I remember well the self-doubts of my early writing career, when I felt completely unsure that I could ever write anything that was worthy of notice or publication.
One particular evening a few decades back, firm in my memory even now, I turned toward my wife, Renita, and moaned, “Oh, I’m just so average. Your typical guy with the typical tedious problems. Who wants to hear my story?”
My wife closed the book she had been reading and asked, “What do you mean?”
I whined some more, about an author who had just landed a big book deal. Ethnic memoirs were all the rage at that point in time and this writer had been raised by parents who once lived in Japanese internment camps. Then I complained a bit about another writer: Her father had been a diplomat, so she grew up all over the world, and at one point even survived a dangerous escape during a foreign coup d’etat.
“Me?” I whimpered. “My life is just about identical to every other Catholic white kid raised in the 1960s.”
At this point, Renita, bless her generous heart, nodded, smiled and said, “Well, then you should write about that.”
And she was right.
I was undervaluing my own singular nature and experience: Each person, each life, is distinctive, even if you didn’t grow up in a family of acrobats or spend 10 years sleeping alongside lions on the African veld. It’s not what happens to us in our lives that makes us into writers; it’s what we make out of what happens to us. It’s our distinctive point of view.
SELECT THE APPROPRIATE “SELF.”
The concept of persona is crucially important for writers of creative nonfiction to understand. Although the personal essay is a form of nonfiction, and thus the self you bring to your essay should be an honest representation of who you are, we are in fact made of many selves: our happy self, our sad self, our indignant self, our skeptical self, our optimistic self, our worried self, our demanding self, our rascally self and on and on and on. But in truth, if we attempt to bring all of these selves to every essay that we write, we run the risk of seeming so uncertain, so indecisive, that we merely confuse the reader.
Consistent and engaging personality on the page is often a case of choosing which “self” is speaking in a particular piece and dialing up the energy on that emotion or point of view. Henry David Thoreau likely had days when Walden Pond did not fill him with wonder and inspiration, but he knew enough to not share those tedious moments. They were beside the point. Or, to put it another way: Dithering is best left to first drafts, and then carefully edited away.
The goal is not to deceive the reader, to pretend to be someone that you are not, but rather to partially isolate a part of who you are, the you that you are today, as you meditate on a particular subject and sit down to write.
BE HONEST, BUT CLEAR.
The slogan of the literary journal Creative Nonfiction is, “You just can’t make this stuff up.” It’s effective, I believe, because of its double meaning. One meaning is that the truth is often stranger than fiction. The second meaning reminds the writer that in nonfiction, you are not just making stuff up.
So don’t fake it. Don’t act all pious on the page if you are not, in fact, a devout person. Don’t generate false outrage over something you don’t care that much about. Don’t be a hypocrite.
But you can highlight a particular trait, if it is in fact true to your nature, and shine a bright light upon it for a few pages, letting it take center stage.
Look at Robin Hemley’s introduction to his essay “No Pleasure But Meanness”:
I have a mean bone in my body. In fact, I think I have more than one mean bone. For instance, I hate people who smile all the time. It feels good to say that word, “hate,” doesn’t it? Would you like to try it? Say: “I hate people who ask rhetorical questions in essays that can’t possibly be answered.”
Hemley is being witty here, poking fun at himself and at his overuse of the rhetorical question. He is also signaling the reader that this essay will focus on that part of him that can be called “mean,” or critical.
I happen to know the author of this essay, and he is a very likable, extremely funny man. Yet he no doubt has his mean moments, times when the things that annoy him lead to testiness or sharp anger. We all have that side to us, I believe. Perhaps inspired by William Hazlitt’s “On the Pleasure of Hating,”
Hemley is taking a moment in his own essay to explore that aspect of himself, closely and specifically.
The essay continues with the author lodging numerous complaints against folks who smile too much in photographs, against the checkout clerk at Walmart, against his kindergarten teacher—and though Hemley continues to leaven his bread of anger with humor and occasional winks to the reader, he does reveal a part of who he is honestly, clearly and with interest.
