Help please: places for personal essays "vs" creative non-fiction
Posted by
Hello all, I'm looking for publications that publish personal essays; venues that don't demand non-fiction essays be written in the creative non-fiction, narrative form. Unfortunately the publications I want to get into Brain,Child, Literary Mama, etc. all want strong narrative non-fictions. In Literary Mama's "what we DON'T want...." list they write: "Pieces that read like columns or intellectual reflections on personal experiences." What they DO want: # Illustrative anecdotes or vignettes. # Compelling narrative. I feel my pieces read like what they don't want - intellectual reflections on personal experiences, as societal commentaries wrapped around my personal experiences because my interest and background is strongly tied to psychology, social issues, the implications behind the lives of women, mothers, transition, identity, the evolution of humans. I read 95% non-fiction and my writing comes from my attraction to making social commentary but in essay form. e.g. I just wrote one called "Funny Girls" with the posit that stark, gross and irreverent humor in women is powerful because.....and Brain,Child said "while clearly and thoughtfully written, and the editor enjoyed reading....they want set scenes alternating with exposition...." When I write my essays I'm not naturally drawn to write a "story," to scenes, dialogue, vignettes etc. Is this a classic sign of inexperience or just my natural leaning? Chicken or egg? Perhaps I don't have enough experience with this genre to like CNF, or maybe I just don't like writing it? I also feel my memory to pull up stark details is weak, e.g. pulling imagery out of past events is not my strong suit. While I can bring up and tweak and write metaphors, I don't easily recall the minutia of an event; I'd have to make it up, "the color of her loose dress, a checkered red and white knee length cotton wrap looked like she'd grabbed her mother's dirty tablecloth and carelessly wrapped it around her just to cover up...." I'd have to make that scene up because I'd never remember what my friend wore, her mother etc. I'd remember that her mother made her feel inadequate etc, etc. because of her own insecurities etc..... I wouldn't remember her dress and the color, or want to focus my writing on that...only that the girl was angry and bitter because of the expectations put on her by a mother born of the 1950's June Cleaver era who dropped out of college when her mother insisted she and Dad could no longer support two kids in college and so her brother had a better chance of "making something of his life"....etc, etc.... I've tried mind mapping and all those good tools, but I find mapping etc doesn't help me much. I just like to start with a posit, write and re-write, re-write..... What publications, print and ezines welcome personal essays that read like commentaries, "intellectual reflections?" And, is creative non-fiction a "better" essay or just a different form? It seems CNF has become the popular form of essay for the literary motherhood publications, why because we are drawn to CNF? Because it pulls the reader into the story with rich dialogue and detail? I need a home to focus my writing style, or to find a writing style and then find a home. Thanks SO much for your feedback : ) and btw, if anyone would critique my "Funny Girls" essay I'd be grateful. Laura
  • I'm new to She Writes, well kinda, I joined a year ago but haven't been very active.

    At any rate, I've been writing personal essays lately. My latest was published on Ms. Magazine's blog in June. As far as CNF vs personal essay the difference for me is more about feel. CNF feels more fictiony to me. I write both but when I'm writing essays my criteria for the "truth" is narrower, with less licence to speculate or imagine. Also CNF is dreamier whereas essays feel more straightforward and pragmatic. When I write essays I miss CNF and vice versa. I find I need both to tell my story.

    In terms of where to submit essays, I used Media Bistro's "Top Ten Places to Publish Your Essay" or something like that. That's where I got the idea/info to submit to Ms. It was extremely helpful. Also, I recommend Brevity, an on-line journal that is only personal essay. My favorite essayist ever is Jerome Walker. His essay called "Dragon Slayer" is so beautiful.
  • Thanks Sarah. I fight Kindle, but likely I'll one day yield to it as I did texting (JUST started texting a couple months ago, can you believe it?). I avoid adding one more screen in my life, writing, online research and Facebook already take me away....


    I've been so buried in online article writing and trying to make strategic changes in SEO after a massive Google change, I have little time for essay writing, that and I think, avoidance. It seems I use my skirt! blogs to sharpen some of my scene setting, essay writing skills, although blogging is supposed to be short and sweet, many of mine are not.


    However we get to where we want to be with essay-writing, the key is to write, read, learn, grow....




  • Thanks, Laura. I too am thinking the Kindle will overtake me within a year. The iPad seems too bright, too connected. Your points about the validity and heft of online writing are well taken, too. Good luck with digging into your store of anecdotes and memories to create essays that suit you and your audiences. And thank you for all the ideas and threads here - skirt! looks wonderful.


  • Hi Sarah


    Nice to see a fellow Mothers & More mom/writer : ) I appreciate this point: "Perhaps I'm justifying, but I would say just keep at it so you can hear the voice you want to hear - and then the readers will want to hear it, too, because it is yours." 

