The Makings of a Personal Essay, Really

Sometimes I can be dense when it comes to realizing the potential of my own life experiences as essays for magazines. I, of course, fully believe that everything in my life is newsworthy, but sometimes have trouble figuring out which experiences will hit home with other people.

I recently learned the secret, and it can be summarized in one word: Really?

My friends know that I can talk. I mean, I can talk! Get me on the phone and Im likely to tell you all about my day, from my breakfast to my editors latest comments to my insomnia. I dont inflict my tendency toward verbosity on everyone, but at least a few trusted souls get to bear the brunt of my solitary lifestyle and my need to dish.

Their reactions tell me whether or not I have the material for a marketable personal essay.

My all-time best-selling essay is a simple story about a boy who won a stuffed animal for his little sister in a crane machine. When I saw it happen, I was so touched I almost cried. When I retold it to my mom, the tears welled up again. I got to the climactic momentAnd then he bent down and gave the stuffed animal to his little sister and kissed her on the foreheadand my mom asked, Really? Thats so sweet!

Bing. Really? translates to Thats a great story.

When I tell mom about the new toy I bought for my cat, she never asks, Really? She doesnt press me for details. She probably cant wait for me to shut up so she can hang up the phone and do something productive that doesnt involve listening to my escapades with my cat. But when Ive hit on something that might actually warrant an article, her reaction wont be a simple Mmm-hmm, or Thats great. Itll be a question, or a plea to share more.

The reactions to listen for, in addition to Really? are:

  • Then what happened?

  • What did you do?

  • How did you (/he/she) react?

  • Tell me more!

  • Thats amazing!

  • Thats so cool!

A few weeks ago, I was talking to Jamie Blyth (Im helping to write his book, Fear Is No Longer My Reality) about how far Ive come in beating my anxiety disorder. One of the things I mentioned was that I used to have an obsessive-compulsive disorder related to food. He wanted to know more. I explained that I went through a two-year phase where I ate nothing but canned foods and other food with really long shelf lives.

Really? he asked.

Oh. I hadnt thought about that phase of mine in quite some time, and had forgotten that it might be intriguing to people whove never experienced OCD. OCD as an overall topic has been done many times, but this detailthe canned foods and my almost deadly diethasnt. It doesnt belong in a how-to article. It works because of the telling, because of the personal nature of the story. And as I sat down to write it, a beautifully marketable essay formed almost effortlessly.

Think about what details of your story set it apart from similar stories. Countless essays have been written about alcoholism, eating disorders, miscarriage, drug abuse, abusive marriages, finding God, giving birth... that doesnt mean you cant tell your story. You just have to find a unique angle, a new way of telling it, a nugget that people will remember.

The same effortless type of story formed when I told people how Anthony and I bought our house. We fell so in love with it that we kept coming to visit and take pictureswe would sit on the other side of the lake, facing the owners backyard, and just hug and dream of what it would be like to live there.

When it came time to make an offer, we were immediately outbid by thousands of dollars and couldnt match the price. We went to say goodbye to the owners, and they told the Realtor to take it off the marketwe were the people they wanted to live in the home theyd loved for 40 years. They had seen us from their back window all the times we came to admire the house from afar, and they knew we would appreciate the gardens, the greenhouse, the lake. So they took a loss of thousands of dollars because they wanted us to live our dream.

Quick, what was your reaction to that story? I hope it was Thats amazing!, because thats the reaction I got from nearly everyone who heard the story. Within a couple of weeks of moving in, I sold the essay to A Cup of Comfort and sent the anthology to the previous owners of the house.

If someones eyes light up when you tell a story, chances are excellent that theres a market for it. If one person finds it interesting, inspiring, hilarious, or moving, others likely will, too.

Consider your friends and family your test audience. Test out your experiences on them. If they dont press you for more details, either the story isnt there, or you need a more compelling way to tell it.

You can also test by e-mail; send a few friends a note about a recent experience of yours and see how many of them react to it. Note, too, how quickly they react. If they respond right after reading it, their interest levels are probably high. If they respond a week later and mention, By the way, that was a nice story, it likely didnt pass the test.

Personal experiences dont need to be earth-shattering to be worthy of print. They just need to be interesting, insightful, and emotion-provoking in almost any sense of the word. Your story may make someone happy, mad, upset, horrified, shocked... as long as you can elicit a strong emotion, you can draw readers. And editors like writers who can draw readers.

Go forth and share your experiences. Personal essays are wonderful gifts to share with the world. Really!

About The Author

Jenna Glatzer is the editor-in-chief of Absolute Write (www.absolutewrite.com). She has written for hundreds of national and online magazines, and her latest book is MAKE A REAL LIVING AS A FREELANCE WRITER, which you can find at www.jennaglatzer.com. Find out how to get a FREE editors' cheat sheet with this book!

Copyright 2004 Jenna Glatzer. All rights reserved.

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