Last month, I was a speaker at the League of Utah Writers annual Quills Writing Conference in Salt Lake City. I moved to Colorado in May, but I guess they still like me in Utah, because they haven’t revoked my membership yet. So it was fun and motivating to see old writing friends and make new ones at the conference.
At the conference, one of the topics I was asked to speak about was on writing personal essays. Specifically, I discussed how to steal a technique from artists to make your personal experiences actually matter to your readers.
Contrary to popular belief, personal essays aren’t a dead art-form. Plenty of magazines still publish personal essays (check the last page of some of your favorite hobby, lifestyle, or industry magazines – chances are fair that you’ll find a personal essay there). Literary magazines often have a personal essay category. Or you may want to write personal essays for your family, whether for a family history or for your own memoir. You may even write a personal essay for the newspaper op-ed pages or for your blog or website.
The key to making your personal essay compelling enough for someone else to want to read is to connect your personal experience with a universal truth, and vice versa. If you don’t, then you’re not really writing an essay, you’re writing an anecdote.
An anecdote says: “This is what happened to me.”
A personal essay says: “This is what happened to me. Because of this, I believe ______, and this is how/why it relates to your life.” (But without preaching, of course.)
So the first thing you must do when writing an essay is figure out the universal truth that your experience led you to believe (or reject). If you’re writing a persuasive essay, identify what you’re trying to convince the reader to believe or do. If you’re writing a memoir-type essay, what do you want them to learn about you, and why? What will this essay teach them about themselves?
Now that you’ve determined the universal truth, come up with one or more specific experiences from your life that led you to believe (or reject) that truth. These are the experiences you will build your essay around.
As you begin to write your essay, here’s where we steal a technique from artists: we are going to use background, foreground, and middleground to move our story from our personal experience to a more universal one, and back again.
In a painting, there is often a subject in the foreground, say, a portrait. That subject is usually what we see first. But when we look at the background of the painting, we gather clues that put the subject into context. For an example, let’s look at Christina’s World by the American artist Andrew Wyeth.
In the foreground, we see Christina, sitting on the ground, looking at the farmhouse. Christina was a real woman who had a disability that caused the loss of the use of her legs, and she often crawled to move around. If the painting only showed Christina in the grass, with no farmhouse in the background, we would not be as emotionally affected by the painting.
But by adding the farmhouse in the distant background, with a large bleak field of wild grass in the middleground, we suddenly see the physical challenge her disability presents. That farmhouse looks much farther away when we imagine ourselves crawling, using nothing but our hands. And we pay more attention to the details, such as the dirt on her dress. In effect, the background and middleground put the foreground subject (Christina) into context. Her story is stronger because the background helped us see that context and imagine ourselves in it.
For essay-writing purposes, imagine that the background is your universal truth, and the foreground is your personal experience. You can move back and forth between the background and foreground (and middleground) as often as you want in your essay.
So… As you’re writing your personal essay, look at your subject with a broader lens. What is the background (the universal truth) that will put your story into context for your reader? Moving from foreground to background in your essay will make your story stronger and help you connect with that universal truth. For examples, look at some essays by writers such as David Sedaris or Anthony Bourdain. They move with skill between background and foreground, bringing their own stories into sharp relief against the background that gives them context and universality.