The hardest part of writing a personal essay, it seems to me, is keeping it from becoming too personal; not letting what you write be simply “me” spelled 300 different ways. That is a risk one runs, of course, whenever one writes. Fiction or non-fiction, it doesn’t matter. The question is, how do you guard against that? A writer must always keep in mind that someone else is going to read what is written.
The personal essay is probably the most easily tainted by too much “me.” It is, after all, not that far from a diary or journal entry, composed for the writer, considered confidential by most, and often shared only by those who come after the writer is no longer around to either object or explain. An essay, a “personal” essay, is a deliberate attempt by the writer to share a idea or two in a constructive, coherent manner, and do it with as many readers as possible.
There are two key parts to a personal essay: the writer and the reader. Capturing the reader, holding the reader to the end, demands certain things of the writer.
The subject must be one of interest to readers, and the writing must be more than chit-chat or mumbling on the part of the writer. Striving for elegance is always important. In an essay it is often what keeps the reader going from first word to last. A novel may have a plot that exceeds the quality of the telling, and that can keep some readers working on it to the end. An essay is short, but brevity alone will not always hold. “Short and sweet” is a combination, not an either-or option.
Once the writer has found a style of writing that works, then the selection of subject becomes the next important task. A beautifully constructed line or paragraph or page has no intrinsic value if it is not something readers care about. Finding that is what brings readers to the page, to the story, to the thought behind the title.
Making writing work, regardless of the form or subject, requires work on the part of the writer. One test that can be applied is simply to ask at the end of every line, “Is this about me, or the subject?” If it is about the writer, then the next test is one that every line in any writing must pass: Does it advance the storyline or plot or subject I have identified? If the answer is “no,” then the words must be cut.
The process can be agonizing, I know. Sometimes a line gets written that is beautiful, meaningful, perceptive and in every way just what the writer wants it to be – and it is wrong. Wrong for the subject, wrong for the voice, wrong for the form. Out it must go.
I can’t tell you how many time I have heard (and said) in response to the question, “Is the script finished?” the incomprehensible (to the client or the producer) answer: “Oh, yes. I just have to put in on paper.” Editing begins in the writer’s mind. The words that finally get written and are eventually allowed to remain, or are excised, should be the right words. And they must be about the subject, not the writer. I remind you again of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum: You don’t write because you want to say something. You write because you have something to say.
Writing well is all there is.