When I volunteered as Co-Managing Editor for The Rose & Thorn, it was my job to weed through essay submissions to decide what would go into the zine. We always published far more fiction and poetry than we did essays, mainly because a good essay is so difficult to write. The very term "personal essay" implies that it's about "me, myself, and I," which makes it easy to forget that whatever you write about has to resonate with an audience beyond your immediate friends and family. In fact, make that family, because even friends can find too much focus on your own personal story a little boring after a while.
It's hard to put into words just what it is that makes a personal essay work. One would think it requires writing about something other than the day-to-day middle class suburban existence, but I've read essays by world travelers, people who have been trapped in war zones, people who have set up housekeeping in exotic countries, who still put a little too much of the personal in the personal essay. So I thought it might help to give examples of three essays that made their mark on me*, that, even with the passing years stay with me. These are: Absolution by Erin McKnight; Water Line by Rusty Van Reeves; and I Am Not Shy, I Am An Artist by Elizabeth Williams.
Each of these essays is intensely personal, yet there is a difference right off from the essay I usually read. Each starts with a sentence or two that immediately pulls the reader in and makes them want to know more. What are "greedy eyes?" What was the "load" Rusty wanted to "lighten" and why did it happen in the summer of 1979? What doesn't Elizabeth want her parents to hear? Why is she "gulping and trembling?"
Compare this with lines like, "I came from a family of coal miners," or "In 1975, at age 15, I was paralyzed in freak accident" or "I'm very shy." These first lines would all lead into the same story, but while the reader might feel sympathy, they may also be wondering why it matters. Once the essayist elicits that reaction, it takes a lot of catching up to gain back readers' interest and trust if you can manage it at all.
Another mistake personal essayists make is thinking that nonfiction means a pass on creativity. The story may be true, but it still needs to be expressed creatively. These three essays don't just tell you a story, they create images. Anyone who has gone through family photographs has an image of what Erin is looking at and looking for with her "greedy eyes." Elizabeth could have used the standard shaking hands, but instead we see her "fingernails gnawed down to nubbins." Rusty actually pulled a little sleight of hand. He took what could have been a cliched expression, "emotional baggage" and expanded upon, making it feel unique.
Finally, all three of these have, in their own way, avoided one of the biggest mistakes, which is making the personal essay too personal. Like the friend who always talks about her own problems and isn't interested in yours, the whining memoir can be grating. Even when someone suffers what is beyond imagining for many of us, as with Water Line, while we may feel sympathy we also wonder why we need to know this particular story. The why in this case is the story of a man who, eventually, decided to accept what life dealt him and move on. Erin could have taken the path of being caught between two worlds, but that would have portrayed her own situation as more trying than that of her coal mining relatives. And what does Elizabeth's essay tell us? "Look into their eyes and see my laughter." In other words, don't pity me.
All three of these demonstrate that personal doesn't have to focus on "me, myself, and I."
For more on this subject see my post, Writing the Personal Essay: Avoid These Pitfalls on the Roses & Thorns Blog from June 16, 2007
One note here: Any essay I chose to publish in The Rose & Thorn while I was there was obviously considered to be well above the competition. I just can't cover them all and I also don't have time to go through every issue to remind myself.