March 4, 2011

Writing the Personal Essay—Digging Beneath Your Topic

Lately, my writing time is spent on nonfiction. Along with writing devotionals, I am busy writing a book-length personal essay. I say that confidently. For a while, I wasn’t sure. As I’ve thought ahead to creating a book proposal, I’ve asked myself more than once: Are these words I’ve set on paper a memoir or a narrative personal essay? The difference between the two is a fuzzy one, particularly for someone like myself who used to write exclusively for children. (I say used to because I’m trying to break from that mold.)

In my search for a definition of memoir vs. personal essay, I stumbled on a video discussion between author/teacher Lee Zacharias and Judi Hill, Director of Wildacres Writing Workshop. In it, Zacharias offers this clear and concise explanation:

Memoir is driven by experience. It tells what happened.
Personal essay is driven by idea. It digs into the meaning of what happened.

Digging. This is what I have been doing—digging into the meaning of my cancer diagnosis last year and discovering how my personal journey might guide other women in the same situation.

Zacharias speaks of the personal essay as a struggle for honesty. “Honesty,” she says, “is never glib… You’re looking for the hidden motivations, the connections, and so on.”

As I dig, I’m uncovering the hidden parts, and I’m trying to make sense of how life came at me last spring. In my quest for honesty, I’m digging beneath my topic and seeing it in a brand new way while I work diligently to shape the facts.

I love this quote from author and critic John Leonard: “His memoir is a splendid artichoke of anecdotes, in which not merely the heart and leaves but the thistles as well are edible.” This is what I’m trying to do with my personal essay. I am approaching my topic with my soul laid bare and striving to present its heart, leaves and thistles in a way that’s edible, even savored, by my readers. It is at the same time invigorating and exhausting.

“Personal essay,” Lee Zacharias says, “is about how deeply you can travel into your own experience.”

Have you written a personal essay? What did you discover as you dug deep beneath your topic?