Here on Daily (w)rite, as part of the guest post series, it is my pleasure today to welcome Ranjani Rao, scientist, writer, publisher, who is here to give us a few tips on the art of the personal essay.
Art of the personal essay – using the craft of fiction to tell a true story
V.S. Naipaul said, Great subjects are illuminated by small dramas.
As humans, we have an innate need to share stories. Whether we create characters and tell their stories or write about the ones from our own lives, we do so because we seek connection.
A personal essay is typically a short piece of autobiographical writing that can cover almost any topic. Essays can be simple journal entries or complex narratives that add up to a memoir.
Most essays take the form of a gentle, intimate exploration of a subject that the author communicates in an easygoing, conversational manner. The subject of an essay arises from the author’s personal experience but it is more than a mere anecdote. The heart of a personal essay is the reflective voice and introspection that leads to an often unexpected, or surprising, epiphany. The personal story is thus used to shine light on a universal truth.
Although classified as creative or narrative non-fiction, memorable personal essay use many of the techniques used in fiction writing. Here’s a look at five of these key elements and how to use them to write a memorable personal essay.
- Character – In fiction, the central character, or protagonist, is the one who advances the story. In an essay, that central character, the narrator, is the author. Just as fictional characters come across as real people that readers care about, it is important for the narrator of an essay to come across as a likeable, believable, real person. Instead of a smug, know-it-all, readers will appreciate an honest narrator who doesn’t have everything figured out at the start. The tone of the essay serves as an invitation to the reader to explore the subject in a collaborative manner.
- Theme – A story or an essay, both need to have a theme. A personal essay is made unique by the angle it takes. What is the story about? What makes it special? Can you summarize it in a few sentences? Starting with an outline helps draw a border around the story that you want to tell. A personal story can be intimidating at first since your memory is confounded by various emotions and details that may not be relevant. Chipping away at the larger narrative to zoom into the crux of the story brings out the essence for the reader to savor.
- Setting – Details ground stories. Personal essays are no exception. For a reader to relate to the story, it is important to know where and when a story transpired. Setting up scenes with use of vivid imagery, sufficient detail and sharp dialog, are necessary for both forms of story-telling. Seasoned essayists deftly bring to life, not just the outer trappings of a story, but also illuminate the inner life of the narrator.
- Story arc– While plot is needed for fiction, a framework is essential for an essay to come alive. Use of conflict and tension are commonly used in both genres for advancing the story. The protagonist/narrator faces some kind of struggle (internal, external, both) as he/she pursues a goal. A successful story holds the readers’ attention by skillfully describing the events and obstacles along the way and depicts the character’s transformation. While writing fiction, a broader canvas is available to the author since the story is driven purely by imagination, but a personal essay is restricted by what actually happened and therefore must be grounded in reality.
- Climax and resolution – As the story builds up, the characters develop, and events escalate to a point of climax which then must resolve to a satisfactory end for the committed reader. In fiction, an author is free to concoct an impressive tale. In a personal essay, a careful exploration of the narrator’s interior dialog must lead to and explain the epiphany. Resolution is often communicated through a simple illustration of the narrator’s subsequent action, either implicit or explicit, that illuminates the small but significant transformation that has occurred.
Here’s how to write a powerful personal essay:
- Pick a significant moment that highlights the topic – In my essay which tries to answer a significant existential question posed by my daughter – “Why do people have children?” (http://www.muthamagazine.com/2019/06/why-do-people-have-children/), I chose an incident that happened during a routine visit to a diagnostic clinic. Use a narrow and specific frame of reference to open up and answer the larger question that is being explored.
- Show and tell – Contrary to the usual admonition of “show, don’t tell”, Phillip Lopate makes a surprising statement in his book “To show and to tell – The craft of Literary nonfiction”. The spirit of introspection involves ‘telling’ the reader what the essayist has understood through her exploration and is as important as ‘show’ is to storytelling in general. In my essay – “Pink or blue, anyone will do,” I use an episode from my childhood to highlight my realization that the society in which I grew up, preferred male children, through overt and covert actions.
- Be honest. For any piece of writing to resonate with readers, the element of openness and vulnerability has to come through as the genuine ‘voice” of the author. Upon reading my essay “If my mother met Marie Kondo” that appeared in the Straits Times , many readers, with backgrounds very different from mine, told me they appreciated my honest sharing of my mother’s philosophy for life. The essay was triggered by a flash of memory that resurfaced upon watching Marie Kondo’s Netflix show.
Telling stories, whether true or fictional, makes us feel connected. Whether it is short fiction or a personal essay, the key to good writing is the same –tell an interesting, heartfelt story that shines a light on the universal qualities of being human.
