Tell the Story: Personal Essay Writing from a Memoirist’s Point of View
In high school years ago as I sat at a brown wooden desk carved with initials and looked out the long windows to see bending cottonwoods, I tried to remember all the rules about essay writing: don’t use “I”–say “one” if you’re referring to yourself, but DON’T refer to yourself. Prove a point through logic, not story. I’d write something I felt strongly about, only to have to cross it out because I fell into the “I” that I was supposed to avoid. Standing back to get an overview was not a bad idea, but I had to tie my thoughts into knots to escape breaking the rules. And I really wanted that “A!” Of course, I had to make sure I revealed nothing about myself or my real thoughts or feelings in the essay. No opinions. I had to package up the roiling layers of myself and try to appear beige when I was really red and yellow.
Back then, we were encouraged to write dispassionately like journalists, but now all that has changed. The difference now between a personal essay and a memoir vignette is only in the way you want to present your writing.
Now the personal essay emphasizes “person.” You may, you must, write about yourself as “I,” and you’re invited to be intimate with the reader. For instance, if you are writing about adoption, you might talk about your feelings as an adoptee, a sense of wistfulness and even loneliness that you couldn’t quite name. You would show your feelings and sensations through a scene where you re-create for the reader what it was like through language, color, and sensation as you paint a picture of missing something you can’t even define.
Writing about family invites many layers of ourselves to step out onto the page as we reflect on who we are and where we came from. Personal stories can be fraught with all kinds of barbed wire and ditches you try not to get caught by or fall into. You may find yourself delving into topics like secrets, truths that you don’t quite want to know, grudges long held by family members and /or yourself, and other emotional minefields.
The best advice is to write the authentic story you have with all the passion and intimacy you can, and don’t share it with anyone at first. Write messily, shock yourself with what you have to say. You might keep these points in mind:
- Create a scene with sensual details about important, life-changing moments in your life. Writing a scene means creating a place, a time, characters on the stage, and sensual details such as color, sound, smell, and visuals. Paint a picture as you figure out what you want to say. Don’t edit. Don’t think about rules.
- In this scene write about something that upset you or made you alter your course entirely. Write with intimate emotional details. Tell us exactly what happened. Show us how it was through action and reaction.
- Use dialogue. Put the words that must have been said in dialogue as you imagine and enter this scene. This brings your own words out of your mouth and gives you a voice. It also allows the other person to speak, if the turning point involves another person. Often it does–someone we love but who hurt us, someone we don’t love or we fear, someone we are not neutral about.
- After you have written the upsetting scene or moment, and told it from your point of view, then switch points of view. Now stand in the shoes of the other person and argue from their point of view. Make the other person the “I” in the story. Write for 15 minutes without stopping, as this exercise is often difficult.
- This is a great exercise when you are stuck about a family story, when you are angry at someone or hold a grudge. It gets you into yourself more deeply and at the same time, offers you a chance to see someone else and the turning point moment from a new point of view.
- Writing in this way is healing. Creating scenes brings you, the narrator, together with the character “I” that you once were. This integration of selves has proven to be healing for body and mind, de-stressing the emotional system and even healing old traumas.