Another good example is Joan Didion, who begins her essay “In the Islands” with these two sentences:
I tell you this not as aimless revelation but because I want you to know, as you read me, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind. I want you to understand exactly what you are getting: You are getting a woman who for some time now has felt radically separated from most of the ideas that seem to interest other people.
Well, you simply can’t get much clearer, or more honest, than that.
FIND THE UNIVERSAL YOU.
That slight aspect of your personality (or fantasy life, or hidden world) that you think so odd, so peculiar, so weird, that you’ve kept it a secret your entire life, is most likely far more common than you think. We’re all made of similar stuff, we human beings. Even our most closely guarded insecurities are often commonly held, though most individuals keep these parts of themselves so hidden that there’s little chance to discover the commonality.
But writers are different. We do share. And along the way readers come to an understanding that we are all very much alike.
The French essayist Michel de Montaigne devotes much of his essay “Of Repentance” to this notion of universality.
Consider these sentences:
Others form man; I only report him: and represent a particular one, ill fashioned enough, and whom, if I had to model him anew, I should certainly make something else than what he is: but that’s past recalling. … If the world find fault that I speak too much of myself, I find fault that they do not so much as think of themselves. But is it reason, that being so particular in my way of living, I should pretend to recommend myself to the public knowledge?
Here, Montaigne is addressing a bit of anticipated criticism. In modern parlance, that criticism might go like this: “Just who the heck do you think you are, Mr. Montaigne, to write about yourself all of the time? Shouldn’t you confine your writings to the vaunted geniuses and holy persons of past ages, instead of focusing all of the time on your own unproven self?” He goes on to say (in his now quite-dated syntax):
I have this, at least, according to discipline, that never any man treated of a subject he better understood and knew, than I what I have undertaken, and that in this I am the most understanding man alive: secondly, that never any man penetrated farther into his matter, nor better and more distinctly sifted the parts and sequences of it, nor ever more exactly and fully arrived at the end he proposed to himself. … I speak truth, not so much as I would, but as much as I dare; and I dare a little the more, as I grow older; for, methinks, custom allows to age more liberty of prating, and more indiscretion of talking of a man’s self.
Montaigne is answering his critics by asserting (in my words now, not his): “Oh yeah, well let me tell you this much, buster. What I know best is my own self, and I know my own self really, really well, because I’m willing to study this subject and truly consider it in ways that others have not been willing to do. And if what I find is that I’m not so bloody perfect, well then I’ll tell you that. Because I’m too old to waste time and hide behind niceties. I’m looking for the truth.”
Montaigne, underneath all of the complex sentences and fancy language, is making a simple assertion. It’s his belief that if he captures a true portrait of himself, he’ll capture something universal, something recognizable to everyone.
Or, as he puts it elsewhere in the same essay: “… Every man carries the entire form of human condition.”
CHOOSE YOUR PERSONA WISELY.
Memoirist Sue William Silverman often receives letters and e-mail from readers, and recently she shared a fascinating reaction to some of the responses to her first two books, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You and Love Sick.
Silverman’s memoirs are deeply personal and honest about events and behaviors in the author’s past, and many of the notes Silverman finds in her mailbox say, in so many words, “I feel as if I know you.” In response to this, Silverman writes:
Both memoirs frequently elicit this response … even though both books are very different. What does Karen know about me? Marie? Karen knows what it was like for me to grow up in an incestuous family. Marie knows what it was like for me to recover from a sexual addiction. To Karen, the real me is one thing; to Marie, the real me is something, someone different. Even so, does this mean that all I am—as a writer and as a woman—is an incest survivor/sex addict? Is that it?
Silverman, of course, is far more than just that. She is a successful author, a respected teacher, a public speaker, a private person who has had countless challenges and experiences. Everything she has put into her memoirs is true, yes, but then again, neither of her books captures the entire person that she has been and that she is today.
Sometimes she herself wonders who this “Sue William Silverman” on the page really is, Silverman tells us, and she has reached the conclusion that readers are wrong to think that they know her:
… They know something about me, of course—but only what I choose to show in any given book or essay. It’s as if, with each new piece I write, a different “me,” or a different aspect of myself, is highlighted.
To make her point, she talks about an essay she is currently drafting, part of her collection-in-progress, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew.
