Education

How to Write a First-Person Essay

First-person essays span space, time and subject: the city dump, an obsessive bird, or a toy from the 60s–all subjects of essays I’ve published–are just one shuffle of an endless deck of compelling themes. Mongrel lot or not, it’s never the main topic of an article that tells, but the style and stance of its author–what may seem the least likely of essay subjects may be made a piquant page-turner by a writer’s winning hand. We’ll look at choosing the topic, slant and voice of one’s essay, constructing a lead, building an essay’s rhythm and packing a punch at essay’s end.

Tackling a Topic
Because one of the great appeals of the non-public essay may be the conversational tone essayists take, this indicates certain that it’s better to be conversant with your subject. But “write what you know” can be an inkless cage; some of the greatest essays certainly are a voyage of discovery for both writer and reader. You may accidentally flip some breakfast cereal with your spoon and have an epiphany concerning the origins of catapults. That little leap might take you seven leagues into the history of siege engines and voila!–a piece for a history journal comparing ancient weapons to new.

Subjects sit, stand and float all around you: in case you write about baseball, bacteria or bougainvilleas? The key is engagement with your topic so the angle your writing takes is pointed and penetrating. You don’t write about cars, you write about the fearful symmetry of a 1961 T-Bird. The essayist must be, to paraphrase Henry James, one of the people on whom nothing is lost. Idly overlooking at a fellow driver stopped at a traffic signal might be described as a moment to yawn, but it may also be described as a moment to consider how people amuse themselves in their vehicles. An article here about new car technology, an article there about boredom and its antidotes.

Essays are literally at your fingertips: consider a piece on how fingerprint technology evolved. Or at your nosetip: my most recently write my essay cheap published essay was in regards to a lurking smell in my house that resulted in a mad encounter with attic rats. Humble topics can spur sage tales: Annie Dillard’s recounting of seeing a moth consumed in a candle flame morphs right into a elegy on an individual’s decision to reside a passionate life. You don’t need glasses to get your topics, only a willingness to see them.

Slant and Voice
Which way should your essay tilt? Some essays wrap blunt opinions in layered language, ensnaring a reader with charm, not coercion. Louis Lapham’s essays often have a political angle, but any advocacy is cloaked in beguiling prose. A how-to essay might explain a procedure, but its steps wouldn’t function as mechanistic ones of a guide, but more the strategy of throwing procedural doors open, lighting from within. Personal-experience or “confessional” essays done well deftly break free with impressionistic strokes: words evoking sensations, scents, and subtleties. Consistency in tone is compelling: leading your reader during your essay with sweet conceptual biscuits only to own them fall hip-deep in a polemical cesspool at essay’s end is counter-productive. Essays need elasticity-they can feint and jab at ideas, but shouldn’t sucker-punch.

Essays are personal–the best of these can seem like conversation by having an intelligent, provocative friend, but one with remarkable discretion in editing out the extraneous. Whether the term “I” appears at all, you need to take your essay, and pungently. It can’t be simply “How I Spent My Summer Vacation”; it should be “How I Spent My Summer Vacation Tearfully Mourning My Dead Ferret.” Never hide within an essay. Essays aren’t formless dough, they are the baked bread, hot and crusty. Cranky, apprehensive or playful, your candid voice must be a consistent: you do not want your essays to roar just like a lion in a single paragraph and bleat just like a mewling lamb in another (unless it’s done for effect).

Lead or Lose
Leads are big. If your first bite of a meal is bitter, you’re likely to put the fork down and necessitate take-out. You’ve got to seize readers from the get-go. One method is direct address. Here’s the lead from an article of mine about dictionaries:

Consider your favorite book. No, even better, go and get your favorite book, feel its heft in your hand, flip through its pages, smell its bookness. Read a passage or two to send that stream of sparks during your head, the alchemy that occurs when the written word collides with the chemicals of one’s consciousness. Delight may be the fruit of the collision.

It tells the reader to accomplish something, with a visual and sensual context. It’s hard for a reader not to read that lead and avoid doing what it requests, at the very least in the reader’s imagination. Here’s another lead of mine that takes a different tack, one of identification or empathy:

Scuttlebutt had it that Barbara Cartland, the doyenne of romance writers, did much of her early writing at the piano, stark naked. However that strains credibility, everyone’s heard of writers who insist they can’t write without their ancient manual typewriters with the missing keys, or a common fountain pens (or possibly even a stylus and hot wax). Writers can be quite a peculiar lot, and it’s not surprising that their composing methods may be throughout the map.

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