When Sitting Down to Write -- Forget the Good, Go for the Bad and the Ugly

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

When I sit down to write a personal essay or a blog post, I start with a story. I look around in my life for a moment that I can’t let go of. A story that won't let go of me. Usually it's something painful or surprising, a prickly story that makes me uncomfortable, sad, worriedor inexplicably happy. Something I don't quite understand – yet.

I notice that if f I start out with an idea or a lesson that I want to pass on to the world, my essay inevitably winds up preachy and bossy.

I also notice that nice stories in which I behave well and come off looking good don't work too well either. So I look for the bad story, the ugly story, the story that explores one of my  missteps or shortcomings.

These stories of mine -- the painful, uncomfortable ones -- are like the buds that bloom on the star magnolia tree in our front yard. The buds themselves are prickly, hairy and homely. The blossoms that emerge from those caterpillar-like sheaths are exquisite. All pink and white and succulent.

When a particular story won't let go of me, even if it's as hairy and homely as a magnolia bud, I try to get inside that event. What  feelings underlie it?

I keep a special eye out for uncomfortable feelings, biases, assumptions -- attitudes that I need to own up to. This is the gold; this is where the reader will identify with the writer. The reader has had similar feelings and experiences and will be grateful that someone is taking them on for her.

If you'd like to try your hand at writing a personal essay, I suggest that before you even sit down to write you let your mind wander. Pick a story that grabs you and let it remind you of other stories with a similar theme or challenge. What do those two or three or four anecdotes have in common?

Often the anecdotes will seem totally disparate on the face of it. They can be personal events from your life. They can also be current events, a TV character, a news item, something you

two pinkish white star magnolia blossoms. photo by BF Newhall

Photos by Barbara Newhall

witnessed at the mall. All the more interesting then that these seemingly unrelated anecdotes share a theme – which you will very cleverly develop.

String your two or three or four anecdotes together to advance your theme, to make your point. Some anecdotes will be as short as a sentence; others might go on for a few paragraphs.

Be open to new material, new attitudes, new stories popping into your mind as you write. Let yourself evolve as you work.

To be successful, a personal essay needs an aha moment, an epiphany. The author needs to get a new insight and grow. The reader grows along with her. The epiphany comes toward the end of the essay after author has struggled mightily with the subject.

This is why writing can be so rewarding for the writer and the reader. The process of writing causes the writer to go someplace, and he takes his reader along on the journey.

Hm. Reading this essay over, I see that I've just done what I've told you not to do -- teach the reader a lesson. Oops.

Barbara Falconer Newhall is the author of the prize-winning "Wrestling with God: Stories of Doubt and Faith." For more of her personal essays, go to "Heather Donahue, Or, How I Got Hooked on a Pothead"  and "Writer's Block and the Toxic Reader."


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