In today’s “me” society, everyone wants to write about number one—think blogs and Facebook. What about the professional writer who wants to write something personal and get paid for it? Memoir books are popular, but maybe you don’t want to write that much.
Enter the personal essay or memoir, as many publications categorize them. More of these are appearing in print and online publications. Even Toronto Life has its back-page personal narrative. They look easy to write—take something that happened to you (“memoir” comes from “memory”) and write about it.
Not quite. Consider:
Story, not incident
If I sit steaming in the doctor’s waiting room for an hour, then have a heated discussion with the doctor about it, that’s an incident. However, if the doctor diagnoses me with diabetes, that can be the potential for a memoir. More would need to happen—I would have to change my diet, maybe use insulin, maybe lose weight; it might affect personal relationships, etc. And there would be...
A huge emotional wallop
You feelings are paramount in writing a memoir—it’s personal. Suspend your journalistic-observer self and dig deep into how you felt—angry, sad, guilty, resentful? That’s at the beginning. As your story rolled out, your feelings changed. Look for...
The Change that occurred in you
Ask yourself if and when this happened. If it didn’t, you don’t have memoir material. As change is the law of life, so is change the law of the personal essay. You must reach what author Malcolm Gladwell calls “The Tipping Point,” where you realize something in you changed; not just your diet, but when and why you changed your attitude, your feelings, and learned something from your experience. That “tipping point” is often your clue that this is memoir. Write about that experience, but...
A difficult part of writing a personal essay is staying on track while narrating the story with the emotions, the big turning point, and entertaining your reader. Try working from your changing point. What led up to it? How did you feel before, during and after? What did you learn? Who else of significance was involved? Write a brief outline but remember...
Write like fiction
Memoir, like fiction, is story. The only difference—memoir is the truth (as you see it). The other people in your narrative are the characters. Use dialogue; describe these characters. How did their actions and words affect you, make you feel? How did you interact? They don’t need to pull a gun on you, but real life has conflict. Show it.
1. Use your journalist abilities to make sure facts (dates, statistics, locations, disease information, etc.) are correct.
2. Use humour, especially at your own expense, but don’t be sarcastic or mean-spirited.
3. Word length—500 words plus, depending on the publication.
For more pointers, check:
Naked, Drunk, and Writing, Adair Lara, Ten Speed Press, 2010 (technical tips)
Crafting the Personal Essay, Dinty W. Moore, Writer’s Digest Books, 2010 (writing specific topics)
Tips for Writing a Personal Essay, Chip Scanlan
Paying Memoir markets run the gamut from religion to sports to age-specific, and include More, What Makes You Happy, Ms, The Smithsonian, The Walrus. For a continuously changing list of print and online publications, see Paying Markets—Personal Essays. Check submission guidelines. Read the whole publication, not only the essays, to understand the publication’s focus and content.