Personal essays can do many things. They can help us navigate our experiences, our grief, our trauma, or our joy. They can help show others how to navigate these for themselves. And they can unite us—author and reader—in a shared, universal story.
By connecting our personal stories to the greater world, we invite the world into our story.
Think of George Orwell’s classic “Shooting an Elephant,” Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter,” or Alex Tizon’s “My Family’s Slave.” What makes these particular works so memorable? Why do they resonate so deeply with us? That’s what we’ll talk about during my class, The Personal/Impersonal Essay.
Let’s look at a famous example, the opening paragraph of James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son”:
On the 29th of July, in 1943, my father died. On the same day, a few hours later, his last child was born. Over a month before this, while all our energies were concentrated in waiting for these events, there had been, in Detroit, one of the bloodiest race riots of the century. A few hours after my father’s funeral, while he lay in state in the undertaker’s chapel, a race riot broke out in Harlem. On the morning of the 3rd of August, we drove my father to the graveyard through a wilderness of smashed plate glass.
What an opening! In just five brief sentences, we’ve been given so much detail; we’re already feeling the tension. A father’s death. A child born without a father. Devastating racial conflict. A nation on the brink of destruction. This opening paragraph alone could be the entire essay—a “flash essay,” if you will—but it goes on and, though we have no idea where Baldwin is going to take us, we are prepared to go along with him for the ride.
When you sit down to begin working on your own essay, here are a few things I’d like you to consider:
Situate the reader right away.
When we begin to read a new work, especially an essay or a short story, we want to know what the stakes are as early as possible. We want to know where in the world we are; what year, month, or season it is; and who our narrator is. Above all, we want to feel like we have been dropped suddenly into the author’s world. We want to hear the smashed plate glass crunching underneath the wheels of the hearse.
Who are the characters?
“Well, me, of course,” you say. But who else? Before beginning to write your essay, try outlining your characters, as you would with a work of fiction. Besides yourself, who are we going to meet? Not all your characters even need to be people. Jo Ann Beard begins “The Fourth State of Matter” by talking about her old and feeble collie and the invasive squirrels living in her home, which she subtly and slyly uses to guide the narrative along to its devastating climax. Try to include some unconventional characters into your work. They might have played a larger part in your story than you’d realized.
Think globally, write locally.
Though your personal essay is, obviously, a record of your personal experience, it doesn’t need to be confined to your immediate purview. What was happening in the world, in your city, in your neighborhood, during the events in this essay? What was the national conversation? Was it a time of political tension and cultural uncertainty (when is it ever not)? Even if these don’t explicitly make their way into your essay, they can at least serve as a kind of backdrop, to help position your experience as being part of a larger story.
Get out of your own way.
Often, we nonfiction or essay writers let our fears, apprehensions, and even our pride get in the way of telling our story. Sometimes we don’t know where an essay is going to take us until we begin writing, and that’s OK. Sometimes the writing guides us, rather than the other way around. As Joan Didion says, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
As an essay writer, you’re not only navigating your experiences, your grief, your trauma, or your joy, but you also have the opportunity to show others how to navigate these for themselves.
I hope to see you on October 24, where we’ll discuss our essays-in-progress, or help you get started on a new one.
Santi Elijah Holley has contributed to The Atlantic, Tin House, VICE, Atlas Obscura, Pacifica Literary Review, Longreads, and elsewhere. He is a recipient of the 2017 Oregon Literary Fellowship for nonfiction, and his work has been cited by the 2018 Best American Essays anthology. Holley lives in Portland, Oregon.