Writing status: I’m working on a collection of essays, not personal but ideas picked from my daily life, which I hope to get published very soon. For now, I’m calling it, “Cutting Some Slack.”
Before ‘A Nosh of Life’ became a literary magazine, it used to be my blog where I logged the products of my musings and certain handpicked portions of my everyday life. Even though I’m a copywriter, I haven’t studied literature at the higher education level and so, I never realized that those portions of my everyday life that I doled out here were personal essays.
Once I knew they had a name and I can stop calling them ‘deranged diary entries’, I read one of them again and thought,
“It’s good. But, what does it need to be great?”
If it has a proper literary name then someone must have written a book on how to perfect your personal essays. So, I bought and read a few renowned books on same.
A few books later, I wanted to test my knowledge and I couldn’t think of any topic. My next dilemma,
“What’s a good topic for a personal essay?”
I read and finalized one. Half way through it and I started second-guessing myself,
“Should I even be adding this? How relevant is it?”
“How much emotion is too much?”
“I think, it’s going in some other direction.”
And the worst one was,
“What would people think?”
Well, this is what studying literature does to you – it makes you check out the ceiling multiple times for remains of a biblical fresco for some divine intervention. You know, the ceiling is worth checking out after a self-study. It leaves you with the eyes of a better writer.
Anyway, time to answer the above questions.
What’s a good topic for a personal essay?
For me, whether something will become an essay or a poetry is a matter of time and intensity. Yes, I’m comparing essays to poetry. Sit tight!
“When something moves me with a great intensity in almost an instant that I’m overwhelmed, it comes out as a poem. And when something continues to influence my life, on and off, with varying intensity so much so that I wonder ‘why’, then I sit down to write an essay over it.”
Now, it may seem like a well-laid plan, but it isn’t. A personal essay doesn’t happen overnight. It lingers on for days and months. It is basically an investigation of your life, a personal investigation. Hence, the topic must be personal.
“Why do I lie?”
“Why don’t I feel like myself and still feel happy?”
“Since when did I start finding book reading so daunting?”
These were some questions that clouded my mind and to understand my mind’s inner workings, I gave them the shape of different essays.
So, a good topic for a personal essay is a question that seeks an answer and that can be answered only by you. These questions are often dark and demand courage when addressed openly. Personal essays put you on a path of self-discovery and it’s a journey you must take.
Most writers who prefer open-ended plots, project these investigations on their characters and let them lead the story.
Should I even be adding this?
Some say that essays must have an argument and a valid one at that. I digress. I believe that while it’s good to have an argument and logic in your essay, personal essays don’t need judgment on the part of the argument at least. It’s the writer’s journey. He lived it. And he knows it better than anyone else.
So, how far, wide, and deep you deem apt is your call. It’s hard to be objective while writing personal essays. However, unnecessary facts and emotions could divert you from constructing a good one and an outside opinion could change the outcome.
To not get swayed away, keep your question as your working title. I could have said that keep your question as the first line of your draft, but I didn’t. That’s because it avoids another mistake – taking up too much and then choking on it.
From the books I read, I understood that it will be a disaster to have multiple themes and sub-themes in an essay. My question cannot be: Why I lost in ice hockey + why I got mad at my parents + how puberty tanked my self-confidence + my time of depression + why I ran away from home + what made me come back. As some of you might have guessed it, such a bunch of questions is good for a story (Have you watched, “Inside Out”?).
Even if in your essay, you want to explore your relationship with your parents, you don’t have to recite your whole life. Just an incident would do, the incident that provoked you to finally sit down and think about it. Go deeper than wider.
So, that whenever you find yourself battling with the relevance of some event, feeling, or fact, you have your title as your Pole Star to guide you back home.
What will people think?
No matter how many times we say that we don’t care what the world would make of our personal essay, it doesn’t change the fact that secretly we do. And this is also a fact, that this fear is scraped off layer by layer when we start writing the piece.
We grow as we write. We always emerge stronger on the other side. And just like that, a personal essay must show your character arc. (This is where I tell you to bother yourself with what people will think.)
It may be an essay, but it’s your story and you’re the hero of your story. What good is your story if after all those incidents and busting your ass condensing them in a marvelous piece of literature, there is nothing for the reader to take away?
I’ll buy your lie that you didn’t think of people while writing. But why should a reader care about your journey if you didn’t really move to anywhere? If it didn’t alter your life, how will it influence the reader’s?
There are mesmerizing and fresh imagery and a dramatic turn of events packed in lovely strings of words. But, you started with a conflict, a question. If at the end, you’re still battling that question, you haven’t arrived anywhere. There’s no answer.
While I answered the foundational questions of personal essays, a lot is left to cover on the cosmetic front. I’ll deal with those details later, but I can’t take off without giving you a crash course on how to begin since this is where some writers give up. Yes, this is my personal observation that they wait for days to get the perfect first lines only to dump the idea in a week.
I read a lot of essays past year and the ones that kept me hooked through and through the pages started medias res – Right at the onboarding, they dropped me straight in the middle of a scene. There is a progress forward and a reason backward – a riveting parallel drama! Who doesn’t love that?! After picking up pace, they kept me intrigued with instances of only constructive facts.
So, give out your best stuff first. Don’t unwrap the mystery yourself in one go. Drop hints and build suspense. And end with a clear character arc.
Like I said, I was not raised as a writer. I’m teaching myself things as and when I need to. I tried my best to share my insights and if I missed something, do enlighten me. In the article’s update, I’ll add those points too. Also, drop your personal essays in the comments for others to read.