When writing about Pat Boone, for example, I had to show how, since my Jewish father had molested me, it made sense that I’d seek out an overtly Christian man as a father figure. But I touched upon this incestuous background as briefly as possible, while, at the same time, implementing a much more ironic voice than that of my memoir. In effect, I removed the dark gray mask I wore while writing the memoir, and, for the essay, slipped on one that had as many sparkles as the red-white-and-blue costume Pat Boone wears in his concerts.
Had Silverman the writer attempted to bring her whole identity—her family past, her sexual addiction—into everything she has ever written, she would likely keep writing the same book or same essay over and over, and no one grows as a writer by merely repeating past work. Silverman is smart enough to know that.
Make sure you remember this as well.
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Read “How Keeping a Diary Can Surprise You” to learn more — and check out what other teenagers told us back in 2011 when we asked, Do You Keep a Diary or Journal?
But don’t stop at just journaling. Go back, read over what you wrote, look for patterns and think about what these “personal stories” reveal about you. A recent article on the Well blog suggests that writing and editing stories about yourself can help you see your life differently, and actually lead to behavioral changes:
The concept is based on the idea that we all have a personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. But sometimes our inner voice doesn’t get it completely right. Some researchers believe that by writing and then editing our own stories, we can change our perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of better health.
Read about how personal story editing helped 40 college freshman at Duke University who were struggling academically, then think about how you can use the techniques yourself.
2. Use current events and issues as a jumping-off point.
That’s what we’ve done every school day since 2009 with our Student Opinion question: we find an interesting article in The Times, pose a question about it, and invite any teenager anywhere in the world to answer it.
In fact, we’ve just published a list of 650 of those questions that ask for personal and narrative writing, on topics like sports, travel, education, gender roles, video games, fashion, family, pop culture, social media and more. Visit the collection to get ideas and to access related Times articles to help you think more about each.
Then, ask you yourself, what issues and current events do you care most about? How do they impact your life? What personal stories can you tell that relate to them in some way?
For instance, maybe the impact of technology on our lives concerns you. In our collection of prompts, you can find nearly 50 different ways we’ve taken that topic on, each linked to a Times article or essay on the topic.
For just one example, though, you might read Gary Shteyngart’s essay “Only Disconnect”:
With each post, each tap of the screen, each drag and click, I am becoming a different person — solitary where I was once gregarious; a content provider where I at least once imagined myself an artist; nervous and constantly updated where I once knew the world through sleepy, half-shut eyes; detail-oriented and productive where I once saw life float by like a gorgeously made documentary film.
Does it surprise you to realize this essay was written in 2010? Do you think his observations are even more true today? What stories do you have to tell about life online?
Another excellent place to glean ideas is the Op-Ed page, where writers respond to the news of the day with occasional personal essays. In this one, a classic from 1999, a teenager reacts to the Columbine school shootings — then blamed in part on school cliques that made some feel like outsiders — with an essay headlined, “Yes, I’m in a Clique.”
Or read this week’s “How to Vote as an Immigrant and a Citizen,” an Op-Ed by the novelist Imbolo Mbue about what it means to her to vote on November 8 and, for the first time, have “a say in America’s future.”
Other great places to look for ideas other than our daily Student Opinion question and the Op-Ed page? Check the Trending lists, or visit our monthly Teenagers in The Times series.
3. Take some tips from experts.
Our lesson plan, Writing Rules! Advice From The Times on Writing Well, compiles nine guidelines from many different Times sources on everything from “listening to the voice in your head” to writing with “non-zombie nouns and verbs.”
But for one-stop shopping on the personal essay in particular, you might just read “How to Write a Lives Essay,” in which the author asks the magazine’s editors for a “single, succinct piece of advice” for getting an essay published in the long-running column devoted to personal stories.
Here are a few of the answers, but read the whole post to see them all:
• More action, more details, less rumination. Don’t be afraid of implicitness. And the old Thom Yorke line: “Don’t get sentimental. It always ends up drivel.”
• Meaning (or humor, or interestingness) is in specific details, not in broad statements.
• Write a piece in which something actually happens, even if it’s something small.
• Don’t try to fit your whole life into one “Lives.”