    Thank you; I agree. I also know however, that I want to continue improving my descriptive approach, the ability to create scenes that make my story compelling, that move the reader to feel my story. I'm a finalist in an essay compilation book "It's all In Her Head." My submission took weeks to work. It was one aspect of my story of postpartum depression and my monthly mood changes, how I moved into a better place, the result of supplements, hormones, etc, etc.


    Helps me to read strong essayists, to see how their style fits with my voice or why it doesn't. The most "natural essayist" for me is Anne Lamott (but I have hundreds of other writers I must read before I can make such naive conclusions like this).


    I've been writing nearly exclusively online/print articles, avoiding essay writing somewhat this year, partially because I needed to earn money and because essay writing is a love/hate thing for me. I love working my story for the feelings and posits it evokes; I live with an essay for weeks, but of course I hate getting rejected.


    My goal now is to enjoy the process if I decide to write an essay, to read the works of authors I love and to genuinely write essays for the sole reason of joy and improving. 


    I was struck by an insight Emma offered above:"How else can we compete with this media explosion (not that I necessarily think this is a good thing, but then I hear myself talking like my father "what is this world coming to") if we do not open ourselves to mining our memories and our lives for all the rich stories that are happening all around us every day? "


    The rich stories will always be out there for writers, the medium where we share has changed, expanded. But what what was once an alternative medium for literary writing may soon enough reign supreme. Online worlds are now gradually (fortunately) being held to a higher standard; post the Google Panda update from Feb (Google de-ranked sites based on a complex algorithm to ensure searchers gets better quality/matched results; it's an ugly stirring for people like myself who do online writing, but upping the standards for content is LONG past due).

    Content providers implied (e.g. Suite101 where I write/wrote) or told contributors outright to write to theshort attention span of online readers, to write to the A.D.D readers we've mostly become (created?).

    Yet moving the reader through the story (whether with CNF essays or an informative article, first person informative etc.) is always the goal of fine writing, regardless of the medium. Online writing has always been the red-headed step child inside writer circles I sensed. Print ruled supreme as more worthy or vetted, or weighty.


    No longer I think. Great work works everywhere, the medium now seems secondary.  I read some wonderful skirt!, CNF magazine, Barbara Kingsolver essays. The difference? The word count, skirt! is 1200, CNF, 10,000 or under I believe, BK not sure. Online literary venues I presume demand a lower WC to stay true to the perception that online reader's want "sound bite reading," but still they demand quality.  

    I love paper, magazines, books. Kicking back to read an essay online is not like an arm chair or bed reading. And, no Kindle for me (yet, give me a year). Online feels to me for research and articles or to read short work by talented essayists (skirt! etc). I lag behind the trend to get all my news online, newspaper and tv still rule for me.


  • Laura,

    I found this thread when searching for "set scene" because I also had a piece rejected by "Brain, Child" in much the same language as yours, just a few weeks ago. How nice to have the double benefit of knowing that you are on the Mothers & More Power Loop.

    Anyway, I hear what you are saying about your desire to simply tell the story rather than create scenes. I am much the same way, and I like reading personal essays that are more narrative rather than creative nonfiction. (All of these terms are pretty slippery, aren't they?) The icon of the style I, and I'm sure many others, try to emulate is Anna Quindlen. Would her essay "On Losing Your Mom" have been more powerful if we could have imagined her in a prolonged conversation or scene with Prudence Quindlen? I doubt it. Perhaps I'm justifying, but I would say just keep at it so you can hear the voice you want to hear - and then the readers will want to hear it, too, because it is yours.

    All the best,


  • It sounds to me as if you are thoughtful about how you are writing and maybe don't need to worry too much over categories and labels. I consider creative nonfiction to be a broad swathe. I may be wrong to do that, but I like a lot of room to maneuver as a writer. Knowing a label or term isn't as important as understanding the array of options we have and choices we must make about our own writing.


    The "familiar" essay doesn't necessarily become overly autobiographical. In fact, it's not really memoir, the way Fadiman defines it. Instead, it's writing about things you are familiar with--and your familiarity invites an autobiographical approach to some extent, but it can also involve research. The subject is "coffee" or "moving," and the author includes her experience because it makes her a sort of experiential expert, but she also includes a lot more. I don't think all creative nonfiction reads like or is structured like fiction.


    I do think that detail matters (no ideas but in things) and CNF that gets too private or too abstract doesn't invite the reader into the subject matter. That's why a scene can work well in CNF, why describing behavior can reveal emotion, and so on. But I think a piece can be CNF without something that would be defined as a scene.

