bookmark_borderOn: Writing Personal Essays

I’ve always done some personal writing. Blog entries are one type—early ones that were collecting poker learnings and hand analysis, now fiction writing learnings and analysis—and all the way back to when I kept a personal journal as a college student.

Last year the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation published a personal essay I wrote. I’m told it was one of the most viewed articles in that column in a year.

In spite of my fiction writing skills, it was not an easy process .

The essay I wrote for myself was 3,000 words. I submitted 2,000 words to the CBC. My producer asked for a 650; the standard length for those articles. I revised and submitted but was told it had lost the charm and emotion of the original. I asked that the 2,000 word version be highlighted for the best parts and I took that and revised to 650 words, which is what they published.

I always write whatever seems interesting to me. In the past few years I’ve been writing more personal essays. Maybe I’m getting older and more reflective—I am at the age when many writers make attempts at memoir—or maybe I’m just shifting as a writer, the way that I started out writing novels and then moved more toward shorter forms.

But in spite of my writing and editing skills, personal essays respond differently.

I begin writing essays the same way I start a blog entry; with a thought that interests me. Then I write a paragraph, which leads me to some context, or a parallel situation, or an attempt to explain the source.

And then I meander, wandering back and forth across time, across situations, across related topics. As I’m writing I think that I’m being coherent and that I’m building a comprehensive collage of material but, in reality, it’s a bit of a hot mess.

When I write fiction I can edit as I go. Certainly not all of it, but it feels like a much larger portion than I am able to see when I am writing an essay. And when writing fiction, I can do this without knowing how the story is going to end. With essays I seem to need to reach the end and then define the topic narrowly before I can see some of the edits that need to happen. And even then I need outside help from early readers for me to find some of these things.

Another difference between writing fiction and writing personal essays is that, with essays, I often find that I have written too deeply or too widely. In other words, I’ve rambled on too long on one point or anecdote, or added related memoir or thoughts that don’t contribute significantly to the theme, whereas during the fiction writing and also during the early editing process I usually have a good sense of how deep or how wide to look. During the essay writing process I cast my net wide, feeling around me for anything that has potential to add to the message. I think this is not uncommon for writers of memoir; to write everything that comes to mind and then eliminate what is not necessary in the editing process. For me, as a writer of fiction, this is not typical. My fiction edits tend to be additions or alternatives rather than the removal of large chunks, and I rarely find myself needing to move one or two sentences because I’ve written them in the wrong order or have touched on the same aspect in two different areas, as happens when editing essays.

When I write blog entries I start with a target for the writing, not just a thought to ponder, so I know where I’m going more clearly than when I am writing essays. I tend not to meander quite as wide and I don’t require quite as much personal anecdote for confirmation. It could be the narrower focus right from the start that keeps it from meandering quite as much. On the other hand, maybe the blog entries are wandering and overwritten like my essay drafts and I don’t see it because I don’t have the early readers to tell me.  🙂

So, in spite of my years of writing experience, personal essays do not come out as close to finished as my fiction does. Like many other things, it seems that it is going to require its own practice.