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
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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