  • Thank you Emma and Anna. I read Gutkind's definition yesterday and as I work on an essay today, I struggle with naturally moving into a narrative style.   I seem to default to the what  Anna referred to as the "familiar" essay, personal, autobiographical. Can't we bring reader with us without fiction-esque scenes or dialogue? Can we vividly describe why we feel the way we do? The social commentary may be only that our experience likely mirrors others, rather than a formal statement of the times, historical perspective etc, as I did in my essay Knock Me Out  which was CNF and a description of how childbirth pain management, our societal view of it, has changed through the times.


    Today I'm writing about my history of mood challenges and how I overcame, the fear I had when I received an unexpected envelope years back from my mother. It filled with pictures and poems, poems that reflected the dark, anxious and miserable thoughts I felt as a teen (and into adult years), how and why I was able to "recover." 


    I was a little angry my mother read my private work, and yet grateful she sent them back to me because in reading those sad words I could feel the stark contrast between myself then, and now.  Ambivalence is a regular part of many of my essays and an emotion I embrace wholeheartedly as natural to the human condition.


    I spend more time describing "why" I was anxious to read the poems,  why my mother and I are half-estranged (only emails not visits), where I was in my mindset, my mental health, and where/why I feel lifted from that person I was even five years ago, than I do describing scenes with my mother, or opening the mail.  


    I think the popularity of CNF as the "preferred" form has made me slightly gun shy about writing essays and submitting. While I always seek to write with care, beauty, raw honesty and intention, and to improve my craft, this scene setting/dialogue, "fiction" style doesn't (yet) feel natural to me.


    I wonder if this resistance on my part is a by product of my lack of CNF experience or my natural intuition/leaning towards personal essay writing?


    Thank you for the feedback : )



  • Here's Lee Gutkind's definition: I think he does a good job, casts a wide net. I think the personal essay often is CNF. I also find that weaving in the social or historical, or being not very narrative, can be part of CNF. It seems a category needed to distinguish some writing from journalism and scholarship, which are also nonfiction, but less literary. The NEA and the university need these sort of distinctions to organize themselves, and publishing and marketing depends upon categories too.


    I just read Anne Fadiman's At Large and At Small, a collection of what she (and her father before her) calls the "familiar essay." The essays are personal and autobiographical, but also involve research and sometimes messages. Almost all these essays were published in The American Scholar, a venue that leans toward a CNF that verges toward scholarship.


    I've just started reading Paul Lisicky's Famous Builder and Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel, both of which I'd consider CNF, though they are very different too.


    I think I approach my blog as CNF, now that you have me thinking about it. That brings up the difference (or relationship) between either of the terms you name and the blog post.

  • Laura,

    I believe Gutkind was being positive when he said creative non-fiction was 'invading' those disciplines. He believes all writing can be more descriptive, vivid and and that we can remember more than we think we do. I think this trend, if it is in fact a trend, is due to the evolution of our culture and the true invasion of electronic media.  How else can we compete with this media explosion (not that I necessarily think this is a good thing, but then I hear myself talking like my father "what is this world coming to") if we do not open ourselves to mining our memories and our lives for all the rich stories that are happening all around us every day?  And to do that with intention and care to use beautiful and necessary words to bring these stories to life by whatever means possible. I believe writers are compelled to do so by the very fact they/we are given the gift of exposing others to our worlds.  That is the fun of writing, to me anyway. Do keep looking into and reading other creative non-fiction narratives.  I am amazed at how some writers structure true stories so that they read like the greatest epic novels.

  • Hi Emma

    A bit late to the reply! Holidays and all that.

    Thank you so much for the feedback, incredibly helpful. Yes, I do have resistance to the detail and more because I don't remember them than because I don't want to include them.  I like the idea of getting into a dreamlike state, of letting the details ebb and flow. I'll check out Gutkind's articles. 

    I'm curious, when he says CNF is invading academia, does he make a judgment call on the impact? Does he feel this is a problem or that readers are trending towards seeking a narrative to pull them through on all materials?


    Must we now be "entertained" to absorb information? Even academic? Yikes. Speaks to our attention span that is coming to an end with the age of 140 characters or less.


    When Brain,Child wrote back that they liked my essay but prefer "set scenes alternating with exposition" am I to understand that this means creating a scene, (detailed and vivid, strong in imagery) and then following with sentences about my intent, insight, lesson? (but fluidly not formally).

    Clearly I need assistance in creating this style as I think this form is popular in many Lit publications.

    My goal in 2011 is to read the works of fine CNF writers, read what gets published, but MORE, get into the mindset to enjoy this, not fear it. Rejections have a way of sucking the joy out of the process, but only if you let them right?