delete it.
- If you cried while you wrote it, definitely don’t keep it verbatim. Delete most of it.
- Be very selective with adverbs. They’re often unnecessary. Delete most of them.
- If you were angry while you wrote it, keep it.
- If you find yourself hesitating, wondering if something will be too ___________, just do it.
So there you go.
And: I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and this process transfers pretty well to other things – songs, for example, follow a structure similar to the one described above (#5). The best personal essays are like songs – start super-specific (verse), then broaden (chorus), then include some more specifics (verse/bridge) before ending with a call to action (final chorus: everyone sings along!)
Go forth and write personally, my friends.