Write It Sideways

Use Your Fiction Skills To Write A Personal Essay

Today’s post is written by regular contributor Sarah Baughman.

A talented member of my writing group once told me she couldn’t imagine writing a personal essay.

While the powerful description and plot development she employed throughout her novel-in-progress impressed us all, she said she would find it impossible to generate ideas for a nonfiction piece about her own life.

I think she’d probably be surprised. Creative nonfiction depends on many of the same literary qualities that make great fiction.

Describing this genre as embodying the “use of literary craft in presenting nonfiction,” Creative Nonfiction Editor Lee Gutkind says that creative nonfiction writers “make ideas and information that already exist more interesting and, often, more accessible.”

If you’re interested in writing a personal essay, some of the very tools you rely on most while crafting short stories or novel chapters are the perfect building blocks.

Conflict

Fiction writers know the importance of conflict in moving a plot forward, and outside the writing world, conflicts large and small move life forward! We all experience them, and these daily conflicts, even the trivial ones, can fuel a personal essay.

Track the internal and external conflicts you experience on a given day.

Behind every conflict that causes further reflection, there lurks a story.

Example“Just the Two of Us, When One Toddles” by Jennifer Baumgardner, The New York Times, 8/25/11. An annoying conflict in the airport parking lot gives way to reflection on the larger conflict, and benefits, of being a single parent.

Writing Prompt: Identify a recent conflict, internal or external, trivial or significant, that has led you to a greater understanding of yourself. Recall a specific moment that made you aware of the conflict and begin by narrating the scene (as in Baumgardner’s essay: “Our car, a 17-year-old red Honda Civic, shimmered in the heat. ‘This isn’t good,’ I thought.”)

Characterization

There’s a t-shirt floating around the web that writers will love: “Careful or you’ll end up in my next novel,” it proclaims.

Certainly the best characters in fiction feel like real people, and observing the details used to establish those characters—appearance, thoughts, dialogue, actions—can help us see people in our lives with new eyes. Unlike fictional characters, people we know can’t change according to our imagination, but they do have their own stories. A willingness to step outside our relationships and view people with a “writer’s eye” can actually lead to deeper appreciation because we’re challenged to pay such close attention to their characteristics.

Example: “Christmas Eve at St. Clement” by Amy Rosenquist, Literary Mama, 12/6/09. Rosenquist’s essay about her autistic son thrives on detail–past actions, small obsessions, statements, reactions, physical characteristics–and paints an engaging portrait of a complex, endearing boy.

Writing Prompt: Describe an important person in your life via an event you both attended that reveals the character of that person and holds significance for your relationship (like Rosenquist’s Christmas Eve service).

Setting

Places we know well provide powerful backdrops for personal essays. But “setting” doesn’t have to include a spectacular sunset or breathtaking mountain range–even noting the ordinary detail in our own homes (dishes cluttering the sink, dust on the windowsill, a quilt tossed over a sofa) is an excellent exercise for recognizing how place informs plot. 

Whether you choose initially to write about a significant experience, working place descriptors into the story as you go, or whether you use place as a starting point, you’ll find that your own ties to different settings can enhance a personal essay.

Example: “Not Like You” by Katherine Gries, Brevity, Issue #32, January 2010. In Gries’ compelling essay, peaceful settings—first in the woods, then in a house—provide stark contrast to the violence she suffers.

Writing Prompt: When has a particular place served as a meaningful backdrop to an experience? Step outside the experience to provide a detailed description of the place. Consider exploring how the place either reflects, or contrasts with, the experience.

Dialogue

I always found dialogue tricky, but writing down interview quotes for freelance journalism assignments helped me overcome some of my reservations about using it.

While everyday speech might be punctuated with clumsy interruptions you don’t always want to include in writing, listening closely to conversations and mirroring actual speech patterns can aid the development of authentic dialogue. Readers like dialogue—it’s a nice break from solid description, moves plot along, and reveals character quickly. Try jotting down just a few interchanges from conversations you’ve had during the course of a day and seeing what might lead to a story.

Example“Montana Soccer Mom Moment” by Laura Munson, The New York Times, 7/23/10. A conversation between mother and daughter, punctuated by description, forms the core of Munson’s heartfelt essay.

Writing Prompt: Recall a conversation you had that, like Munson’s, served as some kind of turning point. Use dialogue interspersed with description of your internal reactions to relay the conversation.

Do you write both fiction and creative non-fiction? What strategies do you use that apply to both genres?