When you’re writing personal essay or memoir, it’s helpful to keep these words by Vivian Gornick in mind: “Good writing has two characteristics. It’s alive on the page and the reader is persuaded that the writer is on a voyage of discovery.” (Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story)
Remember, too, that readers want to feel as if they know WHY you are telling your story. It’s not enough for the incidents you’re describing to be exciting or scary or hilarious. Your readers want to know how those events changed you. At the heart of every personal essay is this basic purpose: “I want to tell you how ______ changed my life.” When you attempt to communicate that intention, you are helping your essay become a “quest for understanding and information.” (Lee Guttkind, founding editor of Creative Nonfiction)
Once you understand that personal essay is what Tristine Rainer calls a “progression toward personal truth,” (Tristine Rainer, Your Life as Story) it’s time to ask yourself, “Who is my audience?” What is its age, educational level, knowledge of subject, ability to understand, beliefs, habits, prejudices, etc.? How will your audience feel about your views on parenting or getting older or driving drunk? If your readers are unfamiliar with your subject or apt to disagree with your perspective, you’ll have the added challenge of opening their minds as you share your insights.
This pause to analyze your audience might seem like a tedious extra step, because most of the time, you’re writing to an audience very much like yourself. But don’t forget that your readers don’t know who you are, who Fred is, when or where your story is taking place or any number of important facts unless you tell them! As Phillip Lopate says, “The personal essayist cannot assume that the reader will ever have read anything by him or her before, and so must reestablish a persona each time and embed it in a context by providing sufficient autobiographical background.” (Phillip Lopate, The Art of the Personal Essay.) As you write, keep asking yourself what a complete stranger living in Topeka or Miami would need to know to get the most out of this particular story.
Susan Bono is a freelance editor and writing teacher who lives in Petaluma, CA. She has edited and published Tiny Lights: A Journal of Personal Narrative in hard copy and online since 1995. She is already looking forward to returning to Emandal Farm in Willets, CA, to lead a writing retreat August 22-26, 2014.
Watch for writing prompts inspired by Susan Bono over the next few days. You can use these prompts to build your essay or memoir.