Do you read or write personal essays? Do you agree that a personal essay can be written using the same techniques as fiction? Do you have questions for Ranjani?
Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, and a writer by avocation. Originally from India, and former resident of USA, she currently lives in Singapore. Her essays have appeared in print and digital publications like San Jose Mercury News, Mutha Magazine (USA), The Hindu (India), The Straits Times and Singapore Unbound (Singapore). Her e-books “No longer NRI: How I left America for my homeland; essays on the adventures of resettlement” and “Negative Space and other stories”, are available on multiple digital platforms. Watch out for two new e-books, “Train Friends,” an essay collection inspired by Mumbai local trains as well as her contribution to an anthology titled “Desi Modern Love”. Ranjani is co-founder of Story Artisan Press.
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great idea ,thnx
I wrote a ‘creative nonfiction’ – it was my first book and first publication, not knowing it was also a ‘personal essay.’ Ironically, without knowing any of the points highlighted in this post, I managed to use all of them! I published that book, A Bump in the Road, in 2007. I retired it several years later, after I’d moved on emotionally from the gripping trauma of 9/11 (I was working in NYC when it happened) and the death of my mother, both of which I covered in the book, as they overlapped and were both the cause of great trauma and grief. This type of book is also extremely cathartic and I highly recommend it to anyone who has gone through something extreme.
Great advice and I’m glad I had the foreknowledge to use them!
Writing does have the power to heal and what better way than through storytelling! Thank you for sharing your journey.
I can only hope it helped someone else on a similar journey. Thanks for the support.
I agree, a well-crafted narrative essay has all the elements of a story, and stories connect us in deep ways.
So true. Stories are essential for us to feel connected.
I’ve been mulling over sharing my life experiences into personal essays and this post came at the right time to enlighten me with new learnings and validate a few that I perhaps gathered through my four years of writing on the blog. Thank you for sharing the insights, Ranjani and for sharing this informative post, Damyanti. I’m sure there are many like me who will find the post invaluable!
Thank you for letting me know that the post was useful. Happy writing!
Thank you for this really helpful post on essay writing, Ranjani and Damyanti!
Hi Shilpa. Glad to hear you found the post helpful!
Great insight into the art of memoir. Thank you, ladies!
Thank you Pam. Every personal essay has the potential to add up to a book-length memoir. That has been my experience. Cheers.
Best of luck with your writing, Ranjani. ?
I started my writing journey sharing bits and pieces of my personal experiences. I movrd to opinion pieces and then started writing fiction. Never gave so much thought to the non fiction pieces since most of it came from my life. After reading this piece, my perspective has changed. I am planning to gp back to a few posts and try to improvise on them. Thank you Ranjani for a vert informative and insightful post.
Thank you Sonia. It is so heartening to hear that your perspective towards writing personal stories has changed after reading my post. Do let me know how it goes. All the best.
Hi Damyanti – it sounds like Ranjani has the right credentials to offer advice to many of us … the article here I’ve kept for reference – thanks for highlighting her storyline and how she’s worked out the best way for her to tell her stories to us … love the sound of it – cheers Hilary
Thank you for your kind comments and interest in my approach to telling personal stories. Cheers!
I think this is so great and whatever we work as telling sorties is a great way of connecting people.
Thank you Simon. It is so true that we tell stories in order to connect with people. And learning to tell our story in the best possible way by polishing our craft helps both, the storyteller and the reader.
Very useful post! Especially since I’ve been wanting to explore this area of writing more closely. I’ll be coming back later to read the personal essays linked in this post and apply these tips to an essay I’m writing.
Thank you. It is so heartening to see your interest in reading the other linked essays in my article. There are various approaches to telling a story and reading a variety of essays will help you find the most suitable angle and approach for your essay. All the best. Happy ready. And writing !
A very useful post. I’m currently exploring the idea of writing non-fiction on my blog, and this seems like a great idea. Thank you.
Thanks Apeksha. Fiction elements are useful tools for telling all kinds of stories. All the best for your non-fiction writing.
I just taught a Creative Nonfiction writing workshop about this very subject. Shared this post with my students.
Thank you. I am happy to hear that you found my article relevant and worth sharing with your students. I hope your students find it useful.
How timely is this! I have just suggested to the manager of our local cancer support centre, where I have been a volunteer since 2010, that she offer a creative/expressive writing workshop as part of her overall therapeutic offering. I’ve been researching material to both justify the proposal and to outline possible approaches. This article of yours will be a great help, I am sure.
I am so glad to hear that you found my article timely and helpful. Writing our stories can be a therapeutic activity in addition to being a creative outlet.