• Don’t try to tell the whole story.
• Do not end with the phrase “I realized that … ”
• Tell a small story — an evocative, particular moment.
• Better to start from something very simple that you think is interesting (an incident, a person) and expand upon it, rather than starting from a large idea that you then have to fit into an short essay. For example, start with “the day the Santa Claus in the mall asked me on a date” rather than “the state of affairs that is dating in an older age bracket.”
• Go to the outer limit of your comfort zone in revealing something about yourself.
• Embrace your own strangeness.
How can you apply any, or all, of these pieces of advice to an essay you’re writing?
4. Borrow an opening line for inspiration.
Back in 2011, we ran a contest that invited students to Use Opening Lines From the Magazine’s ‘Lives’ Column as Writing Prompts. Contestants were allowed to write stories, essays, plays, memoirs or poetry, and could use lines like these:
It’s impossible to look cool when you’re part of a tour group. (From “In Too Deep”)
Mornings are not our best family moments. (From “Mother’s Little Helper”)
Cosmic forces have a way of turning up the heat to make us change. (From “The Tractor Driver or the Pothead?” )
After you look at the full list of first lines, jump over to read the work of our winners, and see how they took first sentences like “I am parked in a rental car in front of the house where I grew up,” and made them their own.
Around Valentine’s Day that same year, we invited students to use first lines from the weekly Modern Love column as “passion prompts,” and that time we showed them how to take the basic idea from the essay and adapt it for themselves:
• Times sentence, from “The Day the House Blew Up”:
We went out to the house last month to celebrate Valentine’s Day. But then the house exploded.
Sentence starter:We went to [place and time] to celebrate Valentine’s Day. But then…
• Times sentence, from “In a Wedding Album From the City’s 5 Borough Halls, Tales as Varied as the Rooms”:
It was just another Saturday night on Queens Boulevard two years ago when Eddie Ellis and Gladys Corcino pulled up beside each other at a red light near 65th Street.
Sentence starter: It was just another [day/time of the week] on/in [location] when [name] and [name]…
Scroll through all our choices from these two posts, or find your own opening line from a more recent Times essay to inspire you. How can you adapt it and make it your own?
5. Use images to spur memories and ideas.
We’re all about images as inspiration on this site, and this year we even have a new daily writing feature called Picture Prompts, and a lesson plan about teaching with images to go with it.
Scroll through the feature, and either follow the prompts we suggest, or use any of the images that catch your interest to write whatever you like. What memories does it inspire? What personal connection to the content can you make? What stories from your own life does it remind you of?
Other great places to find images in The Times?
• Lens, a Times site for photography, video and photojournalism
• The Lively Morgue, a Tumblr of images from the Times archives
• Looking at Our Hometowns, a 2013 Lens project that asked, “What would happen if you asked high school students to help create a 21st-century portrait of the country by turning their cameras on their neighborhoods, families, friends and schools?”
6. Craft a great college essay.
Our lesson plan, Getting Personal: Writing College Essays for the Common Application, helps students explore the open-ended prompts on the Common Application, then analyze Times pieces that might serve as models for their own application essays.
For example, take this prompt: “The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?”
Here are some first-person Times essays that could serve as models for writing about the theme of failure:
• “A Rat’s Tale”: A writer discusses her failure to be the sister her brother wanted and what she learned.
• “Pancake Chronicles”: An entertaining account of a disastrous first job.
• “A Heartbroken Temp at Brides.com”: After a groom changes his mind, his would-be bride, with “no money, no apartment, no job” takes a position at a wedding website.
The lesson also links to a number of Times articles that offer advice on everything from “Going for the ‘Dangerous’ Essay” to “Treating a College Admissions Essay Like a First Date.”
Another source of inspiration is Ron Lieber’s annual contest for the best college essays that address issues of money, work and social class.
These essays, as he wrote in 2015, are “filled with raw, decidedly mixed feelings about parents and their sacrifices; trenchant accounts of the awkwardness of straddling communities with vastly different socio-economic circumstances; and plain-spoken — yet completely affecting — descriptions of what it means to make a living and a life in America today.”
