I’ve been a writer for most of my life. I started writing when I was a child–poetry mostly, but also short stories. In high school, I mastered the art of the five-paragraph thesis–and the angsty teenage journal. Later in college, as a mass communications major, I learned about the inverted pyramid of journalism.
In my first job as a newspaper reporter, I embodied the urgency of “if it bleeds it leads,” frontloading my page one articles with the most gripping facts of the story. At that same daily paper, I also learned the rhythm of feature stories, teasing readers into the story and building to a satisfying conclusion. Later, when the urgency and rhythm of the reporters life fell flat for me, I tried my hand at feature articles for magazines, matching my tone and voice to the vision of editors and publishers.
After some success selling a few articles to a national publication, I turned my sights towards books. But it was 2006, and after attending a writing conference where blogs were all the buzz for anyone wanting to make a career from book writing, I started sharing snippets from my daily life, weaving in facts and quotes from my reading, thoughts from my Bible study, and lush descriptions of the neighborhood I called home.
The blog led to more writing, although not a book as I had hoped, and by 2012, I found myself attending a writing conference confused about the direction of my writing life. What was it I really wanted to write? I wasn’t planning to blog forever, though I liked writing about my life. I didn’t think writing feature stories for magazines was my long-term goal, though I did like the research and interviewing that journalism had taught me. And on and on I went through the list: I didn’t consider myself a poet, but I liked the emphasis on word play. I’d only dabbled in fiction, but I liked dialogue and the arc of a good story.
Then I stepped into a conference breakout session called The Magpie Form, where an editor, Brian Doyle, and a professor, Patrick Madden, were talking about essays. They described this type of writing as adept at both showing and telling; they talked about paying attention and catching the stories all around us; they painted a picture of taking the ordinary stuff of life and wringing out the extraordinary in our writing.
In the movie version of my life (which will probably never be made, but hey, I can dream), I see myself sitting in the lecture hall of this session as a turning point in the plot. Suddenly, the camera zooms in on me, and scenes from my writing life thus far begin spinning in the blur around me. Not only had all my experiences led to this moment of revelation, they had contributed to it.
See, the workshop leaders had chosen the name “magpie form” because of the way essayists, like the birds, are always borrowing and collecting things from life and weaving them into their work (nests, in the case of the actual magpies). Had I not written poetry and short stories, had I not been trained in journalism and feature stories, had I not written from the first person on my blog, attempting to connect what I read with how I live, had I not gathered and integrated all these styles and forms into my work, I might not have had the epiphany I did that day. After years of wondering what kind of writer I was, in that moment I discovered that I’m an essayist.
Maybe you are an essayist too, and this is the pivotal moment in the movie of your life, as all the writing you’ve done and the experiences you’ve had converge in that one word. Or maybe your writing life hasn’t led you to this revelation like you hoped it would. You want to be an essayist, but you aren’t sure where to go next. Or maybe you’re a writer without a form, and you’ve showed up here to find something called the essay and you’re willing to give it a shot.
Tips for Writing a Personal Essay
However you’ve arrived, here are a few tips for writing essays.
Start by trying. The word “essay” comes from the French word essais, which means to attempt or try. The word first came into use by the father of the modern essay, Michel de Montaigne, who left behind an elite career in law and politics in the 16th century to write. He started most of his essays with the word “of,” as in “Of Names,” “Of Sleep,” “Of Books,” and then he wrote–what he knew, what he didn’t know, what he thought, and what he learned. If you’d like to explore this essay form yourself, begin where Montaigne did–by trying to write about whatever you encounter. You might even try choosing one word, like family, and starting there: Of Family.
Write as a person. What I’ve called “essays” throughout this post some call “personal” essays, mostly because use of the first person is not only accepted but encouraged. But the word “personal,” here, doesn’t have to mean intimate or private. It simply means, as Bill Roorbach writes in Writing Life Stories, that the writer writes “as a person rather than a disembodied voice of knowledge.” Include stories from your life, but also opinions, concerns, and questions. Be honest, “admit that you are there behind the words,” as Roorbach advises.
Aim for “infinite suggestiveness.” This is the phrase Professor Madden used all those years ago in The Magpie Form session. It’s an invitation to explore, to meander, to refute, to wonder … not just as you prepare to write, but in the writing itself. It’s the freedom to be “meditative or associative or tangential,” as Madden has said.
Roorbach breaks it down more practically with this list of things that fit perfectly within an essay: “counterpoint in the exposition, quotes from other writers, arcane knowledge, odd comparisons, and grand metaphors.” Whatever it is, if you can connect it in some way with the writing, then it fits. That’s the beauty of the essay.
I’ve been a writer most of my life, but it’s only in the past few years that I’ve been an essayist, or at least thought of myself as one. That doesn’t mean I don’t still write poetry and fiction, journalism and blog posts. I do. All of it. But it also means every time I sit down to write an essay, I borrow whatever I need from poetry and fiction, journalism and blogging, and I write as a person, trying again for the infinitive suggestiveness that continues to turn my ordinary life into extraordinary words.
Originally published at Five Minute Friday on September 11, 2019.