Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Personal Essay: Being Too Impersonal

In December I blogged about the Personal Essay: Me, Myself, and I where I talked about how an essay can be too personal, so that it doesn't resonate with readers. But a Personal Essay can be too impersonal as well. That's not flip-flopping. It's a fine line.

To demonstrate how to keep the personal essay from drifting into the impersonal I've again chosen examples of essays I accepted while working with The Rose & Thorn so I can explain just what about them worked for me.

The op-ed piece

Some people confuse the personal essay with an op-ed piece better suited to your local newspaper. These are pieces that express an opinion, usually on politics, but it could be other things as well. Some of them are actually excellent pieces of persuasive writing. Some are just angry. In either case they aren't really appropriate for a literary journal.

That doesn't mean the essay can't cover controversial topics. In Inside the Glass Room, author Kristina Marie Darling tackles different religious views. She expresses the differences in terms of a family split. Her father and brother have turned to an Evangelical religion that she and her mother are uncomfortable with. The art of the piece is that nowhere does Darling actually take a stand. She doesn't condemn her father's and brother's religious fervor. What she expresses is her own discomfort with it, so that even someone who doesn't feel as she does, could probably read this piece without feeling offended. To some that may sound "mushy," but the personal essay is not an editorial. The point is to touch people in a special way, not force them into their corners.

The biography
Many wonderful essays are written about or in honor of a special person in the author's life. Unfortunately, inexperienced writers sometimes confuse this with a biography where they tell us all the details of a person's life but fail to show us why it matters.

Echoes of War by Drew McQuade is a homage to the author's grandfather who fought in WWI by the author who was a Vietnam War protester. Notice that the essay does not begin with the grandfather, Joe Little. Instead, the first line sets us up for the irony of the piece, that a war protester could have such great respect for his grandfather and others who sacrificed for their country.

A little inside info here may explain this a little more clearly. McQuade's original submission was entitled "Joe Little" due to the author's concern that "Echoes of War" had already been used. (FYI titles cannot be copyrighted and are often duplicated.) I didn't like the "Joe Little" title because the essay was about more than just that person as every essay of this type should be.

The Newspaper Article
Recently I reviewed an essay that was supposed to be about the effects of an auto accident on the survivors, but really the essay was about the accident. It started with the accident. That's not necessarily a bad thing especially as the author did a great job of evoking the emotions of the moment. However, she went on to relay, minute by minute, everything that happened in the immediate aftermath as well. Waiting for the police and ambulance to arrive, answering the the policeman's questions, watching the victims being loaded into the ambulance. It was only toward the very end that we learned about the long-lasting effects this accident had on the survivors, and by then it was too late to draw the reader in.

In this case I'm going to repeat an example I used in my last blog on essays, Water Line by Rusty Van Reeves. The essay is about the author setting his life on a new track after being paralyzed from the chest down. Unlike the submission I mentioned above, this essay does not start with the accident. It starts with the day the author reached his epiphany, then goes backwards in time to cover the painful moments that led to it. However, even this is only summarized, giving us just what we need to know without a day by day or even year by year rehash of the previous four years. From the first line the author tells us why he thinks we need to know his story, and because of that we want to learn more.

Balancing on that fine line between the personal and impersonal can be difficult, but as these essays demonstrate it can be done.


Angie Ledbetter said...

Fine examples. I remember the Darling essay and also Water Line.

Kathryn Magendie said...

I read Darling's piece and remember it as one I particularly enjoyed....a fine essay!


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