You can find them all, by year, here:
2016: Memories and Hopes: The Top Essays
2015: Essays About Work and Class That Caught a College’s Eye
2014: Four Stand-Out College Essays About Money
2013: Standing Out From the Crowd
7. Learn from more Times models on popular themes.
What we’ve compiled below is just a very, very small taste of the thousands of essays you can find in The Times on these topics.
Please preview any that you assign to students to make sure they are appropriate.
Love, Romance and Relationships
Most of the selections below are from the long-running Modern Love column, and begin with some winners of their college essay contest. You might also want to read some observations from the editor on “How We Write About Love” and his selection of “The 10 Best Modern Love Columns Ever.”
”Want to Be My Boyfriend? Please Define”
“Let’s Not Get to Know Each Other Better”
“No Labels, No Drama, Right?”
“The Perils of Not Dying for Love”
“Swearing Off the Modern Man”
“Swiping Right on Tinder, but Staying Put”
“GPS on a Path to the Heart”
“Alone When the Bedbugs Bite”
“Drowning in Dishes, but Finding a Home”
“The Ballad of Tribute Steve”
“The Summer I Discovered Suburbia”
“Safe on the Southbank”
“Advice; Teen Angst? Nah!”
“My High-School Hoax”
“My New Look”
“How Ramen Got Me Through Adolescence”
“Familiar Dish, Familiar Friend”
“Memories of Meals Past”
“We Found Our Son in the Subway”
“Skinny-Dipping With Grandma”
“Praying for Common Ground at the Christmas-Dinner Table”
“A Nanny’s Love”
“The Subject of the Sibling”
“Montana Soccer-Mom Moment”
Race, Religion, Gender and Sexuality
“Milwaukee’s Divide Runs Right Through Me”
“An Open Letter to the Woman Who Told My Family to Go Back to China”
“I’m Ghanaian-American. Am I Black?”
“Anti-Semitism at My University, Hidden in Plain Sight”
“Intolerance and Love in Jamaica”
“What I Learned in the Locker Room”
“The Boy of Summer”
“Learning to Embrace Sexuality’s Gray Areas”
“The Undress Code”
“My Gymnastics Feminism”
And a Few Extras that Don’t Fit Neatly Into Any of the Previous Categories...
”The Monkey Suit”
“Who’s the Jerk Now, Jerk?”
“Finding That Song”
“Scanning the Pandas”
“Eternal Bragging Rights”
Places to Find Personal Essays in The New York Times
Lives: A place for true personal essays, this column has been running weekly in the Magazine for decades.
Modern Love: A series of weekly reader-submitted essays that explore the joys and tribulations of love.
On Campus: Dispatches from college students, professors and administrators on higher education and university life.
Ties: Essays on parenting and family from Well.
Essay series from The Opinionator (some no longer taking submissions):
• The Couch: A series about psychotherapy
• Private Lives: Personal essays from writers around the globe, on the news of the world and the news of individual lives.
• The Stone: A forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless.
• Draft: Essays by grammarians, historians, linguists, journalists, novelists and others on the art of writing — from the comma to the tweet to the novel — and why a well-crafted sentence matters more than ever in the digital age.
• Townies: A series about life in New York — and occasionally other cities — written by the novelists, journalists and essayists who live there.
• Disability: Essays, art and opinion exploring the lives of people living with disabilities.
• Anxiety: This series explores how we navigate the worried mind, through essay, art and memoir.
• Menagerie: Explores the strange and diverse ways the human and animal worlds intersect.
Metropolitan Diary: Short anecdotes about life in New York City
Complaint Box: Discontinued in 2013, this column was part of the City Room blog and simply asked New Yorkers, “What Annoys You?”
More of Our Lesson Plans on Writing Personal Pieces
I Remember: Teaching About the Role of Memory Across the Curriculum
Creative State of Mind: Focusing on the Writing Process
Reading and Responding: Holding Writing Workshops
Reader Idea | Personal Writing Based on The Times’s Sunday Routine Series
Can’t Complain? Writing About Pet Peeves
Thank You, Thesaurus: Experimenting With the Right Word vs. the Almost-Right Word
Skills Practice | Writing Effective Openings