Personal essay is my favorite sub-genre of nonfiction. The writing becomes not only a journey for the reader but the writer as well. I’ve had the opportunity to write several personal essays that taught me things about myself I didn’t know until I later went back and read them. If you haven’t taken the chance to write a personal essay or memoir I would encourage you to do so.
Like fiction writing there are specific things your nonfiction needs to make it good. I will only be discussing three: characters, scene, and summary.
Your story has to have realistic characters. This seems kind of funny to say because the people in your memoir are real, but they still need to be round. As a writer you need to give them shape. They need contrast, description, and they need to be complicated. Three ways in which to develop round characters are: through dialogue, through action, and through musing—you can enter the minds of these characters and image what they might be thinking/feeling. If you are planning on sharing your life’s events with the world remember the people you talk about in your writing will see it too. Make sure you are comfortable with sharing details about them to others.
As in fiction your personal essay should be made up of scenes and summary. The rule for memoir is about 70% scene and 30% summary. This is all about pacing your story. If you can control the speed of the narrative, you control the story itself. Scene is where the story slows down. The reader learns more in a scene than anywhere else. In a scene the writer can hone into one specific thing and freeze time for a moment. Summary helps to speed things up. You can use summary to move the story along to another thought or topic. I think it best to think of this as a movie. The scene is the close shot, where you get to see all the personal characteristics and details of your favorite actor. The summary is the wide shot, it takes in lots of people and places but is still fluid in the movie. Remember 70/30. Make scene be the driver in your piece.
Again if you haven’t tried writing personal essay or memoir give it a try. Journaling is a great way to start, just try and remember some of the rule above. Don’t forget to make realistic/round characters, and have 70/30 with scene and summary. You don’t really need to know where the story is heading; like the reader, you’re on a journey.
And that’s my key on personal essay.